The foundations of Sibelius’s reputation are his symphonies, tone poems and increasingly his songs but the music he wrote for the stage throughout his creative life includes some of his finest scores.
This album presents his theatre music from two distinct periods—the 1900s (contemporary with his Violin Concerto, and the Second and Third Symphonies) and the 1920s, including some of the last works of his to survive.
At the time when Sibelius was emerging as a major creative figure, drama was pivotal to the development of cultural and social attitudes in Scandinavia. One need only mention 3 of his contemporaries: Ibsen, Strindberg and Bjornson. Sibelius was attracted to theatre as early as 1893, when he started work on an opera, The Building of the Boat. It was a visit to Bayreuth that caused him to abandon work on this, but the prelude survived as one of his most perfect pieces: The Swan of Tuonela. Its striking economy of expression and intensity are characteristics shared by much of his incidental music for the stage. In his stage music, Sibelius tends not so much to accompany dramatic action but to set scenes, create atmosphere or provide a prelude or intermezzo to the action for what were predominantly exotic or mystical dramas.
This album presents his theatre music from two distinct periods—the 1900s (contemporary with his Violin Concerto, and the Second and Third Symphonies) and the 1920s, including his last surviving works.
At the time when Sibelius was emerging as a major creative figure, drama was pivotal to the development of cultural and social attitudes in Scandinavia. One need only mention three of his contemporaries: Ibsen, Strindberg and Bjornson. Sibelius was attracted to theatre as early as 1893 when he started work on an opera, The Building of the Boat. It was a visit to Bayreuth that caused him to abandon work on this, but the prelude survived as one of his most perfect pieces: The Swan of Tuonela. Its striking economy of expression and intensity are characteristics shared by much of his incidental music for the stage. In his stage music, Sibelius tends not so much to accompany dramatic action but to set scenes, create atmosphere or provide a prelude or intermezzo to the action for what were, predominantly, exotic or mystical dramas.
In 1902, Sibelius was approached by his brother-in-law Arvid Jarnefelt and asked to provide a score for his new play Kuolema ('Death'). By this time Sibelius was reasonably experienced, having already written music for Adolf Paul’s King Christian II—to great acclaim—as well as the Karelia music. He was working on the Violin Concerto at the time, but was still able to produce a score of around twenty minutes with six movements. Two of these went on to enjoy an independent life in the concert hall: the 'Scene with Cranes' and 'Valse triste'. In his text, Jarnefelt specified a waltz tune to accompany a stark scene early in the action: a young boy sits beside his mother’s sick bed. She dreams of rising up and dancing with ghostly spectres in the room. Eventually Death arrives at the door and claims her. This little waltz subsequently became Sibelius’s most often played and arranged work. The impecunious composer stood by and watched as the piece became an international hit—yet he made not a penny in royalties from the many arrangements, having signed away the rights to a publisher. He would spend many years writing light music, fruitlessly hoping to strike gold again.
Maeterlinck’s drama Pelleas and Melisande (1893) fired the imagination of a number of prominent fin-de-siecle composers—Debussy in his great opera, Schoenberg in his huge romantic orchestral canvas, and Fauré and Sibelius’s delicate atmospheric stage scores. Fauré’s score was written for a production at the Prince of Wales Theatre in London in 1898, while Sibelius worked on a staging for Helsinki’s Swedish Theatre in 1905, translated by Bertel Gripenberg.
Most of the music takes the form of interludes, conjuring up the magical and fantastical nature of the play and the claustrophobic atmosphere of the love triangle of Golaud, Melisande and Pelleas. Sibelius almost immediately produced a concert suite. It opens with an imposing evocation of a castle, broadly drawn and epic in style. The darkness of the drama is already evident in the second movement, a portrait of Melisande. With 'At the seashore', Melisande and Pelleas see the departure of the ship in which she arrived. 'By a spring in the park' acts as a prelude to the two lovers walking together but hints at the darker turn of events to come. 'The three blind sisters' is a song, sung by Melisande in the play, and takes the form of a medieval ballad. The 'Pastorale' conjures up a scene of colourful harvesting. The music of 'Melisande at the spinning-wheel' is very graphic but it also, in its dark obsessive way, portends tragedy to come. The 'Entr’acte' acts as a prelude in the play to a scene where Pelleas and Melisande plan a secret meeting but once again there is dark undercurrent. The suite ends with 'The death of Melisande'—the longest and most substantial movement, a remarkably touching prelude to the last act—as Melisande lies dying from childbirth, Golaud is left with the unresolved question of her relationship with Pelleas.
