About this Recording
8.223283 - SINDING: Piano Trios Nos. 2 and 3
English 

Christian Sinding (1856–1941)
Piano Trios Nos. 2–3

 

The second half of the 19th century will forever be remembered as Norway’s golden age of music. Edvard Grieg symbolised the very spirit of Norwegian art. The elements particular to his country’s folk music struck a sympathetic resonance deep within him, and its intervals and rhythms became an essential part of his own highly personal expression. Audiences worldwide delighted in his fresh, nordic tone, his sensitivity to nature and the romantic sentiment that was the hallmark of the age. Abroad, the name of Grieg became synonymous with Norwegian music. But for all his fame, Grieg was not Norway’s sole musical spokesman, and among his colleagues another figure stands out. Johan Svendsen, a noted conductor, is known even today as the first significant Norwegian symphonist. Grieg’s weakness and Svendsen’s strength lay in the command of large symphonic forms. With respect to both it can be said that theirs were complementary personalities. Together they created Norwegian national romanticism.

Christian Sinding was the prime inheritor of their grand legacy, but by his time nationalism was losing ground to a more cosmopolitan brand of late romanticism. In Norway he was destined to be its chief exponent. In The History of Norwegian Music (1921) the composer David Monrad Johansen, in prose that today can only be described as purple, describes Sinding as a rebellious man of action—one we gather with Viking blood coursing through his veins—who is in his right element not in the enchanted fairyland of Norway’s mountains but on the troubled sea, amid howling winds and crashing waves. This tempest he compares to a tempest in the composer’s soul and goes on to say that when the storm has been conquered, Sinding’s heroic voice assumes a tender and intimate, but always manly, tone. M.M. Ulfrstad resorts to similar imagery in Cobbett’s Cyclopedic Survey of Chamber Music (1929) when he likens Grieg’s music to an echo from the mountains—presumably the abode of mournful and idyllic moods—and Sinding’s to an echo from the sea, replete with dashing waves, crashing storms and Viking daring.

Just as Grieg’s admiration of Svendsen was based on the two composers’ opposite as well as shared characteristics, so was his respect for Sinding. Commentators seldom fail to mention the virile quality of Sinding’s music. In contrast Grieg’s compositions are refined and often exquisite, though Debussy went too far in calling them pink bonbons filled with snow. Like Svendsen’s, Sinding’s symphonic ability was the object of Grieg’s admiration. Writing from Leipzig in 1887, Grieg gave lavish praise to the first movement of Sinding’s First Symphony, which he heard on the piano, calling it magnificent and comparing it to the corresponding section of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, but he added that it was all Sinding and not Beethoven.

In matters of harmony it comes as no surprise that Grieg approved of his younger colleague’s boldness. New and unexpected combinations delighted Grieg, and in his own music there are frequent examples of parallel fifths and sevenths, ingenious mixing of major and minor modes, and chords used for coloristic rather than functional reasons. The lesson of this all was not lost on the young Sinding.

Norwegian folk music is central to Grieg’s work, but in Sinding’s its deliberate employment is sporadic and superficial. Without doubt a general Scandinavian feeling permeates much of Sinding’s music, but his vigorous rhythms and bold harmonies might be viewed more accurately as a manifestation of his Norwegian temperament than as a conscious attempt at nationalism. At heart Sinding was no folklorist.

He was nordic by birth and had his first music lessons in Norway—violin with Gudbrand Bøhn and theory with Ludwig Mathias Lindeman—but his musical identity was shaped in Germany. From 1877 to 1881 he studied violin with Schradieck, theory with Jadassohn and orchestration with Reinecke in Leipzig. He came to admire Brahms’s classicism and Liszt’s cyclical use of themes. Then in Munich he fell under the Wagnerian spell; his heroic spirit responded, and the master of Bayreuth’s voice left its indelible mark in the form of restless modulation, ripe harmony and rich orchestration. Behind even that potent influence there remains, of course, Sinding’s basic, healthy optimism, and even in his most chromatic moments there is never an attempt to undermine tonality.

Sinding’s greatest popularity was always in Germany and America. In both countries there was a ready and willing audience for his heroically determined, heart-on-the-sleeve romanticism of the grand gesture. Felix Weingartner and Arthur Nikisch championed him, and there were frequent performances on two continents. Sinding’s style had been fully formed in the 1880s and 1890s, and for about four decades his music was in vogue.

