Kullervo can be considered as Sibelius’s first major orchestral work, completed at the age of 26.It is a five-movement symphony for soprano, baritone, male chorus, and orchestra, and lasts around 75 minutes. It is a programmatic work which is based on the Finnish national folk epic, the Kalevala. The story concerns the ill-fated character with magical powers named Kullervo. The story is as follows: growing up in the aftermath of the massacre of his entire tribe, Kullervo comes to realize that the same people who had brought him up, the tribe of Untamo, were also the ones who had slain his family. As a child, he is sold into slavery and mocked and tormented further. When he finally runs away from his masters, he discovers surviving members of his family, only to lose them again. He seduces a girl who turns out to be his sister, having thought his sister dead. When she finds out it was her own brother who seduced her, she commits suicide. Kullervo becomes mad with rage, returns to Untamo and his tribe, destroys them using his magical powers, and commits suicide. This excerpt is from the closing of the second movement, “Kullervo’s Youth”, which paints the tragic and dark times of his childhood. A very powerful performance by the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra, with Jukka-Pekka Saraste conducting.
Sibelius composed 15 tone poems, programmatic works for orchestra that are based largely on Finnish folk mythology. The Swan of Tuonela is perhaps his best-known tone poem and concerns itself with the Finnish land of the dead: Tuonela. At the top of the score, Sibelius wrote the following: “Tuonela, the land of death, the hell of Finnish mythology, is surrounded by a large river of black waters and a rapid current, in which the swan of Tuonela glides majestically singing.” The short work features one of the most prominent and beautiful English Horn solos in the entire orchestral literature. I hope you enjoy the fanciful visuals that accompany this recording! Dark music!
Karelia was commissioned by students from the Helsinki Conservatory for a historical tableaux—a set of scenes from the history of Karelia, a region of SE Finland that is politically divided between Finland and Russia. This area has been a bone of contention between the two countries for centuries. In this work we begin to see Sibelius writing music with a distinctly patriotic flavor, which will blossom into full swing with Finlandia six years later. The original music consisted of eight movements, and Sibelius created the Suite using five of the movements. Offered here is the rousing and patriotic March. What a different world than The Swan of Tuonela! Paavo Järvi conducts the Munich Philharmonic.
Finlandia is without question the most famous and most-often-performed work of Sibelius. The work was initially titled “Finland Awakes”, and is a paean ofFinnish nationalism. It was so popular in Finland that Russian authorities (Finland belonged to Russia at this time in history) did not allow the title to be printed in programs. The Finns came up with other names to beat the Russian censors, such as “Happy Feelings At The Awakening Of Finnish Spring”, and “A Scandinavian Choral March”. The gentle middle section makes use of the Finnish National Song (which in this version is sung by a large chorus). The menacing opening chords played by the brass serve to represent Russian oppression of Finland, and the faster following section shows the fighting spirit of the Finns and bright hopes for the future. The BBC Symphony is conducted here by Sakari Oramo. A brilliant performance!
The next two examples illustrate how a piece of music can change dramatically simply by changing the tempo. I highly recommend listening to these two examples of Valse triste, composed in 1903. The title is translated as “Sad Waltz”, but as you listen and watch the video with its montage of photos, does it sound sad to you? Wait until the NEXT example to read the story!
Here is the story: It is night. The son, who has been watching beside the bedside of his sick mother, has fallen asleep from sheer weariness, Gradually a ruddy light is diffused through the room: there is a sound of distant music: the glow and the music steal nearer until the strains of a valse melody float distantly to our ears. The sleeping mother awakens, rises from her bed and, in her long white garment, which takes the semblance of a ball dress, begins to move silently and slowly to and fro. She waves her hands and beckons in time to the music, as though she were summoning a crowd of invisible guests. And now they appear, these strange visionary couples, turning and gliding to an unearthly valse rhythm. The dying woman mingles with the dancers; she strives to make them look into her eyes, but the shadowy guests one and all avoid her glance. Then she seems to sink exhausted on her bed and the music breaks off. Presently she gathers all her strength and invokes the dance once more, with more energetic gestures than before. Back come the shadowy dancers, gyrating in a wild, mad rhythm. The weird gaiety reaches a climax; there is a knock at the door, which flies wide open; the mother utters a despairing cry; the spectral guests vanish; the music dies away. Death stands on the threshold. Does the music make sense now?
Sibelius was a violinist by training, starting at age 10, and for quite a long time he had the dream of becoming a concert violinist. His parents, who were against his musical desires, sent him to study law in Helsinki, but he soon decided to attempt a musical career. His violin career never took off, however, as he related later in life: “My tragedy was that I wanted to be a celebrated violinist at any price. Since the age of 15 I played my violin practically from morning to night. I hated pen and ink—unfortunately I preferred an elegant violin bow. My love for the violin lasted quite long and it was a very painful awakening when I had to admit that I had begun my training for the exacting career of a virtuoso too late”. Fortunately for us, the composer left us with one of the most beloved (and difficult!) of all violin concertos in the repertoire. Here is Maxim Vengerov (wow!) with Daniel Barenboim conducting.
One of the strangest aspects of Sibelius’s career is that he stopped composing for good in 1926 and lived for 31 more years-never writing again! Tapiola is one of his very last works, composed in that fateful year of 1926 (more information on this subject can be found in the COMMENTARY section). Just as in his very first major work (Kullervo), for his final works he also made use of Finnish mythology from the Kalevala. Tapiola portrays Tapio, the animating forest spirit mentioned throughout the Kalevala. Sibelius described the work in the following statement: “Wide-spread they stand, the Northland’s dusky forests, Ancient, mysterious, brooding savage dreams; Within them dwells the Forest’s mighty God, And wood-sprites in the gloom weave magic secrets”. A truly atmospheric work with dazzling orchestration. We hear the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir Simon Rattle.
One would imagine that Sibelius, as a violinist, would compose much string chamber music; in reality, he only composed ONE major work for string quartet in his mature period-the “Voces intimae” (Inner Voices), completed in 1909. As a student, Sibelius wrote numerous works for string quartet, but destroyed most of them. When asked about the subtitle of this work, the composer wrote about it in a letter to his wife: “It turned out as something wonderful. The kind of thing that brings a smile to your lips at the hour of death. I will say no more”. At the first performance, the critic Helsingin Sanomat wrote:”The composition attracted a great deal of attention, and it is undoubtedly one of the most brilliant products in its field. It is not a composition for the public at large, it is so eccentric and out of the ordinary”. The Nordic String Quartet here performs the second movement: Scherzo.
This is the final work that Sibelius completed. It is one of the most bizarre pieces of music ever composed. It is considered by some to be his greatest achievement. The Overture has been described as "the single most onomatopoetic stretch of music ever composed". It describes the opening scene of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, and it does a brilliant job of doing so! Have a listen! The Podlasie Philharmonic is directed by conductor Young Chil Lee.