Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Sibelius Finds His Voice: En Saga

Jean Sibelius, 1892
This weekend's concert with the Harrisburg Symphony includes one of the most popular of all piano concertos and a great symphony by Johannes Brahms (or scroll down to next post - the link doesn't seem to be working...). It opens, however, with a work that might be largely unfamiliar to Harrisburg audiences (in all my years working in radio, I think I only programmed this piece a few times - my bad...).

If Brahms was 50 when he wrote his 3rd Symphony and Edvard Grieg was 25 when he composed his Piano Concerto, Sibelius was 27 and was just finding his "own voice" after a couple years spent studying in Berlin and Vienna. En Saga would become his first published orchestral work (not the first one he composed) and the first in a long series of tone poems and symphonies on which his mature reputation is built.

Stuart Malina conducts the Harrisburg Symphony, joined by pianist Di Wu for the Grieg Concerto, this Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 3pm at the Forum. Truman Bullard will be offering a pre-concert talk an hour before each performance.

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 Sibelius' En Saga, the Gothenburg Symphony conducted by Neeme Järvi
Part 1 (sorry for what sounds like a bad edit c.11:34/35)
Part 2

(Please note: not responsible for video appropriateness: why there are pictures here of ruins in India, I have no idea, but it's one of the better recordings of the music I could find on YouTube... (sigh)...)
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In many countries that did not have major cosmopolitan centers with active cultural scenes, young would-be composers went elsewhere to study. In the 19th Century, since there were no music schools in the United States, any aspiring composer went to Germany to learn his craft. Even into the early 20th Century, many still gravitated to Paris and the classroom of Nadia Boulanger up until World War II to “finish” the education they might have received in New York or Boston. In England, composers also went to Germany – for instance, Ethel Smyth badgered her father unmercifully until he finally allowed her to attend the Leipzig Conservatory in 1877.

The Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg was also a Leipzig Conservatory alumnus, class of 1862.

Jean Sibelius, however, born in 1865 in a small town in southern Finland, went to Helsinki originally to study law but gave in to his passion for music. Originally he wanted to become a violinist and even played the second and third movements of the Mendelssohn Concerto in public before realizing he was not cut out for the world of the concert virtuoso. Composition was his “fall-back” and, for similar reasons that led Grieg to “the continent,” Sibelius studied first in Berlin in 1889-1890 and then in Vienna the following academic year.

In Berlin, he heard Wagner operas and Beethoven symphonies with Hans von Bülow conducting the Berlin Philharmonic. He heard Joseph Joachim’s quartet playing quartets by Beethoven and Schubert. He also heard young Richard Strauss conducting his brand new tone poem, Don Juan.

But Berlin under the Iron Chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, was not an atmosphere conducive to Sibelius’ nature. He also found he detested the rigorous study of counterpoint (the combination of independent voices that have to work melodically and fit the usual harmonic rules at the same time: it is often limited to the study of writing fugues and is usually considered the very driest of academic dryness). Not surprisingly, he found he lost interest in composing. (Not surprisingly, there is very little “fugal” writing in Sibelius’ mature style, for that matter but a great deal of independent polyphony in his great layers of sound – all, essentially, contrapuntal.)

And so, having completed his first year in Berlin with a work considered adequate enough to pass his courses, he left for Vienna. There, he became a student of Robert Fuchs who was a good friend of Johannes Brahms (several years ago, I heard two cello sonatas by Fuchs and would’ve sworn he’d set out to imitate Brahms on purpose. But after listening to other works by other contemporaries of Brahms’ in Vienna, there was a whole school of Brahms imitators who have since largely been forgotten.)

Sibelius also managed to study with Karl Goldmark who was a great inspiration to him. He discovered Bruckner and thought he was the greatest living composer (Brahms, by the way, was still alive – in fact, in 1890, seven years after completing his 3rd Symphony, he had only recently completed his 2nd String Quintet, Op. 111 and was close to retirement, before deciding to write a series of works for a clarinetist whose sound inspired him back into active composing). Sibelius also attended performances of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde and became friends with an oboe player who taught him how to write for the English Horn (he would write The Swan of Tuonela two years later).

He enjoyed the party life of Vienna – “Vienna,” he wrote home, “is all laughter and waltzes” which sounds like the title of a waltz by Johann Strauss who knew a little something about the Viennese love of leisure.

That summer of 1891, the 25-year-old Sibelius returned to Finland and realized something very important, something Grieg had discovered after returning to his native Norway from Leipzig and something Antonin Dvořák was telling his students at the National Conservatory in New York City when he taught there between 1891-1895 (and when he wrote his “New World” Symphony). To create a “national” artistic voice, you need to base your musical language on your folk music – which is exactly what Grieg did (the last movement of his piano concerto is a Norwegian folk dance) and ultimately what Sibelius did, turning first to the ancient legends of Finland, the Kalevala, after hearing a folk-singer sing some traditional verses in a music unlike anything he had studied in Berlin or Vienna – or, for that matter, in Helsinki.

