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ClassicsOnline Home » SIBELIUS: Piano Music, Vol. 2
Jean Sibelius (1865-1957)
Piano Music Volume 2
Six Finnish Folk-Songs; Bagatelles, Op. 34; Pensées Iyriques, Op. 40; Kyllikki, Op. 41; Kavaljeren Spagnuolo; Till trånaden; Mandolinato; Morceau romantique; Dance Intermezzo, Op. 45/2
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, as with others of their class and background at the time, was Swedish. It was at school that Sibelius was to learn Finnish and acquire his first real interest in the early legends of his own country. In this society, linguistically, socially and historically divided, Sibelius was deeply influenced by his association with the family of the Finnish nationalist General Järnefelt, whose daughter Aino became his wife. Nevertheless, Swedish remained his mother tongue, in which he expressed himself with greater fluency than in Finnish.
The musical abilities of Sibelius were soon realised, although he had entered university in Helsinki as a law student. His first ambition had been to be a violinist, but his abilities here were far outweighed by his gifts as a composer, developed first by study in Helsinki, then in Berlin and finally with Goldmark and with 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, the Kalevala. There followed compositions of particular national appeal that further enhanced his reputation in Helsinki, including the incidental music to the patriotic 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 the practice of his days as a student. As consolation for his disappointment when his appointment as professor in Helsinki was rejected, Sibelius was awarded in 1897 a government stipend for ten years, later changed into a pension for life. The sum involved was never enough to meet his inherited gift for improvidence and his seeming dependence on alcohol.
Sibelius continued his active career as a composer until 1926, his fame increasing at home and abroad. The successful First Symphony of 1898 was followed by the still more successful Finlandia. The acclaimed Second Symphony, in 1902, was followed by the Violin Concerto, a Third Symphony and, after an illness that put an end for the moment to any indulgence in alcohol and tobacco, a Fourth, with travel to the major musical centres of Europe and international honour. The Fifth Symphony was written during the war, after which Sibelius wrote only four more works of any substance, the Sixth and Seventh Symphonies, incidental music for 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 he wrote nothing, until his death came in 1957 at the age of 91.
In common with other composers of the period, Sibelius found a commercial market for his piano music, particularly for sets of short pieces suitable for domestic performance. Although his writing for the piano is seldom idiomatic, he composed a number of works for the instrument, the first from the 1880s unpublished, as was the last set of pieces, written in 1929. His Six Finnish Folk-Songs were written in 1903, the year in which he was largely occupied with the Violin Concerto. At the same time he won considerable success but little financial reward for his Valse triste, part of the incidental music for a play by his brother-in-law Arvid Järnefelt, who, with other friends, tried to distract Sibelius from his tendencies to alcoholic excess. The arrangements are couched in relatively pianistic terms, with appropriate figuration.
The Ten Bagatelles, Opus 34, were written between 1914 and 1916. The period had brought even greater financial difficulties, since the war now deprived Sibelius of royalties from his German publishers, Breitkopf and Härtel, a fact that inevitably inspired a number of marketable piano pieces. The set opens with a charming D flat major Waltz, followed by the cheerful Air de danse. The Mazurka is in characteristic rhythm, followed by the wistful Couplet and the waltz Boutade (Caprice), originally Badinage. The melancholy of the E minor Rêverie leads to a graceful Danse pastorale and the rippling arpeggios of Joueur de harpe (Harp-Player), which appeared in a Christmas journal in 1916. The series ends with the lively Reconnaissance and final A minor Souvenir.
The Pensées lyriques, Opus 40, belong to a similar period, although deceptively numbered to give an impression of relative immaturity, and again offer music suitable for the amateur player. The first piece, a charming little waltz, was written in 1912 and first appeared in the Christmas magazine Lucifer. This was followed in 1913 by four further pieces intended for publication in Finland, Chant sans paroles (Song without Words), a lively Humoresque with a contrasting middle section, the graceful C major Minuetto, which makes a brief excursion into A flat major by way of contrast and poignant Berceuse. Since these pieces were immediately sold on to Breitkopf, Sibelius gained nothing from his apparent attempt to keep them from international attention Pensée mélodique has subtle shifts of tonality and Rondoletto provided material for later choreographic treatment. Scherzando, Petite sérénade, with its apt figuration, and an emphatic Polonaise end the collection.
Written in 1904, the three-movement Kyllikki, Opus 41, takes its title from the Island flower. Kyllikki is abducted and taken as wife by the wanton Lemminkäinen, who later deserts her to go to war, after she has seemingly broken her bond not to go visiting other girls. Lemminkäinen instead seeks a new wife, the daughter of Pohjola, from the Northland, in spite of his mother's words. The first of the three lyric pieces opens ominously with a motif that serves to link later sections of the movement. The Andantino that follows has the initial mood of a melancholy folk-song, before turning to higher drama, after which the material of the opening section returns. The third movement is lighter in mood, darkened by a contrasting central section.
A number of short piano pieces remain without opus number. Kavaljeren (The Cavalier) was written in 1900, a straightforward character-piece. Spagnuolo of 1913 is an unusual Scandinavian excursion to the south and Till trånaden (‘To longing’) of the same year returns home once more. Mandolinato, written in 1917, looks to the mandoline of Naples, with suitable figuration, and the Morceau romantique of 1925 is an arrangement of Morceau romantique sur un motif de M. Jacob de Julin. The original piece, on a theme suggested by the Finnish industrialist Jacob von Julin, was first heard in Helsinki at a concert in aid of a children's hospital sponsored by General Mannerheim, who had persuaded Sibelius to return to the podium for the occasion. The Dance Intermezzo, Opus 45, No. 2, was written in 1904, better known in the orchestrated version of 1907. It was apparently a piano arrangement of an intended tone-poem on Heine's poem, Ein Fichtenbaum steht einsam / Im Norden, in which the cold northern cedar, in the ice and snow, dreams of the southern palm.
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SIBELIUS: Piano Music, Vol. 2