SIBELIUS: Piano Music
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Jean Sibelius (1865-1957)
When discussing the music of Jean Sibelius, it is not his piano pieces that come first to mind, after all, his reputation rests on his masterful writing for the orchestra. Sibelius, however did write piano music throughout his career, even though his own instrument was the violin. He was not a great piano composer, or, to be more exact, he never attained the grand keyboard style that he aspired to, despite attempts in that direction. All this notwithstanding, Sibelius's piano pieces do reflect his inner self and his own personal world in their own, sometimes quite modest, way.
Sibelius's piano music won scarcely any recognition in his lifetime. Erik Tawaststjerna expressed this quite neatly: "In the few cases where music writers and interpreters have considered them even worth the effort to discuss, they have magnanimously consigned them to the oubliette reserved for the minor solo instrument transgressions of great orchestral composers, such as the piano works of Berlioz, Wagner and Strauss." The composer himself, however, had faith in the future and popularity of his piano pieces.
One reason why Sibelius wrote such a great deal of piano music, over a hundred, was his chronic shortage of money. He once said to his daughter that he wrote small piano pieces instead of large orchestral poems so that she might have "butter on her bread, too". Since home music-making was quite popular at the turn of the century, there was a great demand for minor, fairly simple piano pieces. Sibelius, needing the cash, provided such pieces. He often sold them to Finnish publishers, hoping that these artistically insignificant bagatelles would not be distributed abroad and thus tarnish the reputation built by his orchestral output. He was disappointed in this, for his publishers in fact did quite well by reselling these works abroad.
In 1893, Sibelius put together the Six Impromptus, forming the first numbered piano work in his catalogue, Op. 5. Some he had written earlier, some just before publication. Sibelius had just completed his first extensive work, Kullervo, and the tone poem En Saga was in the process of gestation. The impromptus have a distinct air of expectation, and they do not have the same Sibelius spirit as the major works of that period. They are pale reflections of his other works: the first impromptu is based on the Quintet in G minor written in 1889, and the fifth and sixth are based on the melodrama Svartsjukans natter (Nights of Jealousy). The second and fourth impromptus contain allusions to folk-tunes. This suite of impromptus is a clear indication that Sibelius was at that time only just maturing as a composer.
One of Sibelius's best-known works is no doubt Finlandia, originally written as one movement of incidental music to an anti-Russian entertainment in 1899. It became an independent work in the following year and attracted much attention from the very first with its patriotic nationalism. Sibelius wrote a piano arrangement of Finlandia himself, marvellously capturing the sturdiness and pomposity of the orchestral version, to which a choir was later added.
Sibelius wrote one of his most important and profound piano works, Kyllikki, Kolme lyyrista kappaletta pianolle (Kyllikki - Three Lyrical Pieces for piano), Op. 41, during the construction of his new home, Ainola. Although this sonata-form work is firmly rooted in Finnish soil, it is not based on the Kalevala, despite its name. Sibelius himself often stressed this. Kyllikki is in a way a depiction of the Finnish nationalist spirit of the turn of the century. In this, his second -and final - attempt to write piano music on a grand scale, Sibelius was not entirely successful. Kyllikki is often described as sounding like a piano transcription of an orchestral work.
Perhaps the best-known piano work by Sibelius is the deeply thematic five-piece work known informally as Trees, 5 Pieces, Op. 75, completed in 1914. As is well known, Sibelius was deeply enamoured of nature in its many manifestations, and trees were dear to him; they were his constant companions at Ainola. He himself said that trees spoke to him, and he has managed to convey this impression in this suite. We can sense the scent of the different trees, hear their leaves shaking and see them swaying in the wind. Kuusi (The Spruce) has attained, the status of an evergreen. Punt originally had a sixth piece, Syreeni (The Lilac), which Sibelius later fashioned into the Valse lyrique for orchestra (1919).
In struggling with the creation of his Fifth Symphony in 1916, Sibelius wrote Flowers (5 Pieces, Op. 85) for piano. It is almost salon music, but its lyrical qualities, and particularly the keyboard writing in Kurjenmiekka (Iris), betray the characteristic hand of Sibelius. Viisi karakteristista impressiota (Five Characteristic Impressions), Op. 103, written in 1924 clearly shows that Sibelius's piano writing, too, improved during the course of his career. The first piece, Kylakirkko (Village Church), which is closely akin to the Andante festivo, presents quite a different kind of piano composer. The powerful organ-like sonority foreshadows the Seventh Symphony. The suite as a whole demonstrates that Sibelius had discovered keyboard resources that he used to great effect: for instance, the general mood and the powerful storm in Soittoniekka (The Musician) are a fine example of his grand keyboard style.
Although Jean Sibelius could not be described as a great piano composer, his piano works are in their way indicative of his development as a composer and as a person. They deserve their niche in his output; perhaps writing them was part of the inner compulsion that drove the great composer.