From the Darkness to the Light
Works by Sibelius and Shostakovich
Jean Sibelius did not believe in basing his symphonies on a programme. In the case of symphonic poems, however, poetic content, if not a programme, was essential to him: “I believe that music alone, that is, absolute music, cannot satisfy us. It certainly arouses feelings but is always left unsatisfied in our souls; we always ask ‘Why?’ ... Music attains its real power only when guided by a poetic idea. In other words, when words and music combine.” Sibelius drew the poetic ideas for most of his tone poems from the Kalevala, the collection of old poems and songs from Karelia in northern Finland. With its tragic protagonists and sometimes cruel stories it became the national epic for the Finns and made a profound impression on their most important composer.
“Inner experiences of an average man”
Several of Sibelius’s programmatic orchestral works have no connection to the Kalevala, however – for example, his opus 55 Night Ride and Sunrise. There are different accounts of the circumstances surrounding its origin. After a conversation with the composer, conductor Jussi Jalas made the following notes: “Night ride and sunrise. On horseback from Suojärvi to Värtsilä – in the moonlight through the solitude of night.” Sibeliusʼs long-time secretary, Santeri Levas, on the other hand, thought the composition might have been inspired by a nocturnal ride in a horse-drawn carriage from Kereva in southern Finland to the capital city of Helsinki. Sibelius told the English writer on music Rosa Newmarch, however, that the music described the “inner experiences of an average man riding solitary through the forest gloom, sometimes glad to be alone with nature, occasionally awe-stricken by the stillness or the strange sounds which break it; not filled with undue foreboding, but thankful and rejoicing in the daybreak.”
The composition consists of two distinctly separate sections. After a boisterous opening, the violas and cellos depict the night ride with a simple figure in a galloping trochaic rhythm. The woodwinds introduce a static second theme in a plaintive tone. This theme overlaps the galop, gives way to it, then returns – now in the strings – and leads to the second section of the work, the sunrise. The composer has a new, gentle theme in store for it, which he varies and embellishes in different ways.
The Dream of the Virtuoso
Sibelius’s main instrument was the violin. In 1915 he wrote in his diary: “Dreamt I was twelve years old and a virtuoso.” He never achieved it, however. As a music student he played Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto and auditioned for the Vienna Philharmonic, without success. He had to a large extent taught himself to play the violin until he had regular lessons. From 1885 on he studied violin and music theory at the conservatory in Helsinki. He continued his study of composition later in Berlin and Vienna. In 1891 he returned to Helsinki, where, in addition to teaching at the conservatory and the orchestra school of the Philharmonic, he played second violin in a string quartet.
The composer worked on his violin concerto for several years. He already notated the opening bars of the work in 1890, during a trip to Italy. The decisive inspiration did not come until twelve years later, however, when he met the German violinist Willy Burmester in Berlin. Burmester held the draft of the concerto in his hands in 1903 – and was enthusiastic. But then there was a dispute with serious consequences: Sibelius pressed for an early premiere because of financial problems, but Burmester wanted more time for preparation. As a result, the concerto was premiered in Helsinki in February 1904 with the Czech violinist Victor Nováček as soloist, conducted by the composer. Nováček was not equal to the technical challenges of the work, however, and the concerto met with incomprehension and disapproval. Disappointed and disgruntled, Sibelius withdrew the work. After thorough revision, it returned to the concert stage in its final version in Berlin on 19 October 1905. The soloist was Carl Halir, and Richard Strauss conducted the Berlin Court Orchestra.
Sibeliusʼs Violin Concerto follows the classical tradition and retains the usual three-movement form. The soloist and orchestra do not really enter into a dialogue, however, but instead confront each other with contrasting expressive characters. The soloist takes charge from the beginning in the expansive first movement. The violin presents the rhapsodic first theme “dolce ed espressivo” over the sound tapestry of the divided violins. Several new variants grow out of this theme. The second theme initially appears in the orchestra, anticipated by the bassoons and clarinets, until it is taken up by the solo part. The orchestra introduces a third thematic idea during an intermezzo-like section. Sibelius replaces the development section with a solo cadenza, followed by a recapitulation.
In the three-part second movement a woodwind introduction with a melody in thirds prepares for the broad, singing theme of the solo violin. The finale is a restless scherzo in rondo form. Over the rhythmic ostinato of the orchestra the violin energetically launches into its theme. The orchestra now has only a single motif of its own (low strings and muted horns). The virtuosity of the violin part is displayed most clearly here. Its dancelike energy prompted the English musicologist Donald Tovey to caustically remark that the movement is a “polonaise for polar bears”.
Disappointed Audience Expectations
Dmitri Shostakovich composed his Sixth Symphony from spring to autumn of 1939. The new work caused quite a bit of confusion, however, at its premiere on 5 November 1939 in the Great Hall of the Leningrad Philharmonic. The unconventional formal structure of the three-movement work was particularly unsettling: the expansive Largo is followed by a scherzo-like Allegro and, as the finale, a Presto. The tempo thus accelerates from movement to movement.
The opening Largo has characteristics of sonata form and the ternary ABA form. It is monothematic and consists of a series of variations. The development in the middle section is somewhat declamatory, recitative-like but also improvisatory. Nearly continuous trills and solo episodes in the trombone, English horn, clarinets and flutes form a contrast to the brooding, melancholy tone of the opening. The second movement is a scherzo in 3/8 metre which reveals grotesque humour. It is virtuosic, rich in musical ideas, timbres and graceful rhythms, with wide positions and extreme timbral registers. The finale not only builds on this movement but continues it using similar means. It is in three parts and contains elements of sonata form and the rondo. The first theme recalls the galop that Shostakovich used in many earlier compositions (for the most part intended as parody). The double basses begin the middle section with heavy, stamping figurations, until a long crescendo culminates in the frenzied coda.
The Shostakovich expert Ivan Martynov saw the actual constructive principal of the symphony in the fact that the last two movements are a negation of the first. “The complete resignation and introspection of the Largo serves to emphasize the vitality of the two scherzos. ... The idea of the Sixth Symphony may be allegorically explained as a juxtaposition of the past and the present.”