About this Recording
8.573511 - SIBELIUS, J.: Scaramouche [Ballet] (Turku Philharmonic, Segerstam)

Jean Sibelius (1865–1957)
Scaramouche, Op. 71


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 autumn of 1912 Sibelius was commissioned by the Danish publisher Wilhelm Hansen to compose music for Poul Knudsen’s tragic pantomime, Scaramouche. Several months later the composer received a new libretto, which to his surprise also included dialogue—a highly unorthodox feature for a pantomime which, in this context, is tantamount to mime. Unhappy with the addition of dialogue, he was similarly unimpressed by the drama of the pantomime, describing it as a shameless imitation of the Viennese dramatist and novelist Arthur Schnitzler’s The Veil of Pierrette, which had been set to music by Ernő von Dohnányi just several years previously. While he admitted certain similarities, Knudsen tried to defend himself by explaining that he had actually planned Scaramouche before The Veil of Pierrette had been completed. This offered little consolation to Sibelius, who found the work increasingly frustrating, writing in his diary on 21 June: “I ruined myself by signing the contract for Scaramouche. Today things became so heated that I smashed the telephone. My nerves are in tatters”.

Nevertheless he persevered with the project, which required an enormous effort, not only for the reasons outlined above, but also because it proved to be far more extensive than he had imagined: music for a complete pantomime instead of just several dance pieces, with a duration of more than an hour. It was finally completed in December 1913, but a performance date had not been set. Indeed, Sibelius forgot about the score for years, until the Royal Theatre of Copenhagen eventually gave the premiere in May 1922. While Knudsen’s pantomime was by no means hailed a masterpiece, the music received critical acclaim: according to the critic from the Berling’s Times (Denmark’s oldest newspaper), the most elevating and dignified part was the music of the performance; while the critic of Politiken praised the composer’s resourcefulness, his devilry and the strange perversity of the music. Such comments must have gone some way to making Sibelius feel his hard work had not entirely been in vain, and another diary entry from this time reveals him in a more positive state of mind, stating simply: “Scaramouche great success in Copenhagen”.

Despite its obscure status today, Scaramouche is significant in that, with the exception of his only opera The Maiden in the Tower (1896), it is Sibelius’ only continuous dramatic score, causing one to speculate how an opera from the mature composer might have sounded. It is scored for a small orchestra, employing only a limited complement of brass instruments, but including a part for piano. Demonstrating his keen ear for colour, his skill in maintaining textural variety and his ability to effectively portray the drama, Sibelius divides the instruments into three sections: the musicians who are on the stage (the minstrels); the principal character, Scaramouche, who at times plays his viola¹ from behind the stage, and sometimes onstage; and the main orchestra itself, commenting on the action.

As the curtain rises, a minuet is heard. A ball is under way, hosted by Leilon, who stands watching the dancers while Blondelaine, his wife, complains that he never wants to dance with her. The music soon adopts a Spanish flavour with the inclusion of a bolero (solo oboe, supported by oscillating octaves in the strings). The music breaks off, leaving only an ominous timpani toll, after which a harsh discord announces the arrival of Scaramouche, a sinister, wandering hunchbacked dwarf [5]. Leilon (solo flute) and Scaramouche (solo viola) converse in a somewhat tense atmosphere created by tremolo strings, and Leilon soon discovers that his mysterious guest is a musician. When asked if he would play, Scaramouche agrees, and after briefly tuning his viola, he and his fellow musicians continue with the bolero. He fixes his eyes on Blondelaine, and as he continues to play with increasing abandon, she throws herself into the dance, becoming more and more delirious. Leilon, embarrassed by this display, orders his servant to send Scaramouche out. After an awkward pause, the dwarf agrees to leave, and with a graceful waltz [6] the musicians revive the dancing of all the guests, who have watched Blondelaine’s wild dance with amazement.

A servant announces that supper is served [7], but Blondelaine says she is feeling hot and will join the rest of the party shortly. In the following scene [8], she hears Scaramouche’s viola calling her above a syncopated rhythm in the violins and, as if in a trance, throws away the flowers she is carrying and runs away. Leilon finds the flowers and wonders where Blondelaine could be [9], at which point he is joined by several of the guests, asking the same question. Scaramouche’s viola is heard [10] and the guests start franticly searching for her, portrayed by a series of rising and falling phrases in the strings, and imitated by shorter ascending and descending chromatic phrases in the woodwind and horns, which conclude Act I.

The music continues seamlessly into Act II, opening with a chromatic pizzicato section in the upper strings [11] to reflect Leilon’s continued restlessness. He drinks wine with a friend [12][15], who tells him that Blondelaine will never return. As the friend puts on his coat to leave, it gets caught in his belt, and he asks Leilon for his dagger to cut himself free, placing the dagger on a table as he leaves. Leilon is left alone to contemplate his fate [16] (solo flute and violins), though not for long, as a forte-piano chord at the start of the next scene marks the reappearance of Blondelaine [17]. Her face pale, she walks slowly towards Leilon, who is initially delighted by her return but then fearful as he looks more closely at her face and dishevelled hair. He asks her where she has been, but she makes no response. Eventually he loses his patience with her, and Blondelaine explains that she does not know where she went.

Now alone, she looks at herself in a mirror and laughs nervously [18], accompanied by nightmarish music that would not be out of place in the context of a film. Scaramouche appears behind the door (col legno in the double basses), and when she sees him in the reflection of the mirror, she screams and tries to flee from his grasp, but he is too strong [19]. Seeing Leilon’s dagger lying on the table, she kills him. Leilon enters but does not see the dead body. Husband and wife are reunited, expressing their love for each other (to impassioned string writing), and as he plays the piano, Blondelaine dances [20][21]. However, this brief moment of happiness is short-lived, as Blondelaine is struck with horror when she hears Scaramouche calling her (long, sustained dissonances in the woodwind clashing with Leilon’s cheery piano music), which Leilon cannot hear, and she asks her husband to play faster. She dances faster and faster, and working herself into a frenzy, she finally dances before the body of Scaramouche, before dropping dead to the floor.

Dominic Wells

¹ This is often represented by both a solo viola and a solo cello playing as one (such as in octaves or thirds).

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