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ClassicsOnline Home » SIBELIUS: Songs
By Robert Plyler
Songs tend to be much less popular than orchestral music, especially when they are recorded in languages not easily understood by the listener.
Jean Sibelius (1865-1957)
Songs, Volume 1
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 his country. His musical abilities 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 with Martin Wegelius, then in Berlin and, more effectively, 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. During this period he supported himself 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, particularly with his series of symphonies, the first in 1898 and the seventh in 1924. An eighth symphony was probably completed around 1932, but was destroyed. The rest was silence. For the last 28 years of his life Sibelius wrote next to 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 1914 war in Germany, France and Vienna. He died in 1957 at the age of 91.
Sibelius wrote around a hundred songs. Most of these are settings of Swedish words, texts in what was, after all, the composer's first language, with eight settings of German verses and a handful only of Finnish, although a larger proportion of his choral works use texts in this language. It is natural that the German songs have enjoyed wider international currency, leaving other songs generally to those more familiar with the language of the texts.
The earliest of the songs included here date from 1888. 'Serenade' [Track 16] was the first song by Sibelius to be published and is a setting of a poem by the Finnish poet Johan Ludvig Runeberg, many of whose poems Sibelius set. The son of a sea captain of Swedish descent, Runeberg was born in 1804 and taught classics in Helsinki. He has been regarded as Finland's national poet, writing in Swedish and author of the ballads of Tales of Ensign Stål in which he was able to draw on military acts of heroism in the struggle against Russia. He died in 1877. The other song from 1888 is a gently lyrical setting of a poem by Baeckman, 'En visa'(A Song) . From the same period comes the forthright and challenging 'Orgier' (Orgies) , a setting of a poem by Lars Jakob Stenbäck. 1891 brought Sibelius's first setting of Runeberg's 'Den första kyssen'(The First Kiss) , set again in 1900 and published as part of Op. 37 .
In 1892 Sibelius published a group of seven poems by Runeberg, not a song cycle so much as settings of separate poems with no particular narrative connection. Here included is the fourth song, 'Våren flyktar hastigt'(Spring is Flying) , which the composer later orchestrated, a sensitive reflection of changing moods. Individual poems set in the last decade of the century are 'Souda, souda, sinisorsa'(Row, row, duck) , with Finnish words by Forsman who, as others of his generation, later changed his name from its Swedish origin to Aukusti Valdemar Koskimies, in consequence being sometimes known as Forsman-Koskimies. 1899 also brought a setting of 'Segelfahrt' (Sailing)  with German words by Johannes Öhquist, a Finnish writer who also used the pen-name Wilhelm Habermann.
'Illalle'(To Evening)  takes another Finnish text by Forsman-Koskimies, written for his fiancée Ilta Bergroth and therefore concealing a double meaning in its title. It is included among the seven songs of Op. 17, and was written in 1898. Following it in Op. 17 is 'Lastu lainehilla'(Driftwood) , again in Finnish, with a text by another writer, Ilmari Calamnius, who took the Finnish name Kianto. It dates from 1902.
The group of six songs published as Op. 36 opens with 'Svarta rosor' (Black Roses) . This setting of a poem by the Swedish painter and poet Ernst Abraham Josephson was made in 1899, its accompanying arpeggios breaking off for climactic moments of dramatic declamation. The fourth of the set, with its gently rippling accompaniment, is a second setting of the poem 'Säv, säv, susa'(Reed, reed, rustle)  made in 1900, with the earlier version made shortly before . It is among the best known of Sibelius's Swedish songs and sets words by Gustaf Fröding, his characteristic alliteration making an immediate appearance. The set ends with 'Demanten på marssnön'(The Diamond on the March Snow) , a setting of a poem by the poet and playwright Josef Julius Wecksell.
The five songs published as Op. 37 start with a second setting of Runeberg's 'Den första kyssen'(The First Kiss) , composed in 1900 and finding a place for dramatic romanticism. The fourth of the set, 'Var det en dröm?'(Was it a Dream?)  again takes a poem by Wecksell, and the D flat major fifth, 'Flickan kom ifrån sin älsklings möte'(The Tryst) , with its histrionic ballad-like opening, sets a poem by Runeberg. Another setting of Tor Hedberg's 'Soluppgång'(Sunrise) , written in 1902 and first recorded here, differs from the version in Op. 37 primarily in its vocal line.
Six German songs of 1906 make up Op. 50. The second song, 'Sehnsucht'(Longing) , sets a poem by Emil Rudolf Weiss, with music that seems to prefigure post-war Weimar. The third, the melancholy 'Im Feld ein Mädchen singt'(In the Field a Maid Sings)  has a text by Margarete Susman, describing the girl's lament for her dead lover. The moving and effective fifth song, 'Die stille Stadt'(The Silent City)  chooses words by the German poet Richard Dehmel.
A rare attempt at an English setting is heard in the 1909 'Hymn to Thaïs', with a text by the composer's friend Arthur Borgström. The words 'Thaïs, she who cannot be forgotten' seemed to have a certain resonance for Sibelius, although the language was not one with which he had unlimited familiarity. The same year brought a setting of Josephson's 'Vänskapens blomma'(The Flower of Friendship) .
The six songs of Op. 88 are dated 1917 and include settings of three poems by Frans Mikael Franzén and three by Runeberg, united by their subject of flowers. These are sung in the Finnish translation by Johannes Gebhard. The first song 'Sinivuokko'('Blåsippan': The Anemone)  is a delicately evocative little work. It is followed by the tenderly plaintive 'Kaksi ruusua'('De bägge rosorna': The Two Roses) . The third song, 'Valkovuokko' ('Vitsippan': The Wood Anemone)  continues in the same mood. It is followed by the lively setting of a Runeberg poem, 'Vuokko'('Sippan': The Primrose) . 'Villiruusu'('Törnet': The Thorn)  brings a certain drama, and the group of songs ends with the poignantly lyrical 'Kukkasen kohtalo'('Blommans öde': The Flower's Destiny) .
Chronologically 'Narsissi'('Narciss': Narcissus)  is among the last of Sibelius's songs, written in 1925, with Swedish words by Bertel Gripenberg, a leading literary figure of the composer's generation, translated into Finnish by Kyllikki Solanterä. It has a perfection all its own, a song that is an example of the composer at his best in this handling of a small form of which he is equally in command.
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