Violin Concerto in D Minor, op. 47

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          The compositions of Jean Sibelius constitute a case study in the capriciousness of musical taste and the power of the artistic avant-garde.  Pigeonholed by many as primarily a Finnish nationalist, whose dark, remote music was a shallow representative of Romanticism’s last gasps, Sibelius was nevertheless deemed the champion of American and British conservative musical tastes between the world wars.   Typical was Olin Downes, music critic of the Times, whose relentless public support of Sibelius bordered on sycophancy. Likewise, Koussevitsky, conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, programmed a cycle of Sibelius’s symphonies, and dogged the composer to finish the eighth—which he never did.   But, those who favored the avant-garde of Stravinsky, Schönberg, and company—and that included most of continental Europe and American intellectuals—were scathing in their contempt.  One respected and well-known critic entitled an essay about Sibelius,  “The Worst Composer in the World.”   These controversies, and Sibelius’s life-long struggle with alcoholism and depression no doubt played a signal part in his composing nothing of significance from the nineteen thirties until his death in 1957 at the age of 91.

          But tastes change, and the current crop of composers and scholars now take a more balanced view of Sibelius’s compositions.   His seven symphonies enjoy renewed respect, although the ever-popular Symphony No.2 has long been a repertory standard, and--other than the evergreen Finlandia—is his most popular work.   It is not incorrect, of course, to recognize the deeply informing rôle of nationalist Finnish elements in his music style.  He consciously and assiduously studied and absorbed the musical and literary heritage of the Finnish culture and adroitly folded them into a unique personal statement.  He was completely taken by the Finnish national epic, the Kalevala, and early on his musical style reflected these cultural elements, from his melodic choices to the stories behind his tone poems.   His symphonies are large soundscapes that surge and ebb, whose melodies often appear first as small kernels of a few notes whose significance is easily overlooked.  But, as the music unfolds and these bits of melody appear in a kaleidoscope of identities, they meld together into great torrents of themes.  Sibelius was a master of orchestration, and most listeners easily accept the inevitable comparisons to the bleak, cold, primæval landscapes of Finland.

         Sibelius’ violin concerto has certainly stood the test of time, and is one of his most-performed works, as well as being one of the most important violin concertos in the repertoire.  It was composed in the period of his first two symphonies, and was first performed in 1904 in Helsinki (the performance was essentially a disaster—the violinist was not up to the task.)  In some ways, the piece would seem to be a contradiction.  On the one hand it is infused with his signature dark, cold Nordic textures that seem to float impersonally over human trivialities.  Yet, on the other, concertos by their very natures are often showpieces for a very real, single human being who plays musical material conceived to express that individuality.  Well! Pulling these disparate elements together would certainly seem a challenge, but Sibelius, on the whole succeeds quite well.  After the ill-fated first performance he spent some time revising, and the concerto was performed to great acclaim in Berlin in 1905, with Richard Strauss conducting.  

          Several points are recommended to the listener.  First, and it is rather evident, this concerto is really difficult!  Sibelius began as a violinist, and with a player’s grasp of the violin’s capabilities, he laid down formidable technical challenges to the performer.  Replete with double stops of all varieties (listen especially for the octave double stops at the end of the first movement), quick jumps from first to seventh position, and broken chords at very fast tempos, it is virtually a compendium of every difficult thing a composer might ask of a virtuoso violinist.  Especially impressive in the first movement is the passage wherein two of the soloist’s fingers execute a trill while the remaining two digits finger a melody on another string. The last movement has its impressive challenges, as well. An innovation is the long and important solo cadenza in the middle of the first movement that essentially functions as the development section. Relief from dark moods and textures, and brilliant technical challenges is found in the lyrical middle movement.  Throughout the concerto be aware of the impressive imagination exhibited by Sibelius in his creation of almost unique tonal colors through an imaginative scoring for the orchestra.

          Sibelius carved out for himself a solitary position in the musical world between late Romanticism and the severe aesthetics of a new century.   It placed him in a difficult position with the purists of most camps, but his life’s work now is gradually gaining in stature as a serious reconsideration of his oeuvre continues.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2015 William E. Runyan