But musical fashion changed, and Sinding did not. In the late works he lapsed into mannerism and lost his spontaneity, and by the late 1920’s his popularity was waning.

The same passion for newness that had brought him worldwide fame in the 1880s left him old-fashioned and declining some forty years later. That is but one instance of the tragic irony that twice more plagued Sinding’s career: what first worked for him later worked against him.

The second instance involves a piano piece called Frühlingsrauschen. Here Sinding became a victim of his own success. Composed in 1896, this highly effective piece, with its rolling arpeggios, fluent melody and fresh impromptu quality, caught the public by storm. At one time it was thought to be the most often played piano piece in the world! Unfortunately it was also heard in every sort of arrangement imaginable. A Dr. Joseph Braunstein recalls having heard it in Venice’s Piazza San Marco, played by a 70-piece brass band. Now there is nothing wrong with success, but it has been suggested that the ubiquitous Frühlingsrauschen caused people to forget that Sinding wrote anything else. Two operas, four symphonies, concertos, chamber works, numerous piano pieces and 250 songs were all forgotten. Sinding was not the first composer to say it, nor will he be the last, but he did say it, and it was about Frühlingsrauschen: sometimes he wished he had never written it.

It reportedly made him a fortune. Also, from 1880 onward he had received regular grants from the Norwegian government. In 1915 he was given a lifetime pension and on his 60th birthday an award of 30,000 Norwegian crowns and official recognition as “the greatest national composer since Grieg”. No doubt Sinding enjoyed the fame, but even that was to turn on him. During the Second World War the octogenarian composer found himself the hapless victim of Nazi propaganda—a result of his lifelong love affair with German culture. For the third time fate had dealt an ironic blow.

Sinding’s lasting achievements are in the field of song, piano music and chamber music. Besides Frühlingsrauschen his other great success was the Piano Quintet, composed in 1882–84. This was in fact the work that established him as one of Europe’s important young composers. Its audacious harmonies, modulations and parallel fifths and sevenths stirred up storms of controversy among musicians. Tchaikovsky is said to have found it full of wrong notes. The public loved it, and well before the end of the 19th century it was known from St. Petersburg to Detroit. Symphonic in concept and derived from the Brahms-Schumann school, it is still regarded as a masterpiece of the quintet literature.

Sinding followed up the phenomenally successful quintet with numerous other chamber works, among them three piano trios. The First, in D minor, dates from 1893, has a simplicity of construction and a folk-like quality, and is the least characteristic of the three.

Written in 1902, the Second Trio, in A minor, must be counted among the finest of Sinding’s chamber works. It has a generally nordic mood and a romantic freedom of expression in its flowing melody and frequent modulation. Frühlingsrauschen was only six years old at the time, and the trio’s piano part shows similar characteristics. It is eminently pianistic, filled with arpeggios, lush harmonies and brilliant, virtuosic effects. The string parts are often in unison, and it would not be venturing too much to describe this trio as a chamber concerto for the piano. The first movement has a heroic cast, to which the lyrical beauty of the slow movement forms an effective contrast. The first and second movements begin in the minor mode, but the virile finale starts in an affirmative A major. Near the end, after a masterly development and just when a conclusion is expected, a pregnant chord announces a brief and glorious epilogue. Themes previously heard reappear, and this fine work ends in a wonderfully satisfying fashion.

The Third Trio, in C major, followed in 1908. At the outset a descending motif, strongly reminiscent of Salome, tosses us into a Straussian, hyper-romantic world. This is stormy, restless, exceedingly chromatic music in which the highly developed piano part displays a superabundance of arpeggiation. The mood relaxes with the arrival of the second subject, which is almost a nature idyll but one with elaborate pianistic figuration. The middle movement, “Romanze”, projects a mood of greater tranquility. All the foregoing conflict seems resolved, and in the finale Sinding’s sunny optimism asserts itself.

With today’s renewed interest in late romantic music, the winds of fashion may perhaps blow again in Sinding’s favor. His compositions are certainly among those that merit reassessment, and if the D minor trio in particular should make its way into the repertory, we would all be the richer for it.

David Nelson


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