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ClassicsOnline Home » SIBELIUS: Symphony No. 2 / 'The Tempest', Suite No. 1
By Andrew Ford
ABC Radio 24 Hours
Jean Sibelius (1865-1957)
Symphony No. 6, Op. 104; Symphony No. 7 in C major, Op. 105
The Tempest: Suite No. 2, Op. 109, No. 3
The Finnish composer Jean Sibelius was born in 1865, the son of a doctor, in a small town in the south of Finland, the language and culture of his family being Swedish. It was at school that he was to learn Finnish and acquire his first interest in the early legends of a country that had become an autonomous grand-duchy under the Tsar of Russia, after the defeat of Charles XII of Sweden. Throughout the later nineteenth century there were divisions between the Swedish-speaking upper classes and the Finnish-speaking people, the cause of the latter embraced by influential nationalists and accentuated by the repressive measures introduced by Tsar Nicholas II, before the revolution of 1905. In this society Sibelius was deeply influenced by his association with the family of General Järnefelt, whose daughter Aino became his wife. Nevertheless linguistically Swedish remained his mother tongue, in which he expressed himself more fluently than he could in Finnish.
The musical abilities of Sibelius were soon realised, although not developed early enough to suggest music as a profession until he had entered university in Helsinki as a law student. His first ambition had been to be a violinist. It later became apparent that any ability he had in this direction was outweighed by his gifts as a composer, developed first by study in Berlin and with Goldmark and, more effectively, Robert Fuchs in Vienna.
In Finland once more, Sibelius won almost immediate success in 1892 with a symphonic poem, Kullervo, based on an episode from the Finnish epic Kalevala. There followed compositions of particular national appeal that further enhanced his reputation in Helsinki, including the incidental music to the patriotic student pageant Karelia, En Saga and the Lemminkäinen Suite. During this period Sibelius supported himself and his wife by teaching, as well as by composition and the performance of his works, but it proved difficult for him to earn enough, given, as he was, to bouts of extravagance, continuing from his days as a student. In 1896 he was voted the position of professor at the University of Helsinki, but the committee's decision was overturned in favour of Robert Kajanus, the experienced founder and conductor of the first professional orchestra in Helsinki. As consolation for his disappointment Sibelius was awarded a government stipend for ten years, and this was later changed into a pension for life. The sum involved was never sufficient to meet his gift for improvidence, inherited, perhaps, from his father, who at his death in 1868 had left his family in some difficulty.
Sibelius continued his active career as a composer until 1926, his fame increasing at home and abroad. The success of Symphony No. 1 of 1898 was followed by the still more successful Finlandia. Symphony No. 2 in 1902 won unprecedented success in Helsinki. This was followed by the Violin Concerto, Symphony No. 3, and after an illness that put an end for the moment to his indulgence in alcohol and tobacco, Symphony No. 4, with travel to the major musical centres of Europe and international honour. Symphony No. 5 was written during the war, after which Sibelius wrote only four works of any substance, Symphony No. 6 in 1923 and, in the following year, Symphony No. 7, incidental music to Shakespeare's The Tempest and, in 1926, the symphonic poem Tapiola. An eighth symphony was completed in 1929, but destroyed. The rest was silence. For the last 25 years of his life Sibelius wrote nothing, remaining isolated from and largely antipathetic to contemporary trends in music. His reputation in Britain and America remained high, although there were inevitable reactions to the excessive enthusiasm of his supporters. On the continent of Europe he failed to recapture the earlier position he had enjoyed before the war of 1914 in Germany, France and Vienna. He died in 1957 at the age of 91.
The year 1900 brought Sibelius an opportunity for wider contact with the world outside Finland, with a tour by the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra, ending with concerts at the Paris Exhibition. In the same year he found a patron in the dilettante Axel Carpelan, a man who, while lacking extensive resources himself, was able to persuade money from others and was liberal in his advice. Carpelan recommended a visit to Italy and provided enough money to make this a possibility for Sibelius, his patient wife and his children. Time was spent in Berlin on the way south, but it was in Italy that the first sketches were made of Symphony No. 2, including the principal theme of the second movement, which occurred to him in connection with the story of Don Juan and the idea suggested by the garden of the villa in Rapallo. In Florence he sketched the second idea for the Andante of the new symphony, writing above it the word Christus, and his thoughts now turned to a work based on Dante's Divina commedia.
In Finland once more Sibelius was able to work seriously on his new symphony, which he completed early in 1902 and conducted at a series of concerts in Helsinki in March. Audiences in Finland, where feelings of nationalism now ran high, were eager to find a patriotic statement of protest in the work, a programme that later writers have sometimes chosen to impose on the music. The first movement seems to move from the northern mists of Finland to a sunnier world, and critics have noted the pastoral atmosphere apparent here and in the trio of the third movement, with their pattern of repeated notes. The Andante, in origin at least, suggests Don Juan's mysterious guest, Death, and his defeat by Christ, and the scherzo adds a movement of busy turbulence, with a repetition of the trio, with its pastoral oboe melody. This leads directly into the grandiose principal theme of the heroic finale, darkened by the Finnish second theme and its sinister accompanying figure.
Sibelius wrote his incidental music to Shakespeare's play The Tempest in 1925 for a production in 1926 by the Royal Danish Theatre in Copenhagen. In many ways the play presented a new challenge, after so many years devoted to the composition of symphonies, and reflected, in a sense, his own feelings. At the end of the play the exiled Duke of Milan, Prospero, abjures his magic. It was not long before Sibelius too would lay his pen aside. The play, with its incidental music, was successfully staged in Copenhagen and subsequently in Helsinki. From it Sibelius derived two suites, the first for full orchestra and the second for a smaller ensemble. The first of these opens with The Oak-Tree from the second act, a scene in which Ariel, envisaged by the Danish director as a young oak-tree, breaks off a twig and plays it as a flute, in an evocative and gently lilting melody. In the Humoresque Caliban leads the drunken Stefano and his companion Trinculo astray, with Caliban, who has incited them to the murder of Prospero and usurping of the island kingdom. Caliban's Song is a cruder affair, as Caliban chants in anticipated triumph over the master who has enslaved him. The Harvesters introduces a pastoral element, a vision conjured up by Prospero to delight his daughter Miranda and her young lover, Ferdinand. The Canon is for Stefano, Trinculo and Caliban in their drunkenness. The Scène accompanies a delicate dance, contrasted with a rougher C minor section. It is followed in the Suite by the solemn Intrada, with its echo of a symphony. It serves to introduce, in the play, Prospero's determination to break his staff and drown his book and turn to another life, a dramatic moment in the last act. Here it is followed immediately Berceuse, that accompanies the sleep into which Miranda falls, through her father's magic power. The interlude Ariel's Song introduces the spirit, now akin to the sea-nymphs in the waves, an impressionistic sea-picture. The Suite ends with an evocation of the growing power of the storm itself, the howling of the wind and the surge of the waves, the tempest, conjured up by Prospero's magic, that leads to all that follows.
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