About this Recording
8.573300 - SIBELIUS, J.: Belshazzar's Feast / Overture in E Major / Scène de ballet / Cortège / Menuetto (Pajala, Turku Philharmonic, Segerstam)

Jean Sibelius (1865–1957): Belshazzar’s Feast
Overture in E • Scene de Ballet • Cortege • Menuetto • Wedding March • Processional


Jean Sibelius 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 Jarvenpaa’¹. 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 and adding to some of his earlier works, an example of which, Processional, is heard on this recording.

The theatre played an influential role in Sibelius’ musical development, especially during the first decade of the twentieth century: soon after Kuolema (1903) came Pelléas et Mélisande (1905), followed by Belshazzar’s Feast (1906) and Swanwhite (1908). Belshazzar’s Feast was written for the Swedish Theatre to accompany a play by Sibelius’ friend, the journalist, poet and playwright Hjalmar Procope. Its composition interrupted progress on the Third Symphony, but elicited some of Sibelius’ most beautiful writing for the theatre, and although it is by no means as well known as Pelléas et Mélisande, it is nevertheless a work of considerable quality.

The play concerns the intrigues at the court of Babylon: a Jewish woman, Leschanah, is sent to Belshazzar’s court to assassinate him. She waits for him, clasping a dagger, but Belshazzar is enchanted by the woman and takes her to his palace. After the opening Oriental March, which seeks to evoke the colours and atmosphere of an Eastern procession, comes an exquisitely tranquil Nocturne, depicting Leschanah in the king’s palace at night, with a seductive flute melody that casts a soporific spell upon the listener. In the distance Leschanah hears The Song of the Jewish Girl, a hauntingly beautiful number, whose accompaniment comprises gently oscillating octaves in muted strings, sympathising with the singer’s desire to return to Jerusalem. The action shifts back to Leschanah who, distracted from her intended mission, wishes to usurp the king’s previous favourite, the slave girl, Khadra, and persuades him that she must die. A great feast is arranged at which Khadra is to dance for the final time. The music bustles with excitement but then cuts off abruptly upon Leschanah’s arrival, after which Khadra begins the first of her dances, the Dance of Life (a dialogue between flute and clarinets) followed by the more macabre Dance of Death (clarinet in low register), where she receives a fatal snakebite.

The famous ‘writing on the wall’ then appears: “Mene, Mene, Tekel, Upharsin” (“numbered, weighed, divided”), interpreted by the prophet Daniel as a foretelling of Belshazzar’s death the coming night. At this point, Khadra’s strength fails as she attempts to dance the Dance of Life once again (the music for this, the sixth number, uses the music of the fourth, but played slower). Despite the prophecy of the ‘writing on the wall’, Leschanah has now fallen in love with Belshazzar, and no longer wishes to slay him: the slow-moving yet impassioned music of the seventh number reflects her dilemma. Meanwhile, the king is anxiously awaiting his death and consults his adviser, Aspenasi, for which Sibelius includes hushed strings, while the clarinets play music derived from Khadra’s Dance of Life. At last, Leschanah resolves to fulfil her duty, and after the king is briefly reminded of Khadra by an abbreviated version of the Dance of Life, the Dance of Death returns, as his assassin stabs him with her dagger, and is herself killed by his Jewish advisor, Elieser.

The Overture in E and Scène de Ballet began life not as self-contained works but as the first two movements of a symphony—Sibelius’ first attempt at symphonic writing. He wrote to his future wife, Aino, relaying his plans for the symphony, which was to be in three or four movements (including an overture for the first and a Ball Scene for the second), and which took its thematic inspiration from a well-known Finnish folk-tune. Come April, however, Sibelius suddenly interrupted its development, claiming his grasp of the symphonic form was unsatisfactory. With the aid of his copyist, he wrote out the first two movements, and sent them to the conductor Robert Kajanus. Several days later, the composer was plagued by doubts and asked Kajanus not to perform them. This request, however, was ignored, and Kajanus programmed the overture alone in a concert on 23 April, sending a congratulatory telegram to Sibelius the following day. Unfortunately both the critics and the public were less than enamoured with the work, and when Kajanus repeated the overture in another concert several days later—this time including the Ballet Scene also—the latter caused an even more hostile reaction.

The initial symphonic intentions can be identified in the structure of the Overture, which is written in sonata form. The main theme is shaped in arch-like phrases, and the whole piece encompasses the same idiom as Karelia, composed several years previously. The Ballet Scene, on the other hand, adopts the form of a free rondo, portraying a vision of a chaotic dance. Like Ravel’s La Valse (1919–20), the piece conjures up instances of the charm and elegance associated with the Viennese waltz, but with a somewhat sinister undercurrent, as if viewing the spectacle through a nightmarish lens. Consider, for example, the unsettled fugato section at 5:19, beginning with chromatic string writing, sparsely accompanied by castanets and triangle, followed by the pianissimo wild whirlwind strings at 6:42.

On 30 April 1905, a farewell concert was held at the Finnish National Theatre for Kaarlo Bergbom, who had been the theatre’s director for 33 years, and for his older sister and colleague at the theatre, Emilie. The programme included two items by Sibelius: the song Höstkväll, and a lively, good-humoured new orchestral piece called Cortège, JS54, which played as a group of actors—dressed as characters from the Bergboms’ most successful productions—processed before the guests. Thematic material from Cortège was to be re-used later in Love Song from Sibelius’ Scènes historiques II, and in the final procession of his incidental music for The Tempest.

This practice of musical recycling is also evident in the Menuetto in B flat major of 1894, which began life as a piano miniature from Sibelius’ student period in Vienna, but was later arranged into an orchestral piece (the version heard on this recording) and then re-orchestrated in a simplified version for use in the score of King Christian II (1898), incidental music for the five-act historical drama by Adolf Paul. In 1911 Sibelius wrote music for another of Paul’s plays, Die Sprache der Vögel (The Language of the Birds), composing just a single musical number, Wedding March, whose title is something of a misnomer, as it is not particularly march-like in character. Its scoring is unusual in that it omits bassoons and horns but includes trumpets, trombones and an array of percussion instruments. As far as we know, it was not used for any stage productions.

In 1922 Sibelius became a member of Finland’s newly constituted Masonic Lodge, for which he composed a collection of pieces first performed on 12 January 1927. This collection represents one of Sibelius’ most enigmatic works, centring around a series of songs for tenor and harmonium, though it also comprises orchestral works, some of which require a male-voice choir. In typical Sibelian fashion, he later revised some of these pieces and added to them, including Processional (Op 113, No 6), which exists in versions for choir and orchestra, and for orchestra alone.

Dominic Wells

¹ Järvenpää was the town where Sibelius lived.

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