He composed an ambitiously huge work based on the life of the hero Kullervo for soloists, chorus and a large orchestra which was performed with much fuss but little popular reaction (saved mostly by the famed conductor Robert Kajanus predicting a great future for the young composer – shades, perhaps, of Schumann and Brahms). And it impressed the parents of Aino Järnefelt to let their daughter marry this composer, after all: before, Sibelius had been a poor student with no prospects – now…? Who knew? At least, he could combine his honeymoon with a travel grant from the university in Helsinki to study the playing of folk instruments in distant Karelia. And yes, in 1893, he would compose what we know as “The Karelia Suite.”

Kajanus had impressed on Sibelius that for all its wonderful moments, Kullervo would not be often performed and he needed something smaller in scale with which to make his name. And so in the autumn of 1892, after settling into a house and a teaching position in Helsinki, he began work on what would become his first published orchestral work, En Saga which is Swedish for “A Fairy Tale,” though we think of “saga” as more serious than a children’s story (think the Nibelung Saga which inspired Wagner’s “Ring”).

In the midst of this, his grandmother died and, after the funeral, his childhood home was sold. He was clearly in a nostalgic frame of mind.

It is the “state of mind” behind the fairy tale of En Saga . The music does not represent any specific tale – at least, Sibelius never admitted to one – all he said was “it was an expression of a state of mind.” That didn’t sit well with people who wanted to know what that magical opening was describing (are they ice crystals on the wind?) or what was happening when those brass chords came in a couple minutes later and the tension began to build (is this the hero?). How could you have an abstract work called “Fairy Tale” and not say what it’s “about”?

Later, Sibelius wrote,

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"En Saga is psychologically one of my most profound works. I could almost say that the whole of my youth is contained within it. It is an expression of a state of mind. When I was writing it, I went through many things that were upsetting to me. In no other work have I revealed myself as completely as in En Saga. For this reason alone all interpretations of En Saga are, of course, completely foreign to my way of thinking."
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But listeners found it confusing – “capricious” according to one critic – and others suggested he make substantial cuts to shorten the piece.

To a close friend, he mentioned paintings by Arnold Böcklin’s paintings in the same sentence with En Saga (it was one of Böcklin’s better known paintings that would inspire Rachmaninoff’s “Isle of the Dead”). To another, later, he mentioned the music was closer to the Icelandic eddas than the Finnish Kalevala.

Still, it is dramatic, pictorial music – powerful and full of those fingerprints we associate with the mature Sibelius (the constant scurrying strings in the backgrounds as great chords pass through the winds or brass; the primitive-sounding melodies built of repetitive folk-like fragments).

The month after he conducted En Saga’s premiere, he conducted three performances of Kullervo again, but the reaction was so negative, even his friends suggested he give up composition and just become an organist in a small town somewhere…

Fortunately, the next month – following the birth of their first child – Sibelius premiered a choral piece that “exploded like a bomb,” a popular success. And he considered turning part of the Kalevala into a Wagnerian-style opera – for its overture, he composed what later became “The Swan of Tuonela.” He went to Bayreuth to “immerse himself in the Wagnerian style” and though the opera never came into being beyond tons of sketches, the “Swan” later became one of the “Lemminkainen Legends” (though one of the Finnish critics, at its premiere, thought that opening English horn solo was “long and boring”).

After he composed his 1st Symphony and started to receive international success, he decided to revise En Saga in 1902, shortening it, making it a somewhat “milder” piece which many of his friends were unhappy about – part of its charm was its very wildness. Now, however, he decided he had learned what is more accessible and decided to second-guess his earlier “state of mind.” In this form, the tone poem has become much more popular.

More familiar image of Sibelius
In addition to the Violin Concerto and the seven symphonies – of which the 1st, 2nd, 5th and 7th have been played in Harrisburg – there are also several wonderful tone poems, En Saga being the first. The justifiably popular “Finlandia” generally fits into this category, but it would be wonderful to hear works like Pohjola’s Daughter and Tapiola (also based on Finnish myths) more often or one of my favorites, the Finnish creation story told in Luonnotar for soprano and orchestra, rarely heard, though he will probably be best remembered for the sentimental waltz (nothing to do with his days in Vienna, however), Valse triste (originally composed in 1903 for a play about Death) which he sold to his publisher for a small fee and never saw any royalties from its inevitable popularity.

- Dick Strawser

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