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8.573340 - SIBELIUS, J.: Jokamies (Jedermann) / 2 Pieces, Op. 77 / In Memoriam (Pajala, Katajala, Söderlund, Palmu, Turku Philharmonic, Segerstam)

Jean Sibelius (1865–1957)
Jedermann • Two Serious Melodies • In memoriam


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 based on a Finnish folklore narrative, such as the famous epic, the Kalevala—the inspiration for his popular Lemminkäinen Suite. However, he was also prolific 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’. 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.

In the Summer of 1916 Jalmari Lahdensuo from the Finnish National Theatre commissioned Sibelius to write music for Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s version of the medieval morality play, Jedermann (Everyman). The composer worked fast, completing the music on 6 October 1916. Rehearsals started almost immediately and the premiere took place less than a month later on 5 November at the National Theatre in Helsinki, with the Helsinki City Orchestra under Robert Kajanus. Sibelius himself set some store by the work, and it was performed with great success in his anniversary years 1935 and 1965, though it is rarely heard today. One significant reason it failed to secure enduring popularity is that, atypically, Sibelius did not prepare an orchestral suite, as he did for much of his other incidental music. His approach to Jedermann’s music was different, as the director Glory Leppanen commented when recollecting the requirements laid down by Sibelius in 1935: “The music had to follow the text precisely to the beat, since the musical phrases reflected the words. There were to be no exceptions. The text had to be adapted to the notes; this had to be strictly adhered to.” Sibelius made the same demands on himself that would later be made on film composers: the music should be synchronised with the words and action, down to the last second. Subsequently, stripped of its integral drama, the score can seem uneven, and lends itself to a concert performance less readily than his other theatrical scores. He had already composed incidental music before this—for Kung Kristian II, Pelléas et Mélisande and Svanevit—but mostly only overtures and interludes, not music that actually accompanied events on the stage. Now, the music was to intensify the acoustic and visual aspects of the stage performance—and to be intensified by them.

Due to Sibelius’s assiduous efforts to intertwine his music with the action, the durations of the movements vary considerably, beginning with just two loud notes on the brass to announce the start of the play. Ominous bells at an interval of a fourth accompany a dramatic declaration by God who, disappointed with the sins of humankind, asks Death to fetch Everyman [2], who will represent all people. In the following Allegro [3] Sibelius demonstrates great delicacy and lightness of touch (this material is later developed in [12]), as Everyman enjoys a lavish banquet. He turns beggars away from his door and delivers a eulogy to Mammon. His mother begs him to do penance, but Everyman is more interested in the forthcoming celebration, which the music anticipates. Next comes the song Me kutsun saimme (We’ve received an invitation) [5] which uses the Aeolian mode—a church mode whose religious origins have symbolic relevance in this context. After several short pieces comes the madrigal Maat ja metsät viheriöivät (Forests are becoming green) [8], offering Everyman some sense of comfort, but this is short-lived: during the next love song [9] he once again hears the bells chiming his death knell, before the melody of the madrigal is repeated [10] in a canon for choir. As the music from the banquet celebrations returns in a more expanded form [11], this is abruptly broken off as Death arrives to carry out his task.

Everyman begs for somebody to accompany him on his last journey, but he is left deserted. Only an old woman—the personification of Good Works—is willing to help [12], and Sibelius accompanies their interaction with ascending and descending chromatic lines on muted strings, coupled with booming timpani to produce an eerie, unsettled atmosphere. Good Works suggests her sister, Faith, could be the source of his salvation [13]. With her help Everyman finally repents and prays [14] and we hear an organ chorale theme with Bachian string writing to accompany a vision he has of his mother at morning Mass. However, the Devil appears to torment him. This scene [15] caused Sibelius great irritation, as the music and the entry of the Devil did not always coincide in the stage performances. The Devil’s music is highly chromatic as he tries to claim Everyman’s soul, and this movement has the unusual scoring of piano, organ and strings. Eventually, Good Works and Faith manage to thwart his attempts, and the church bells heard at the beginning in a foreboding context now return with a triumphant message, representing the defeat of Devil and eternal life for Everyman [16]. The latter enters his grave, accompanied by Good Works, and the male chorus of angels finally makes its entry singing “Gloria in excelsis Deo”[17].

Of the Zwei ernste Melodien (Two Serious Melodies), Op. 77, the Cantique (Laetare anima mea) was completed first in December 1914, while the second piece, Devotion (Ab imo pectore), was finished the following year. The two pieces received their first performance not with a solo violin, as originally intended, but a cello, and in reverse order. This took place on 30 March 1916 with the cellist Ossian Fohstrom (to whom they are dedicated) and the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra, under the composer’s direction.

The seriousness of Sibelius’s mood at this time, reflected in the title, is unsurprising: after achieving great success in the United States in the Summer of 1914, he returned dreaming of wealth, only to be disappointed when the First World War prevented a second visit, leaving him stuck in Finland and facing a deepening spiral of debt. That Autumn, he was forced to churn out one miniature after another in order to ease his financial predicament, though the Cantique does not fall into this perfunctory category. Sibelius himself considered using it for a church concert, and ever the pragmatist, pointed out that the accompanying orchestra would be small enough to be placed in an organ loft. He initially planned to pair Cantique with the Romance in F major (later included in his Op. 78) but eventually chose Devotion as its earthly counterpart: if the Cantique expresses the joy of spiritual grace, Devotion might reflect a sense of doubt that dwells in the bottom of the heart—which makes the reverse order of the premiere all the more surprising.

A decade earlier, Sibelius was affected by another (more local) political event. The direct stimulus for In memoriam came in June 1904, when Eugen Schauman shot Governor-General Bobrikov and killed himself immediately afterwards. The death of the “eater-up of Finland” delighted many influential people in the Grand Duchy of Finland, though there was a certain degree of unease about a political murder. According to a familiar though probably spurious anecdote, Sibelius celebrated Bobrikov’s murder with such abandon that he was taken to the police station in Eerikinkatu for questioning, charged with “unmotivated joy”, and from his bills at the end of June we know that he spent considerable amounts on brandy, sherry, madeira and whisky at the Restaurant Kappeli—perhaps to celebrate the death of Bobrikov.

In memoriam was completed on 14 December 1909. However, Sibelius was dissatisfied with the proofs of the score, and the work reached its final form only in March 1910. The first public performance was postponed till even later, October 1910, when Sibelius included it in concerts he gave in Kristiania (now Oslo). The rhythm and orchestration of its opening funeral march bears a more than passing resemblance to the start of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, which Sibelius had heard in Berlin in 1905, when he received what he described as the “motif” for the piece. However, it is interesting that he did not begin work on In memoriam in earnest until four years later, after a life-saving throat operation. At this time he was constantly preoccupied with death, and although he was to live a further five decades, it is apt that the work was played at his own funeral in 1957.

Dominic Wells

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