Sunday, April 12, 2015



I think the first piece I ever played by Jean Sibelius was “Finlandia” and I was in the San Jose Youth Symphony. I'm sure it was pretty horrible, but it was loud and busy and that was all we kids needed to keep us occupied. The orchestra was filled with pretty talented kids, from ages 12 to 18 and I spent several happy years in this orchestra. Our conductor was a tyrant, who really had very little English, but knew enough to call us “little worms” and yell at the cellos, violas and 2nd violins to shut up, when he was trying to work out passages with the 1st violins and the rest of the orchestra was bored, bored, bored. Rehearsals frequently ran until 11 pm on Monday nights, instead of 10 pm, and we'd be tired and cranky. But, I see Youth Symphonies are still a thing and I'm sure the discipline is much better now than it was in the early 1970s.                                     

Geeze, these kids even look more professional than some working orchestras I've seen. Although it's been forty-some years since I played, we looked like a bunch of refugees from the nerd factory.

Anyway, in my first season there, we did play “Finlandia” and I've played it since then. I think it is the least favorite of mine, of any piece that Jean Sibelius has ever written. Sibelius was born on December 8, 1865 and died September 20, 1957, a huge and important span of time in the musical scene. His music played in integral part in the development of Finnish National Identity.

The core of his ouevre is his set of seven symphonies (which I have had the great good fortune to play). Like Beethoven, he used each successive work to further develop his own personal compositional style. His music continues to be performed and recorded in the concert hall.

Yes, he does. It's difficult to find a composer who has NOT been influenced in some way by Beethoven.

In addition to the symphonies, he also composed a number of “tone poems” besides the anthem-like “Finlandia”. “The Karelian Suite”, “Valse Triste”, “Kullervo” and “Swan of Tuonela” (one of four movements of the “Lemminkäinen Suite”) and his superb “Violin Concerto in D minor”. Apart from that, he also wrote choral music, with 21 publications.*
*Citation needed.

This is probably my favorite interpretation of the "Karelian Suite." It's joyful and brooding, but don't be put off by it; it's delightful!

Sibelius composed prolifically until the mid-1920s, but after completing his Seventh Symphony, he composed no more large-scale works. Although reputed to have stopped composing completely, he is known to have developed sketches for an Eight Symphony, written some Masonic music and re-edited some of his earlier works. He retained an active interest in music, although he didn't always view modern music favorably. Until adoption of the Euro, his likeness graced the Finnish 100 mark bill. In 2011, Finland adopted Flag Day, on December 8th, the composer's birthday, a day of Finnish music.

Jean Sibelius, circa 1891.

I have always had a deep fondness for Sibelius' music. It is arctic and passionate all at once. This is nowhere more obvious than in his “Violin Concerto in D minor”. The opening movement seems ominous, and, like much of his music, the chord changes and movement are slow. The violin sweeps in and rises to, what seems an impossible height and cuts loose with a melody in parallel 6ths, and I defy anyone to listen to this and not get the “feels”; the fireworks. The 3rd movement is a balancing act in tempi; you are off-balance through the entire thing. It almost sounds like the violin is rushing, on the climbing runs, but that is a trick that Sibelius employed to great effect.

Jean Sibelius, 1939. Sweet Moses on a buttered cracker! He looks like Uncle Fester from the Addams Family! What a great picture!

This sort of thing and the repetitive obbligato, in the 4th movement of his Second Symphony in the celli, basses and violas for 25 measures the first time, and 39 measures the second time and finally, 6 measures towards the end, baffled and left some critics cold. One critic, René Leibowitz, a renowned theorist, composer and conducter, went so far as to call Sibelius “Sibelius the worst composer in the world.” To which Sibelius replied, “Pay no attention to what critics say; no one ever put up a statue to a critic.”

Okay, so Jean Sibelius didn't get a whole statue, but he got a head. There us also a monument in his name that looks like a bunch of organ pipes glued together. I'm not a modern art afficionado, as you can tell.

He was also a rival of Gustav Mahler and felt that Mahler's approach to symphonic writing was entirely undisciplined. For every symphony that Sibelius wrote, he addressed some issue with form, harmonic movement, resolution, development, or thematic material in his own unique way, while Mahler tended to be all over the place. The two had a chance to discuss this while in a sauna. Sibelius later reported that during the bath:

I said that I admired the severity of style and the profound logic the created an inner connection between all the motifs. . . Mahler's opinion was just the reverse. 'No, a symphony must be like the world. It must embrace everything.'”

Gustav Mahler lived and worked in Vienna and Bohemia, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He was an eminent composer-conductor and a huge rival of Richard Strauss, who was a neo-classicist. Mahler set in stone the foundations of the 2nd Viennese School of composition, which went down the road of 12-tone music and serialism, with composers like Arnold Schoenbert, Anton Weber and Alban Berg.

The two could agree on the usage of indigenous folk music, however. After Sibelius got over his Wagnerian period, he tended more towards using naked tri-tones, Haydn's built-in dissonances and bare melodic structures, with jagged melodies, at times. In other words, what would was recognized as the 2nd Viennese School of composition, something Mahler, Alban Berg and Anton Webern embraced, although once again, Sibelius was not a proponent of “modern” music. He was sometimes referred to as “antimodern modernism” a true paradox to be sure.

Violin Concerto in D minor, played by Maxim Vengerov. I can think of no finer interpretation. His tone is warm, and his technique flawless.

Again, it is most notable in his Violins Concerto in D minor, which is breathtaking. He remains an important figure in 20th century music, and in the development of later composers, Vaughan Williams, William Walton (That Viola Concerto!) and Arnold Bax.

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