The early 1900s, a heady time for theatre in Finland, was also the time of Sibelius’s most intense activity in writing for the stage. Very quickly after Kuolema (1902) and Pelleas and Melisande (1905), he produced music for Hjalmar Procope’s play Belshazzar’s Feast. In contrast to Maeterlinck’s masterpiece, Procope’s play really only survives now through Sibelius’s music—and critics at the time were not slow to point out the superiority of the music to the drama.
Belshazzar’s Feast was premiered at the Swedish Theatre in Helsinki in November 1906. Sibelius provided a score of ten numbers, and although the concert suite (which Sibelius premiered himself in 1907) has only four movements, it incorporates all the significant material from the full score. The opening 'Oriental Procession' is the nearest Sibelius came to conjuring up the colour and exoticism of the east—comparable to ‘Anitra’s Dance’ and the ‘Arabian Dance’ in Grieg’s music for Peer Gynt. This procession arrives from the distance, and disappears again with a broad, stately tread. 'Solitude' was originally a song for Leschanah, the Jewish woman of the play who sings ‘Jerusalem, how can I forget thee’, but in the suite the vocal line is compellingly rescored for solo viola and cello. The intensely beautiful 'Nocturne' features a long sad melody on solo flute. It accompanied a beautiful stage setting of the starry night. The final movement 'Khadra’s dance' integrates two of the original movements, 'Dance of life' and 'Dance of Death'.
By the mid-1920s Sibelius was reaching the climax of his compositional career and, although it was only to become apparent later, the period of his last major surviving works. In close succession, in 1923 and 1924, the Sixth and Seventh Symphonies emerged and the greatest of the symphonic poems Tapiola would appear in 1926. In 1925 Sibelius composed his score for Shakespeare’s The Tempest. This was a return for him: back in 1901 his close friend and patron Axel Carpelan had suggested that he look at the play as a source of inspiration. This commission turned out to be his largest and most ambitious theatre score. In his theatre music to date, Sibelius had shown great resource in working around the limited forces available. With this score he had the Royal Danish Theatre, a home of opera as well as drama, at his disposal and his music extends to around an hour with vocal soloists, choir, harmonium and large orchestra.
A great success in Copenhagen, the score was revived a year later in 1927 in Helsinki, when Sibelius added a different epilogue and also produced, for the concert hall, a Prelude and two Orchestral Suites. The first suite is for large orchestra and includes some of the larger, more dramatic numbers including a reprise of 'The Storm' which, in extended form, constitutes the Prelude. The Suite No 2 is for small orchestra and concentrates on some of the more intimate portraits and episodes. Both suites include some of the composer’s finest music for the theatre, indeed some of his most inspired ideas, worthy of standing alongside the last two symphonies and Tapiola as the culmination of his life’s work in these genres.
The suite opens with the 'Chorus of the winds' which accompanies Ariel’s narration of how he conjured the storm and brought all on board the shipwreck to the island. The 'Intermezzo' evokes Alonso’s grief at what he believes is the death of his son, Ferdinand. The 'Dance of the nymphs' comes from the Harvest Festival scene. There is a baroque grandeur to the portrait of Prospero and magical fragility to that of Miranda. The two songs were originally sung by Ariel—a soprano—‘Before you can say come and go’ and ‘Where the bee sucks’, but in the suite the second gives the melody to two clarinets. 'The naiads' is a response to Ariel’s song ‘Come unto these yellow sands’ and the suite ends with the 'Dance episode', a strange dance drawn from a larger portrait of Prospero’s treacherous brother Antonio.
Like many composers before him (including Beethoven and Mozart), Sibelius had to be pragmatic about composing to order to generate much needed income. He wrote plenty of salon miniatures (not least because he never gave up the hope of chancing upon a second 'Valse triste'), and could also be commissioned to compose music for special occasions. The Karelia music was written for a fund-raising event consisting of a series of tableaux portraying major events in Karelian history. The Press Pension Celebrations music was another case in point and, like the Karelia music, it yielded one of Sibelius’s most popular scores: Finlandia. The Andante festivo was originally written, rather improbably, for a factory in 1922. He was working on the final two symphonies when he received the commission. It was scored for string quartet but is normally played today in the 1930 version for string orchestra with optional timpani (omitted in this recording). Although it inhabits the same sound world as the luminous string writing in the last two symphonies, this slight but effective work is most famous for the distinction of being the only score to survive in a recording conducted by Sibelius himself. The recording was in the archives of Finnish Radio from 1939 when the composer, at the age of 74 and already in retirement, conducted an orchestra for the last time for a short-wave radio broadcast to the New York Fair. Given that the technology for recording had been around from early in the century and Sibelius had been active on the podium until the late 1920s, it is tantalising to imagine what else could have existed today if he had been lured in to the recording studio or if the radio broadcast of his 1924 concert in Copenhagen, devoted entirely to his own music, had survived.
Rob McEwan © 2003