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.
from notes by Rob McEwan © 2003