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ClassicsOnline Home » SIBELIUS: Piano Music, Vol. 4
In order to generate some income whilst at work on his larger scores, Sibelius would often take time out to compose short pieces intended for a domestic audience. The collections of short pieces in this recording all originated in this way, and, although he was not instinctively a composer for the piano, the craft of the greatest of Finnish composers is evident in these very attractive miniatures.
By Don Satz
Jean Sibelius (1865-1957)
Piano Music Volume 4
Lyric Pieces, Op. 74 • Five Pieces, Op. 75 • Thirteen
Pieces, Op. 76
Five Pieces, Op. 85 • Six Pieces, Op. 94
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 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. The outbreak
of war in 1914 found Finland, a Russian Grand Duchy, on the side of the Allies
against the Central Powers. For Sibelius this brought two particular
difficulties. Although means were found for him to receive royalties from his
German publishers, Breitkopf and Härtel, his concert tours abroad came to an
end, and he was, in any case, seriously in debt. The shortage of money
compelled him to turn his attention to a series of short piano pieces for the
amateur market, interrupting his work on his Fifth Symphony for a regular
series of little piano pieces for his new publishers, Westerlund, and later for
the Danish firm of Hansen.
The Four Lyric Pieces, Op. 74, written in 1914, start with
the increasingly elaborate Ekloge, followed by an evocation of the West Wind in
the arpeggios of Sanfter Westwind (Gentle West Wind). The cheerful pleasures of
the dance are recalled in the third piece and the set ends with the nostalgic
Im alten Heim (In the Old Home).
The titles of the Five Pieces, Op. 75, of 1914 are names of trees.
Originally six in number, the last of the set, Syringa, was later reworked as
the orchestral Valse lyrique. The charming När rönnen blommar (When the rowan
blossoms) leads to the more solemn Den ensamna furan (The Lonely Fir). The G
sharp minor Aspen quivers from time to time, while the sturdier Björken (Birch)
moves into a final section marked Misterioso. The final Granen (Spruce)
introduces contrasting rhythms to vary the prevailing waltz metre.
The dates of composition of the Thirteen Pieces, Op. 76,
vary, the earliest, the first two or perhaps three, written in 1911 and some
others as late as 1916. Published by Westerlund in Finland and later by Hansen,
they respond to the same financial needs and commercial realities. Esquisse and
Etude are similar in figuration, and bells are aptly suggested in Carillon. The
capricious Humoresque leads to a characteristic Consolation and the graceful
figuration of Romanzetta. The seventh piece, Affettuoso, is marked Agitato and
followed by a most uncharacteristic Pièce enfantine and a rapid Arabesque. The
C sharp minor Elegiaco marked Poco agitato is succeeded by the inventive
Linnaea (Twinflower of the North), marked Andantino con moto, the arpeggios of
Capriccietto and the whimsical Harlequinade.
The Five Pieces, Op. 85, (The Flowers), date from 1916 and
1917. The first has the name of the little red carpet-bedding plant Bellis. The
second, Oeillet (Carnation), is followed by Iris, with its ornamentation,
Aquilegia and the inevitable bell-like sounds of Campanula.
As the war drew to a close, other events overtook Finland,
with the Russian revolution, the declaration of independence in 1917 and the
brief civil war of 1918, followed by continued division and unrest. The Six
Pieces, Op. 94, collected together in 1919, were principally written in that
year, in response to the composer’s financial predicaments. Danse, a waltz,
opens the collection, followed by the earlier Nouvellette. The triplet
figuration of Sonnet leads to Berger et bergerette (Shepherd and Shepherdess),
a dialogue between the two. After a brief introduction Mélodie proceeds to
justify its title, and the final Gavotte frames a trio section in a contrasting
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SIBELIUS: Piano Music, Vol. 4