About this Recording
8.573299 - SIBELIUS, J.: Kuolema / King Kristian II / Overture in A Minor (Pajala, Torikka, Turku Philharmonic, Segerstam)

Jean Sibelius (1865–1957)
Kuolema • King Christian II


Jean Sibelius (1865–1957) was the most significant figure in the formation of national identity in Finnish music, to the extent that since 2011 Finland has celebrated a Flag Day on 8 December (the composer’s birthday), also known as the ‘Day of Finnish Music’. The seven symphonies and Violin Concerto lie at the centre of Sibelius’ oeuvre, surrounded by tone poems often concerning a Finnish folklore narrative, such as the famous epic, the Kalevala—the inspiration for his popular Lemminkäinen Suite. He was also prolific, however, in other genres, not least in songs for voice and piano (which number over a hundred), incidental music (for thirteen plays), chamber and choral works, and even an opera. Despite this significant body of work, after the composition of Tapiola in 1926, Sibelius produced no large-scale works for his remaining thirty-one years—a period often referred to as the ‘Silence from Järvenpää’. Supporters say that this dearth was the result of over-stringent self-criticism, which shut down his creative faculties; critics blame a comfortable lifestyle supported by a state pension and refer to the composer’s notorious consumption of alcohol, which he once described as “my truest friend”. Sibelius did not stop composing altogether during this time, but focused on writing smaller-scale compositions and revising some of his earlier works, an example of which (Kom nu hit, Död!) features on this recording.

The Overture in A minor, JS144 was composed for a concert in March 1902, at which the Second Symphony received its première. Legend has it that the piece had been written in a hotel room during the course of a single night. Though the veracity of this is highly dubious, the music sounds hastily put-together, with little sense of relationship between the formality of the stern opening and conclusion and the lively comical middle section. Sibelius himself never valued it enough to authorise its publication, though he clearly did not consider the overture to be completely without merit, recycling material from it for the finale of his string quartet Voces intimae several years later. It remains one of the composer’s least performed orchestral works.

Sibelius’ output of incidental music for the theatre began in 1898 with King Christian II (Op. 27), a historical drama written by his friend, the Swedish dramatist Adolf Paul. Although the play was a great success at the time, it has now disappeared from the repertory, with only the music surviving the test of time. The narrative centres around the love of Christian II (whose rule extended over all three Scandinavian countries) for Dyveke, a Dutch girl from a humble background. The playful Musette movement, which stands out as the most distinctive of the pieces, was intended to be danced by this character in the play, accompanied by street musicians outside her window. Paul said that Sibelius had wanted bagpipes and reeds for this dance, but that he scored it for two clarinets and two bassoons, adding: “Extravagant, isn’t it? We have only two bassoon players in the entire country, and one of them is consumptive.” This is testament to the limited instrumental resources available to Sibelius at the time, and he himself conducted the small ensemble, situated behind the scenes.

The music originally consisted of only the first four movements, prefacing the action with a serene Elegy for strings, written very much in the spirit of Grieg and calling to mind such miniatures as Heart’s Wounds and The Last Spring. However, Sibelius was later encouraged to add a further three pieces—Nocturne, Serenade and Ballade—which call for larger orchestration and are more ambitious in their layout. The expressive string writing in the Nocturne anticipates the First Symphony at times, while the Serenade % (whose main character begins at [1:47] after a short introductory minuet) gradually increases in passionate intensity—again, looking ahead to the composer’s mature style—before dying away to a delicate conclusion. The suite was Sibelius’ first orchestral work to appear in print, gaining him wide publicity throughout Europe, first in Leipzig (where it received hostile reviews from the German press), and then in London, when Henry Wood introduced British concert-goers to the work via the 1901 Proms season.

Although King Christian II may have been Sibelius’ first orchestral work to enter the major European concert halls, his next foray into the realm of theatre music ensured he became a household name. His incidental music for Kuolema (Death), JS113 was composed in 1903 to accompany a play written by Arvid Järnefelt, his brother-in-law (the composer having married Aino Järnefelt in 1892). The play is rich in symbolism, echoing the dreamscapes of Strinberg’s A Dream Play and Maeterlinck’s Pelléas et Mélisande (for which Sibelius also composed incidental music two years later in 1905).

The music for Kuolema comprises six movements, the first of which, Tempo di valse lente, was intended for the play’s opening scene. A woman, delirious and close to death, waltzes with an imaginary dancing partner, who transforms into the figure of death, at which point she collapses, and her son wakes from his sleep to find his mother’s lifeless body. It is scored for string orchestra, with the addition of a bass drum in the fifth movement and ‘campanelli di chiesa’ (church bells) at the very end, evoking a suitably funereal mood.

Although Kuolema is not often performed in its entirety, several movements have enjoyed longevity and widespread popularity, such as the first. This is in no small part thanks to Sibelius’ arrangement of it in 1904 as the Valse triste, which he sold for a one-off fee to a local music publisher Fazer. In hindsight this proved to be a grave error, since the piece, comprising one of his most haunting melodies, was then sold on to Breitkopf, who issued it in numerous arrangements, securing its popularity through performances by salon and hotel bands across Europe. Sibelius also conflated the third and fourth movements from Kuolema (Elsa’s Song and a piece called The Cranes) under the title Scene with Cranes (1906), for which he added two clarinets to the string texture. The intervals of fifths and sixths here are reminiscent of the main theme in the final movement of the Fifth Symphony, which Sibelius himself associated with a flight of swans, and the cries of swans, geese and cranes clearly had a special poignancy for him, as a diary entry from 1915 testifies: “Every day I have seen the cranes. Flying south in full cry with their music… Their cries echo throughout my being”.

Despite the strong sense of nature and national identity heard in so much of his music, it is important to note that Sibelius spoke Swedish as well as Finnish, and many of the songs he wrote were settings of the former. The Two Songs from Twelfth Night, Op. 60 are a case in point, appearing not in Shakespeare’s original English but in Carl August Hagberg’s Swedish translation. Originally scored for baritone and either piano or guitar accompaniment, this pair of songs originally dates from 1909, a time when death was very much on the composer’s mind, as he was then living in fear of the throat tumour that had developed the previous year. It is ironic that Sibelius should return to the first of these songs, Kom nu hit, Död! (Come Away, Death!) in 1957, the year of his death, making a transcription of the song’s accompaniment for strings and harp (the version heard on this recording). The song alternates between E minor and a G sharp minor triad, creating an especially macabre colouring on the word ‘död’ (‘death’). By contrast, Hållilå uti storm och i regn (Hey, Ho, The Wind And The Rain) adopts a lighter tone, making it a rather strange bedfellow, and not dissimilar to the sudden and rather incongruous shift in mood heard in the Overture in A minor. Such stylistic disparity did not bother Sibelius: for him, the serious and the comical evidently went hand-in-hand.

Dominic Wells

Close the window