Inside the Music: Stormy Sibelius

Editor of BBC Music Magazine Oliver Condy sheds some light on the circumstances surrounding the great works that feature in the Bristol International Classical Season 2015-16 at Colston Hall. These bite-sized programme notes and accompanying videos cut to the heart of the music, allowing you to get that little bit more from your classical experience.

Grieg Piano Concerto

If the Piano Concerto in A minor is Edvard Grieg’s most famous work, it certainly isn’t typical of the Norwegian composer’s output. In stark contrast to many Romantic composers of the day who expressed themselves in large-scale symphonies and tone poems, Grieg took a delight in the miniature form, his only symphony composed when he was a student (and a work he later suppressed). In fact, Grieg’s most successful works are beautifully crafted musical moments that capture the essence of a mood in their few fleeting minutes – seconds even – such as the Lyric Pieces for solo piano, the songs (whose emotional depths bear comparison with Schubert’s) or the orchestral setting of Henrik Ibsen’s play, Peer Gynt. And all of these works share in Grieg’s deep national pride with their distinctive Norwegian folk inflections.

And those inflections can be found right at the start of the Piano Concerto, its famous, cascading opening – preceded by rumbling timpani – built on intervals straight out of traditional Norwegian music. Grieg was a fine pianist and wrote the concerto as a showcase for his own talents. Written in 1868 when Grieg was on holiday with his family in Denmark, the composer took it to Italy with him the following year and showed the manuscript to Liszt who, to Grieg’s surprise, played the entire concerto through to the end, the orchestral part included, before saying to the Norwegian, ‘Keep right on – you have the ability to succeed!’ If only Grieg’s publisher had thought the same – the work was printed a good four years after its completion despite a hugely successful premiere in Copenhagen in the presence of no less a pianist than Anton Rubinstein, who had lent his piano specially for the occasion…

Each movement of Grieg’s Piano Concerto is generously packed with memorable tunes and distinctive harmonies, earning its composer the nickname of the ‘Chopin of the north’. A sense of national identity runs through it, from the beautiful second movement and its Norwegian ‘lullaby’ main theme to the celebratory final movement whose rhythms bear a resemblance to Norway’s ‘halling’ dance, traditionally performed by young men at parties and weddings. At the centre of this movement is yet another glorious melody that triumphantly reappears at the end in a blaze of full orchestral glory.

Sibelius Tapiola

If Grieg felt a strong affinity with his beloved Norway, Jean Sibelius had the natural surroundings of his native Finland coursing through his veins. And no more so than in his final major work (written in 1926, a good 30 years before his death), the hypnotic, wild orchestral tone poem Tapiola. Portraying the Finnish god of the forest, Tapio, Sibelius draws on his freest, rawest writing, plunging the listener into an aural, atonal wilderness, as if lost ourselves in Finland’s thick, claustrophobic forests. Never has a composer so acutely described this agonising feeling. The final few bars, in which Sibelius suddenly grants us respite from the howling wind and driving snow with a glorious B major chord, is a balm, but it hardly seem to assuage the torment of the previous 15 minutes.

At the top of the score to Tapiola, Sibelius wrote the following poem which gives a valuable insight into the themes of his extraordinary masterpiece:

Widespread 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.

Sibelius Symphony No. 7

The Seventh Symphony, written two years earlier, was originally cast in four movements before Sibelius decided on its one-movement structure, naming it Fantasia sinfonica or ‘Symphonic Fantasy’ (he later changed his mind and renamed it Symphony No. 7). Much of the work was written at night, fuelled by a bottle of whisky, Sibelius by now having lapsed back into his alcoholism. Sibelius’s wife Aino, who had for so long put up with her husband’s drinking, found herself at her wits’ end, and boycotted the symphony’s premiere. What’s extraordinary, however, is that despite this, the work is among Sibelius’s most lucid. Within its single movement, four separate symphonic episodes can be clearly detected, stitched together by three intonations of a glorious, heroic, almost primordial trombone melody, rising as if from the depths of time. The work ends with an almighty yet perfunctory C major chord that the conductor and Sibelian Sir Colin Davis once described as ‘the closing of the coffin lid.’ After all, this was to be the last symphony from the Finn’s pen before his self-imposed 30-year silence up until his death. Or was it? There’s tantalising evidence of an Eighth Symphony – ‘You have no idea how brilliant it is’ he told the conductor Georg Schnéevoigt who was slated to premiere the work. But, probably around 1945, Sibelius took the radical decision to burn many of his manuscripts including sketches and completed works. Symphony No. 8 was among them.

Sibelius The Tempest

Sibelius’s incidental music for Shakespeare’s The Tempest was written in between the Seventh Symphony and Tapiola. The commission came from the Royal Theatre in Copenhagen who wanted 34 musical snapshots (some as short as a few seconds) to accompany a lavish production of the play. Sibelius responded with some of his most colourful and dramatic music, with brilliant, raging storm music, rough-hewn textures for the subhuman Caliban and beautifully delicate music for Prospero’s daughter Miranda. The work  Although the production itself received mixed reviews, the music was universally praised (‘Shakespeare and Sibelius, these two geniuses, have found each other’, was one critic’s response) and Sibelius subsequently arranged his music into two suites.

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