About this Recording
8.573301 - SIBELIUS, J.: Pelleas and Melisande / Musik zu einer Szene / Autrefois / Valse Chevaleresque (Pajala, Nordqvist, Turku Philharmonic, Segerstam)

Jean Sibelius (1865–1957)
Pelléas et Mélisande • Musik zu einer Szene • Valse lyrique • Valse chevaleresque • Morceau romantique sur un motif de Monsieur Jakob von Julin


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.

The move to Jarvenpaa (in 1904) was actually beneficial in two ways: it halted the composer’s love of big-city luxuries, which he could not always afford, and simultaneously renewed his contact with nature, which he had found so inspiring in his youth. No sooner had he settled into his new home than he was invited to England, but had to decline in order to complete the incidental music for Maeterlinck’s Pelléas et Mélisande, which had been commissioned by the Swedish Theatre. Given that Schoenberg’s large-scale symphonic tone poem Pelléas und Mélisande had been completed just one year previously, it is tempting to draw comparisons between the two works, though such studies reveal no significant similarities: Maeterlinck was widely fashionable by 1904, and Sibelius’ setting demonstrates his awareness of literary trends rather than his reception of Schoenberg. Indeed, Schoenberg’s Pelléas und Mélisande was not given its premiere until January 1905, only two months before the premiere of Sibelius’ own setting on 17 March, conducted by the composer. The subject matter also (inevitably) invited comparisons with Debussy’s eponymous opera of 1898, though the critic Karl Flodin used such a comparison to paint Sibelius’ setting in a positive light: “Without degenerating into the pianissimo mannerisms of the Frenchman Debussy’s illustrative music to the same play, Sibelius has been able to clothe his own tone pictures in a subdued, gentle and restrained atmosphere.”

This was by far Sibelius’ most ambitious undertaking in the genre of incidental music, and was the highlight of the Helsinki theatre season. Written to accompany a Swedish translation by Bertel Gripenberg, the original incidental music included ten pieces, and so effective is the score that Sibelius omitted just one of these when adapting it as a concert suite. The narrative concerns a love triangle set at the court of the aging King Arkel. The sombre tone of the overture [1] suggests both the grandeur and mysteriousness of the king’s castle, whose gate opens at the end, as the sun rises. This is followed by a dark, pensive movement, where Melisande is introduced by a wistful cor anglais solo [2]. During this music, Golaud finds her in the woods, weeping beside a spring, and persuades her to marry him. The subsequent movement accompanies the three principal characters (Melisande, Golaud and his brother Pelleas, who falls in love with Melisande) standing on the seashore [3], watching a boat sail away—the same boat on which Melisande had arrived in Arkel’s kingdom.

The intensity of the drama heightens at the beginning of Act II, when Pelleas and Melisande visit a fountain in a park, and she fatefully drops the ring Golaud has given her into the water. This carelessness is reflected musically by a playful, lopsided waltz [4], whose main theme comprises a phrase of nine bars, rather than the expected eight. The narrative then shifts to Act III, where we find Melisande alone at her spinning-wheel [5], with a constant, sinister semitone motif in the violas depicting the relentless, mechanical character of the machine. Melisande sings a ballad to Pelleas, The Three Blind Sisters [6], whose vocal part is doubled by the clarinets and was therefore excluded from the (purely orchestral) concert suite.

A sunny Andantino pastorale [7] immediately follows a scene in which Golaud and Pelleas discuss Melisande’s pregnancy, and Golaud warns Pelleas to stay away. After an elegant and vivacious Prelude [8]—the brightest music in the score, where Pelleas and Melisande arrange a secret tryst in the park—King Arkel converses with Melisande [9], represented by cello and cor anglais respectively, over a syncopated string accompaniment. (This is the only movement not included in the concert suite.) No music was written for the dramatic events that follow in the play: Golaud’s accusation of Melisande’s infidelity, or the lovers meeting in the park, where Golaud strikes Melisande and kills Pelleas. Instead, the musical and emotional climax of the work is reserved for the very end of the story in a movement dominated by the strings: the exquisitely tragic Andante [10], accompanying Melisande as she lies dying on her sickbed.

Dating from the year prior to Pelléas et Mélisande, Sibelius’ Musik zu einer Szene was given its premiere in the spring of 1904. The music was originally intended to accompany a tableau, and presents a conflict between two highly contrasting sections: after its dark, stormy introduction, the mood yields to a much cheerier disposition as a dance-like idea emerges, replete with tambourines. The stern, opening section makes a brief return and is again overruled by the joyfulness of the dance, though it has the last say, returning for the final time to draw the piece to a somewhat unsettled conclusion. As with so many of his other works, Sibelius soon made a piano version of this piece (Dance-Intermezzo, Op. 45, No. 2, later orchestrated), though in this instance the arrangement included significant differences, omitting most of the brooding introduction and concluding with the dance-like section, resulting in a work far lighter in tone than its orchestral original.

Valse lyrique, Op. 96a and Valse chevaleresque, Op. 96c, were both written in 1921 and are transcriptions of piano pieces. In fact, Sibelius originally intended to fuse together two piano pieces to form the Valse lyrique, using Granen and Syringa from his horticulturally-themed suite of 1914 (which was eventually published as Five Piano Pieces, Op. 75, where each piece depicts a different type of tree). Unhappy with the result, however, he decided to rework Granen (Spruce) into a separate piece, and developed Syringa (Lilac) into Valse lyrique, adding that it should be called Les Lilas, valse pour piano. It is a sunny, carefree piece, as is Valse chevaleresque, and in both pieces the influence of Tchaikovsky’s waltz-writing is clearly evident. Sandwiched in between this pair of waltzes is Autrefois, Op. 96b. Unlike its companions, this was conceived as an orchestral piece (and later transcribed for piano). It is perhaps the most memorable of the three, exuding a sense of charm tinged with nostalgia.

Sibelius’s penchant for waltzes is also apparent in the Morceau romantique sur un motif de Monsieur Jakob von Julin, which was completed in 1925 and received its first performance under the direction of the composer on 9 March that year. It was composed for a festive occasion connected with the Mannerheim League for Child Welfare. Sibelius conducted some of his shorter works, and at the end of the evening produced a surprise, a short romantic piece based on a waltz theme by the industrialist Jakob von Julin, who was a friend of General Mannerheim. The manuscript of the work, which included dedications by Sibelius and Mannerheim, was sold for a large sum, while the piano version (which dates from the same year) also raised a considerable amount of money, with the proceeds of both benefitting a project to build a children’s hospital.

Dominic Wells

¹ Jarvenpaa was the town where Sibelius lived.

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