SIBELIUS: Symphony No. 2 / 'The Tempest', Suite No. 1 (Iceland Symphony Orchestra/ Petri Sakari) (Naxos: 8.554266)
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Symphony No. 6, Op.
104; Symphony No. 7 in C major, Op. 105
The Tempest: Suite No.
2, Op. 109, No. 3
The Finnish composer Jean Sibelius was born in 1865, the son of adoctor, in a small town in the south of Finland, the language and culture ofhis family being Swedish. It was at school that he was to learn Finnish andacquire his first interest in the early legends of a country that had become anautonomous grand-duchy under the Tsar of Russia, after the defeat of CharlesXII of Sweden. Throughout the later nineteenth century there were divisionsbetween the Swedish-speaking upper classes and the Finnish-speaking people, thecause of the latter embraced by influential nationalists and accentuated by therepressive measures introduced by Tsar Nicholas II, before the revolution of1905. In this society Sibelius was deeply influenced by his association withthe family of General Jarnefelt, whose daughter Aino became his wife.
Nevertheless linguistically Swedish remained his mother tongue, in which heexpressed himself more fluently than he could in Finnish.
The musical abilities of Sibelius were soon realised, although notdeveloped early enough to suggest music as a profession until he had entereduniversity in Helsinki as a law student. His first ambition had been to be aviolinist. It later became apparent that any ability he had in this directionwas outweighed by his gifts as a composer, developed first by study in Berlinand with Goldmark and, more effectively, Robert Fuchs in Vienna.
In Finland once more, Sibeliuswon almost immediate success in 1892 with a symphonic poem, Kullervo, basedon an episode from the Finnish epic Kalevala. There followedcompositions of particular national appeal that further enhanced his reputationin Helsinki, including the incidental music to the patriotic student pageant Karelia,En Saga and the Lemminkainen Suite. During this period Sibeliussupported himself and his wife by teaching, as well as by composition and theperformance 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 astudent. In 1896 he was voted the position of professor at the University ofHelsinki, but the committee's decision was overturned in favour of RobertKajanus, the experienced founder and conductor of the first professionalorchestra in Helsinki. As consolation for his disappointment Sibelius wasawarded a government stipend for ten years, and this was later changed into apension for life. The sum involved was never sufficient to meet his gift forimprovidence, inherited, perhaps, from his father, who at his death in 1868 hadleft his family in some difficulty.
Sibelius continued his active career as a composer until 1926, his fameincreasing at home and abroad. The success of Symphony No. 1 of 1898 wasfollowed by the still more successful Finlandia. Symphony No. 2 in 1902won unprecedented success in Helsinki. This was followed by the ViolinConcerto, Symphony No. 3, and after an illness that put an end forthe moment to his indulgence in alcohol and tobacco, Symphony No. 4,with travel to the major musical centres of Europe and international honour. SymphonyNo. 5 was written during the war, after which Sibelius wrote only fourworks of any substance, Symphony No. 6 in 1923 and, in the followingyear, Symphony No. 7, incidental music to Shakespeare's TheTempest and, in 1926, the symphonic poem Tapiola. An eighth symphonywas completed in 1929, but destroyed. The rest was silence. For the last 25years of his life Sibelius wrote nothing, remaining isolated from and largelyantipathetic to contemporary trends in music. His reputation in Britain andAmerica remained high, although there were inevitable reactions to theexcessive enthusiasm of his supporters. On the continent of Europe he failed torecapture the earlier position he had enjoyed before the war of 1914 inGermany, France and Vienna. He died in 1957 at the age of 91.
The year 1900 broughtSibelius an opportunity for wider contact with the world outside Finland, witha tour by the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra, ending with concerts at theParis Exhibition. In the same year he found a patron in the dilettante AxelCarpelan, a man who, while lacking extensive resources himself, was able topersuade money from others and was liberal in his advice. Carpelan recommendeda visit to Italy and provided enough money to make this a possibility forSibelius, his patient wife and his children. Time was spent in Berlin on theway south, but it was in Italy that the first sketches were made of SymphonyNo. 2, including the principal theme of the second movement, which occurredto him in connection with the story of Don Juan and the idea suggested by thegarden of the villa in Rapallo. In Florence he sketched the second idea for theAndante of the new symphony, writing above it the word Christus, andhis thoughts now turned to a work based on Dante's Divina commedia.
In Finland once moreSibelius was able to work seriously on his new symphony, which he completedearly in 1902 and conducted at a series of concerts in Helsinki in March.
Audiences in Finland, where feelings of nationalism now ran high, were eager tofind a patriotic statement of protest in the work, a programme that laterwriters have sometimes chosen to impose on the music. The first movement seemsto move from the northern mists of Finland to a sunnier world, and critics havenoted the pastoral atmosphere apparent here and in the trio of the thirdmovement, with their pattern of repeated notes. The Andante, in originat least, suggests Don Juan's mysterious guest, Death, and his defeat byChrist, and the scherzo adds a movement of busy turbulence, with a repetitionof the trio, with its pastoral oboe melody. This leads directly into thegrandiose principal theme of the heroic finale, darkened by the Finnish secondtheme and its sinister accompanying figure.
Sibelius wrote hisincidental music to Shakespeare's play The Tempest in 1925 for aproduction in 1926 by the Royal Danish Theatre in Copenhagen. In many ways theplay presented a new challenge, after so many years devoted to the compositionof symphonies, and reflected, in a sense, his own feelings. At the end of theplay the exiled Duke of Milan, Prospero, abjures his magic. It was not longbefore Sibelius too would lay his pen aside. The play, with its incidentalmusic, was successfully staged in Copenhagen and subsequently in Helsinki. Fromit Sibelius derived two suites, the first for full orchestra and the second fora smaller ensemble. The first of these opens with The Oak-Tree from thesecond act, a scene in which Ariel, envisaged by the Danish director as a youngoak-tree, breaks off a twig and plays it as a flute, in an evocative and gentlylilting melody. In the Humoresque Caliban leads the drunken Stefano andhis companion Trinculo astray, with Caliban, who has incited them to the murderof Prospero and usurping of the island kingdom. Caliban's Song is acruder affair, as Caliban chants in anticipated triumph over the master who hasenslaved him. The Harvesters introduces a pastoral element, a visionconjured up by Prospero to delight his daughter Miranda and her young lover,Ferdinand. The Canon is for Stefano, Trinculo and Caliban in theirdrunkenness. The Sc?¿ne accompanies a delicate dance, contrasted with arougher C minor section. It is followed in the Suite by the solemn Intrada,with its echo of a symphony.