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Sibelius (1865-1957) - Violin Concerto

In candle-lit gloom a small child huddles, cuddling a hot bed-time drink, toasting his face before a blazing log fire. All around he hears the winter wind’s icy whining, as it seeks crevices through which it can slip, purely to chill his back. Although through the frosted window he could watch the incessant shivering of snow swirling under the eaves, his gaze prefers the flickering flames, which offer fleeting glimpses of his mother’s eye-widening tales. 

I remember nights like that, but it’s a childhood memory increasingly rare in these electrified, centrally-heated, draught-proofed, double-glazed days. About 130 years ago it would have been all too common, especially for a Finnish infant like Janne Sibelius. However, he found a decidedly uncommon use for that memory (or something like it). Of course, the Finnish seasons are far more sharply contrasted than the UK’s, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Sibelius, like Stravinsky, recalled “the Finnish spring, which began in an instant, and was like the whole Earth cracking.” 

Perhaps this may seem like sheer conjecture, until you consider the profound extent of Nature’s influence, to which Sibelius made countless references: “Nature is coming to life: that life which I so love, . . . whose essence shall pervade everything I compose” (Sibelius and Mahler were closer than their famous exchange tends to imply!). 

Nature pervaded his music even before he emerged from the heady 1890s, when the vivid nationalism of his Kalevala-inspired compositions - direct responses to the increasingly immediate threat from the Imperialist Russia - had made him a national hero. In the early 1900s, as his style began to crystallise, the early influences of Tchaikovsky and Grieg receded, ousted by the organism of Nature. It suffused his instrumentation - the “fire and ice” sound, glowing darkly from deep within. It suffused his musical processes - the “plant growth” development of materials, the “running water” ostinati, the “craggy outcroppings”. It suffused the contours of his themes - the sinuous sensuality and stark austerity. 

The classicism of his later works was not recession, but reinforcement through deeper understanding of the organisation of Nature - which makes his reluctance to go beyond the Seventh Symphony seem almost obvious. The Second Symphony and the subsequent Violin Concerto can be viewed as the melting-pots in which he forged his “first maturity”, a transition from “overt nationalist” to “organic naturalist”, felt as much through formal flux as profound luminsescence. 

More prosaically, the Violin Concerto - now amongst the most popular and oft-recorded - had a shaky start. The première (1903) was disastrous, largely because Sibelius, apparently in desperate need of some ready cash, brought it forward a month. The substitute soloist just wasn’t up to it. Sibelius hastily withdrew the score. The now-familiar revision, premiered in Berlin by Karl Halir and Richard Strauss, at first fared little better, remaining unknown until the 1930s when Heifetz dusted it off and showed the world what it had been missing. The rest, as they say, is history. 

1. Allegro moderato: Sibelius craftily shifts the parameters of sonata form. Transferring the bulk of his developmental processes into the thematic expositions, he renders the development section a vestigial but forceful bridge, a bit like the one in Bruch’s G Minor Concerto. However, he bolsters the bridge by repositioning the (main) cadenza to double as a soloistic development complementing the orchestral. The first subject reprise is truncated, bypassing a now-redundant subsidiary cadenza. Finally the bridge music, orchestra joined by soloist, becomes an even more forceful coda. 

Remarkable, yet the atmosphere Sibelius engenders is more so. “Listen, and I will tell you more”: the soloist seems to be a Finnish Scheherazade, spinning a first subject of elaborate, fertile, exotic tracery out of the oscillating vacuum of orchestral strings. As the violin becomes more excitable, the dark-hued orchestra creeps in underneath. Eventually, the orchestra alone intones the brooding, songlike second subject, on which the soloist subsequently weaves two opposed elaborations - one impassioned and earthy, the other remote, as ethereal as the aurora. Against the penetrating glister of the violin, the orchestra - even in full flood - remains shrouded, like black waters running deep beneath bright ice. 

2. Adagio di molto: Contrasting the first movement’s complexity, this is a simple binary form with brief coda, the melody given first to the soloist, and second to the orchestra. If the first movement’s final chord slammed a door to deny the dawn, the second’s opening woodwind phrases respond in cold supplication. The halting phrases soon become the bones of the violin’s burning yearnings, whose eventual exhaustion strikes fire in the “supplication”, a flame of agitation which spreads to the violin. 

3. Allegro ma non tanto: The form is tantalising: is it a rondo? Is it an extended binary form like the First Symphony’s finale? Well, what we have is this: theme A, theme B, a bridging crescendo. Then the whole pattern is reworked, disgorging into a truly amazing coda. From the outset mutually reflecting bass strings and tympani establish a “riding” pulse that, in some form, persists right through. Apparently, answering that second movement prayer, the World again begins to turn. Animal vitality emerges through the first subject, which remains the sole province of the agile violin until its climactic orchestral reprise. Arboreal strength emerges through the second, which on its reprise is threaded by the violin’s slender glacial overtones. These fire off the cataclysmic coda, surging and heaving from deep within the orchestra to ecstatic incantations from the soloist. The long winter night is over - the whole Earth cracks!

© Paul Serotsky
29, Carr Street, Kamo, Whangarei 0101, Northland, New Zealand


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