Both Carl Nielsen from Denmark and Jean Sibelius from Finland were born in 1865. Unlike Grieg, both became great symphonic composers. Their works are held in great esteem and performed by orchestras worldwide.
Reaching boiling point
The second part of this evening’s concert is devoted to Jean Sibelius. We see another side of this gravely serious composer, who has given us the Finnish soul, the country’s mighty forests and the striking contrast of a national pursuit: when you reach boiling point in the piping hot sauna you jump into the icy water of the lakes. He does so through his seven great symphonies.
Since childhood he had enjoyed chamber music, playing the violin in a trio with his sister on the piano and his brother on the cello. After becoming familiar with classical trio repertoire he joined a local quartet. He realised eventually that he was not cut out to be a violinist, but he knew how he wanted the violin to sound, as we shall hear in the concert.
In Helsiniki in the 1880s he studied both music and law, but as time went on he relinquished his legal studies to concentrate on music. Here he composed his first masterpiece – a String Quartet in A minor, which was premiered in 1889. He went on to study in Berlin and Vienna.
When he started composing for orchestra he acquired a career as a conductor, but he was not the only one to conduct his own works. His first two symphonies from 1900 and 1902 became very popular. His style, while both nationalistic and dramatically romantic, was primarily personal. He followed his own path in developing the music: the great composer-conductor Richard Strauss said when conducting Sibelius’s Symphony no. 2, ‘This is the most formless work I have ever experienced – but I’d give my arm to come up with ideas like this.’
In this evening’s concert we meet Sibelius in a far more intimate and sensitive mood. He was extremely productive, not only of symphonic and dramatic works. He composed almost as many solo piano works as Edvard Grieg and some hundred songs. In addition to piano pieces and works for piano and violin we shall also experience some of his melodramas, a form popular at the time, corresponding to Grieg’s Bergljot, written to Bjørnson’s poem.
In more recent years the genre has gained negative connotations because of the popular use of the word melodrama. The form used by Grieg and Sibelius however is a drama within a drama – an elaboration of a motif. It was common in operas and plays, and some composers wrote works that are themselves small dramas. It is characteristic for the text to be recited as a part of the music.
In the first section of the concert we meet two composers, each with his own connection to Sibelius.
Ernst von Dohnányi (1877–1960) was Hungarian by birth. Both of his piano teachers were star pupils of Franz Liszt, Istvan Thoman and Eugen d’Albert, and he became one of the foremost pianists of his time. He was also successful as a conductor, and many of his descendants have been great conductors, right to the present day.
This evening’s concert presents the composer Dohnányi with his Serenade for String Trio, a work composed just as Sibelius was making his international breakthrough in 1902.
At the same time the Czech Leoš Janáček was consolidating his position as a great composer – a composer with his own unique style in which motifs and themes in the music are based on speech rhythm and intonation. He was a prolific composer of works in practically all genres, and the last pieces he wrote were two fabulous string quartets, the Kreutzer Sonata and Intimate Letters.
Many of us first became aware of his music in 1988 through the film based on Milan Kundera’s novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being. It was the novelist himself, the son of one of Janáček’s best friends, who chose the composer for the film music. The concert opens with one of the pieces from the film – Pohádka (1909).
Erling Dahl jr.
English version Roger Martin