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ClassicsOnline Home » SIBELIUS, J.: Night Ride and Sunrise / Belshazzar's Feast Suite / Kuolema (New Zealand Symphony, Inkinen)
While the beloved Valse triste and Scene with Cranes from Kuolema are virtually signature tunes for the great Finnish composer, much of Sibelius’ orchestral and theatrical music remains undeservedly less familiar. From the incidental music for the play Belshazzar’s Feast Sibelius drew four richly scored orientalist movements. The tone poems Pan and Echo and Night Ride and Sunrise respectively evoke the world of ancient myth and a nocturnal journey towards a Nordic dawn. A lilting waltz dances at the heart of the impressionistic The Dryad, while castanets enliven the light-hearted mood of the Tanz-Intermezzo, Op. 45 No. 2.
By Richard A. Kaplan
By Paul Turok
By Leslie Wright
Jean Sibelius (1865–1957)
Night Ride and Sunrise • Belshazzar’s Feast • Pan and Echo • Kuolema • Dryad and Tanz-Intermezzo
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 completed in 1929, but destroyed. The rest was silence. For the last 25 years of his life Sibelius wrote virtually 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.
Sibelius completed Night Ride and Sunrise in November 1908. The more obvious inspiration might be thought to have come from a ride he took in a horse-drawn sledge, driving from Helsinki to Kervo, and experiencing the sight of the sunrise. To others he claimed that the idea for the work had come to him when he was at the Colosseum in Rome, and no doubt both reflect feelings that came together in his symphonic poem. The work falls broadly into two sections, with the sound of the horses’ hooves heard after the opening discords, growing in intensity, with their insistent rhythm. The pounding hooves become quieter, the strings playing sul ponticello, before a second thematic element is introduced by flute and oboe, above the continuing iambic rhythm. A more introspective Moderato assai is marked by the appearance in the lower register of violins, with the violas, of a characteristic figure, a section leading finally to a Largamente transition and the brief suggestion of birdsong, heralding the dawn and with a hymn-like passage for bassoons and horns, soon joined by the other woodwind instruments. The music continues in its suggestion of a Nordic sunrise, in a language that is immediately identifiable as that of Sibelius.
Pan and Echo (Tanz-Intermezzo No. 3) was written in 1906, its general mood and form suggested in the title. It opens with an ascending bassoon arpeggio, with Pan’s flute briefly heard before the entry of the strings with the main thematic idea. A second section, marked Comodo, has a brief figure from the clarinet, echoed by the flute, and the piece grows in excitement, now more of a dance intermezzo than an evocation of any classical pagan world.
Sibelius provided incidental music for various stage productions, including Maeterlinck’s Pelléas et Mélisande in 1905, and in 1906 interesting music for an otherwise undistinguished play, Belsazars gästabud (Belshazzar’s Feast) by the composer’s friend Hjalmar Procopé. Sibelius devised a suite from the incidental music the following year. The story of the play is in general the familiar biblical one and both the concert suite and the incidental music open with an Oriental March, setting the atmosphere of Belshazzar’s Babylon. Solitude, originally The Jewish Girl’s Song, with a delicate accompanying string ostinato, is followed by evocative Night Music and the final Khadra’s Dance, derived from the original Songs of Life and Death.
The Dryad, described in its subtitle as a tone picture for orchestra, dates from 1910 and is impressionistic in style, its Lento opening section leading to the lilt of a waltz and a Vivace, accompanied by plucked string chords, before the mood of the opening returns. The work is paired with the earlier Tanz-Intermezzo, Op. 45, No. 2 written in 1904 and revised three years later. This starts with harp glissandos, followed by an oboe melody, marked Comodo e tranquillo, soon to be followed by a livelier major key and a theme for the cornets, a section of the work that finds a place for castanets in reinforcement of the prevailing rhythm, as its takes its light-hearted course.
In 1903 Sibelius wrote incidental music for the play Kuolema (Death) by his brother-in-law Arvid Järnefelt. From this he compiled a suite, using four of the pieces. The first of these, Valse triste, has won the widest popularity, for better or worse. In the play the son dreams, by the bedside of his sick mother. The room is suffused with light and the sounds of a waltz can gradually be heard. His mother rises from her bed and starts to dance to the music, summoning guests to join her. Dying, she tries to see the faces of the mysterious dancers, but none will look at her. As she sinks down on the bed, the music pauses, but, with renewed energy, she rejoins the dance, now in wilder rhythms than before. At the height of the dance there is a knock at the door and Death stands waiting. The second piece, given the title Scene with Cranes, has its title reflected in the sound of the clarinets, memory of a sound and sight familiar to the composer. In 1911, when the play was revived, Sibelius added two more pieces, the Rondino der Liebenden and Vals-Intermezzo, known respectively as Canzonetta and Valse romantique. Scored for strings, the Canzonetta opens with muted instruments, its melody entrusted to the first violins. It was later arranged by Stravinsky for four horns, two clarinets, harp and double bass as a tribute to Sibelius on the award to Stravinsky of the Sibelius Prize. The concert suite ends with Valse romantique, a movement more fully scored but less successful than its opening counterpart, the Valse triste.
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