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8.570797 - SIBELIUS: Original Works and Arrangements for Cello and Piano

Jean Sibelius (1865–1957)
Original Works and Arrangements for Cello and Piano


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 being Swedish. It was at school that he was to learn Finnish and acquire his first interest in the early legends of his country. His musical abilities were soon realised, although not developed early enough to suggest music as a profession until he had entered university in Helsinki as a law student. His first ambition had been to be a violinist. It later became apparent that any ability he had in this direction was outweighed by his gifts as a composer, developed first by study with Martin Wegelius, then in Berlin and, more effectively, 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 Kalevala. There followed compositions of particular national appeal that further enhanced his reputation in Helsinki. During this period he supported himself 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 from his days as a student. In 1896 he was voted the position of professor at the University of Helsinki, but the committee’s decision was overturned in favour of Robert Kajanus, the experienced founder and conductor of the first professional orchestra in Helsinki. As consolation for his disappointment Sibelius was awarded a government stipend for ten years, and this was later changed into a pension for life. The sum involved was never sufficient to meet his gift for improvidence, inherited, perhaps, from his father, who at his death in 1868 had left his family in some difficulty.

Sibelius continued his active career as a composer until 1926, his fame increasing at home and abroad, particularly with his series of symphonies, the first in 1898 and the seventh in 1924. An eighth symphony was completed in 1929, but destroyed. The rest was silence. For the last 25 years of his life Sibelius wrote nothing, remaining isolated from and largely antipathetic to contemporary trends in music. His reputation in Britain and America remained high, although there were inevitable reactions to the excessive enthusiasm of his supporters. On the continent of Europe he failed to recapture the earlier position he had enjoyed before the war of 1914 in Germany, France and Vienna. He died in 1957 at the age of 91.

Finland, from the earlier eighteenth century, had enjoyed a measure of autonomy as a grand duchy under Russian sovereignty. Growing nationalist aspirations of the midnineteenth century, however, suffered a setback in 1899 when the governor-general Bobrikov issued his so-called February Manifesto, removing the legal powers of the popular assembly, and going on to dissolve the Finnish army and introduce Russian as the official language. Opposition to these measures, with a popular appeal to the Tsar rejected, found an outlet largely in passive resistance by younger Finnish nationalists. The freedom of the press was now seriously curtailed by the temporary or permanent closure of some newspapers, with consequent difficulties for journalists thus deprived of their means of livelihood. Sibelius provided music to accompany a series of patriotic tableaux in a three-day festival in Helsinki in aid of the Press Pension Fund. The composition marks the first overtly political gesture of Sibelius, with a prelude and six illustrative pieces for full orchestra, the last of which, under the title Finlandia was later separately published, to enjoy continuing popularity, with a piano version provided by Sibelius himself.

In common with other composers of the time Sibelius found a regular means of increasing his income in a series of piano pieces, the first in the 1880s and the last in 1929. The Ten Pieces, Op.24, written between 1894 and 1903, include an E minor Nocturno and the well known Romance, both composed in 1901 and here arranged for cello and piano by Rait Karm.

Sibelius’ brother Christian played the cello, but Sibelius wrote very little for the instrument. These compositions include a duo for violin and cello in 1887 and a Fantasia for cello and piano in 1889, while other groups of pieces for violin and piano, Op.77 and Op.78, allow the cello as an optional alternative to the violin. Malinconia (Melancholy), an original work for cello and piano, was written in 1900, perhaps reflecting the composer’s feelings after the death of his infant daughter Kirsti, or perhaps, it has been suggested, inspired by a painting of the same name by Magnus Enckell. A fantasia, the work was given its first performance in 1900 by Georg and Sigrid Schnéevoigt at a concert in Helsinki to raise funds for a tour by the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra.

The Rondino, Op.81, No.2, written in 1917, is taken from a group of five pieces for violin and piano, and Granen (The Spruce) is the last of the 1914 Five Pieces, Op.75, a set of piano pieces suggested by different trees. Other arrangements are taken from songs. From Six Songs, Op.36, comes Svarta rosor (Black Roses), an 1899 setting of words by the painter and poet Ernst Josephson. Three of Five Songs, Op.37, are included. The fifth of the original set, Flickan kom ifrån sin älsklings möte (The girl returned from meeting her lover), otherwise known more succinctly in English as The Tryst, is a ballad-like setting of a poem by Johan Ludvig Runeberg, completed in 1901. Var det en dröm? (Was it a dream?), written in 1902, was originally a setting of verse by Josef Julius Wecksell, and Den första kyssen (The First Kiss), written in 1900, of words by Runeberg.

Valse triste has long been isolated from its context. The piece was dramatic in origin, written as part of the incidental music for the 1903 play Kuolema (Death) by Sibelius’s brother-in-law, Arvid Järnefelt. The son dreams, by the bedside of his sick mother: the room is suffused with light and the sounds of a waltz can gradually be heard. His mother rises from her bed and starts to dance to the music, summoning guests to join her. Dying, she tries to see the faces of the mysterious dancers, but none will look at her. As she sinks down on the bed, the music pauses, but, with renewed energy, she rejoins the dance. At the height of the dance there is a knock at the door and Death stands waiting.

The second of Four Pieces for violin and piano, Op.78, is a charming Romance, written in 1915, and published with alternative instrumentation for cello and piano. The nostalgic Souvenir from Eight Little Pieces, Op.99, is the third of the 1922 set of piano pieces, designed, as always, for an immediate commercial market.

Keith Anderson

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