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8.554814 - SIBELIUS: Piano Music, Vol. 3

Jean Sibelius (1865 — 1957)

Piano Music Volume 3

Ten Piano Pieces, Op.58 * Three Sonatinas, Op.67 * Two Rondinos, Op.68

The Finnish composer Jean Sibelius was born in 1865, the son of a doctor, in a small town in the south of Finland. The language and culture of his family, as with others of their class and background at the time, was Swedish. It was at school that Sibelius was to learn Finnish and acquire his first real interest in the early legends of his own country. In this society, linguistically, socially and historically divided, Sibelius was deeply influenced by his association with the family of the Finnish nationalist General Järnefelt, whose daughter Aino became his wife. Nevertheless Swedish remained his mother tongue, in which he expressed himself with greater fluency than in Finnish.

The musical abilities of Sibelius were soon realised, although he had entered university in Helsinki as a law student. His first ambition had been to be a violinist, but his abilities here were far outweighed by his gifts as a composer, developed first by study in Helsinki, then in Berlin and finally with Goldmark and with Robert Fuchs in Vienna.

In Finland once more, Sibelius won almost immediate success in 1892 with a symphonic poem, Kullervo, based on an episode from the Finnish epic, the Kalevala. There followed compositions of particular national appeal that further enhanced his reputation in Helsinki, including the incidental music to the patriotic pageant Karelia, En Saga and the Lemminkäinen Suite. During this period Sibelius supported himself and his wife by teaching, as well as by composition and the performance of his works, but it proved difficult for him to earn enough, given, as he was, to bouts of extravagance, continuing the practice of his days as a student. As consolation for his disappointment when his appointment as professor in Helsinki was rejected, Sibelius was awarded in 1897 a government stipend for ten years, later changed into a pension for life. The sum involved was never enough to meet his inherited gift for improvidence and his seeming dependence on alcohol.

Sibelius continued his active career as a composer until 1926, his fame increasing at home and abroad. The successful First Symphony of 1898 was followed by the still more successful Finlandia. The acclaimed Second Symphony, in 1902, was followed by the Violin Concerto, a Third Symphony and, after an illness that put an end for the moment to any indulgence in alcohol and tobacco, a Fourth, with travel to the major musical centres of Europe and international honour. The Fifth Symphony was written during the war, after which Sibelius wrote only four more works of any substance, the Sixth and Seventh Symphonies, incidental music for Shakespeare’s The Tempest and, in 1926, the symphonic poem Tapiola. An Eighth Symphony was completed in 1929, but destroyed. The rest was silence. For the last 25 years of his life he wrote nothing until his death in 1957 at the age of 91.

In common with other composers of the period, Sibelius found a commercial market for his piano music, particularly for sets of short pieces suitable for domestic performance. Although his writing for the piano is seldom idiomatic, he composed a number of works for the instrument, the first from the 1880s unpublished, as was the last set of pieces, written in 1929.

The Ten Piano Pieces, Opus 58, were written in 1909, the year of his string quartet Voces intimae and between the composition of the Third and Fourth Symphonies. Spare in texture in its opening, the first piece, Rêverie, is impressionistic, with a left-hand melody, accompanied above in cross-rhythm. The D flat major opening section leads to a modulating central section, the ripple of broken chords and more grandiose arpeggiated chords, before the gentle ending, recalling the opening. The Scherzino starts whimsically, reaches a dynamic climax and subsides into a tender final section, in the home key of A major. The opening motif dominates the Air varié, as the C sharp minor air returns in various guises, including an excursion into Baroque figuration. Der Hirt (The Shepherd) shifts in key from D flat major to its enharmonic C sharp minor, the latter in writing that includes mandolin-like rapid repeated notes and a contrast in rhythm between accompaniment and melody. Tranquillity returns with the gentle and nostalgic F minor Des Abends (In the Evening), followed by Dialogue, a B flat major Allegro grazioso in which upper and lower parts join in conversation that becomes increasingly animated. The E flat minor Tempo di Minuetto has abrupt pauses in its initial progress, before exploring the upper registers of the keyboard in music-box figuration. In B flat major, Fischerlied (Fisherman’s Song) continues the generally spare texture of the pieces, moving to more romantic feeling in its second and fourth sections, after which serenity returns. Ständchen (Serenade), in the related key of G minor, has touches of Spain in its melodic contours and a central section that uses trill-like figuration in accompaniment. The set ends with Sommerlied (Summer Song), an E flat major Largo that is solemnly chordal in general texture and uses harmonic progressions that suggest moments in the composer’s orchestral works.

Sibelius wrote his Three Sonatinas, Opus 67, in the summer of 1912, choosing a title that represents little of the form used, except for the presence of three movements in each work. The first, in F sharp minor, starts with impressionistic opening thematic material that is to return after the greater excitement of the central section. The second movement, marked Largo, has a simple step-wise melody, and a short repeated fragment that recalls the Romance for strings of 1904. The third movement is at first characterized by its divided octave accompaniment, leading to exciting triplet figuration in writing that is unusually pianistic.

Sonatine No.2 in E major has more than a hint of the Baroque in its first movement, not least in its use of the device of canon. The slow movement offers a left-hand melody in its opening and the following Allegro has an initial melody of particular delicate charm.

Sonatine No.3 in B flat minor starts hesitantly, a continuing feature of the first movement. The calm of its ending is broken by the marked ominous octave figure with which the Andante opens, an eerie funeral march that leads without a break to the final Allegretto, with its recurrent motif.

It has been suggested that the Two Rondinos, Opus 68, written in 1911, might at one time have been intended as movements of a sonatina. The first of the pair, in a wistful G sharp minor, has the mood of a late romantic slow movement, with echoes of Chopin. Its companion, in C sharp minor, is also very much in an idiom associated with the piano, something not always the case with the music Sibelius, a man of the orchestra, wrote for the instrument. It provides an effectively pianistic finale.

Keith Anderson

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