Endless Diversity in Unity
Astonishing Amalgams by Sibelius, Tchaikovsky and Schumann
The tone poem Tapiola by Jean Sibelius
Significant musical works are seldom what they purport to be. It isn’t easy, therefore, to discern or divine a composer’s intentions. Jean Sibelius may be viewed as an especially interesting case, and not in this respect alone. His last piece for large orchestra, the tone poem Tapiola – premiered in New York in 1926 under Walter Damrosch – is one of the most ambiguous and enigmatic of its period. The original working title was Skogen (The Forest), but this led to fears that a literal translation would awaken undesirable associations with forestry. Consequently, Sibelius changed the title to connect it with Tapio, the forest god from the Finnish national epic, the Kalevala. He sent a prose sketch to New York explaining the meaning of the title:
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.
This is not the real Finland, but rather the Finland – more precisely, the Northland or Lapland – of mythology, a region situated, roughly speaking, above the Arctic Circle. Sibelius had no personal experience of it. He travelled through it only once, by train in 1915 en route to Sweden. This strange world, geographically and temporally remote, is the subject of the composition in Dorian B minor: the unrelenting elemental force of Nature, the inaccessible, inscrutable, even disturbing Other. The tonal language is in complete accordance with the “subject”. As the English musicologist Benedict Taylor formulated it in a ground-breaking study: “Just as Tapio, the genius loci of the Finnish forest, does not readily reveal his face to modern audiences but rather manifests himself in various forms, so Sibelius’s dark work does not divulge the mysteries of its organization from any single perspective but must be understood from multiple aspects.”
The Violin Concerto by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto follows no narrative, which is rather surprising for a composer who gave names to three of his seven symphonies and disclosed vague programmes for two others. The Concerto, though not based on a poetic subject, nonetheless arose from a strongly autobiographical impulse. It is marked by Tchaikovsky’s friendship with his composition pupil Iosif Kotek, a young violinist who assisted in the concerto’s creation. And his collaboration went beyond playing through the work as Tchaikovsky wrote it. In January 1877 the composer had already confessed to his brother Modest: “When I tire in the struggle against the urge to fall at his feet and kiss these little feet, passion rages with me with unimaginable force, my voice trembles like that of a youth, and I talk some kind of nonsense.” As the violinist was not homosexual, the relationship cooled, and in July 1877 Kotek was one of the two witnesses at Tchaikovsky’s foolhardy wedding with Antonina Milyukova. After the marriage led the bridegroom to a half-hearted suicide attempt and, predictably, to the couple’s separation, the two friends met up again and spent several weeks in the village of Clarens on Lake Geneva.
It was Kotek who had encouraged Tchaikovsky to compose a violin concerto. The work is interesting formally, joining two weighty outer movements by a brief, wistful Canzonetta. It owes much of its effectiveness and popularity to the shape-shifting capacity of its main theme, a lightly disguised polonaise, presented, after a short orchestral introduction, in the violin’s first entrance. The soloist also brings two further themes, but they are shoved aside at the beginning of the development section by the full orchestral apparatus: the main theme pompously and repeatedly takes charge of the proceedings – Tchaikovsky the melodic genius was famously lavish in capitalizing on his inspirations. The Canzonetta is followed without a break by the impetuous finale, a confrontation between two opposing spheres: unbridled sanguine passages in the “gypsy-romantic” style and a more popular melody, at once rustic and melancholic. The Viennese critic Eduard Hanslick heard in it “the brutal and wretched jollity of a Russian church festival”, but he probably had drunk a bit too much in Grinzing.
The Third Symphony of Robert Schumann
If the name of Robert Schumann now follows this reference to winebibbing, the connection is only natural, not malicious. After all, he wrote a Festival Overture on the Rhine-wine Lied “Bekränzt mit Laub”. But it must also be noted that the “Rhenish” Symphony was the product of an intermittent teetotaller. Schumann wrote it within five weeks at the end of 1850, having come to Düsseldorf only two months earlier to take up his position as municipal music director. He relished the impressions of his new surroundings, and that meant the experiences that the Rhine had to offer him.
Was it the riverbanks of Düsseldorf and Cologne that inspired him, or rather the romantic wine region further south on the Middle Rhine around Rüdesheim? Was it the actual river or the romantic myths connected with it? Clearly, it was a synthesis of all of these. As a Heidelberg university student in 1829, Schumann undertook a Main-Rhine journey by steamship from Frankfurt to Koblenz and marvelled at the Lorelei rock and medieval castles. And he had often set to music the lyrics of Heinrich Heine, that great poet of the Rhine. Old and new associations and impressions flowed like two rivers into the Third Symphony.
The ebullient, swaggeringly celebratory main theme of the opening movement formulates the spontaneous joy that would have overcome the composer as he stood once again, after more than two decades, on the banks of the Rhine. As extrovert as this theme may sound, it is also a cunning invention: set across the bar lines – obliquely, as it were, to the ¾ metre – it captures the listener at once. Harmonically tending more to E major than heroic E flat major, the theme is also unusual in containing an augmented 4th, or tritone – the so-called diabolus in musica, stillconsidered dissonant in Schumann’s time. Whereas the seemingly sedate Scherzo, evoking Rhenish country life, is not entirely cloudless, the third movement is given over to unburdened, almost Biedermeier reveries. It is followed by a solemn ceremony, a piece of sacred grandeur often linked with Cologne Cathedral. The Schumann admirer Tchaikovsky commented on this: “The brief, lovely theme of this part of the symphony, which is also meant to serve as a musical simulation of Gothic linearity, permeates the whole piece, now in the form of the basic motif, now as the tiniest embellishment, lending the work that endless diversity in unity that generates the peculiar feature of Gothic architecture.” The finale ties things up amiably, possibly conjuring up images of the Rhenish Carnival, maybe even the hopes for Germany’s democratization awakened after the Revolution of 1848-49. The Rhinelander and revolutionary Ludwig van Beethoven couldn’t have done it better.