Studio Symphony Orchestra

Programme Notes


Sibelius


Karelia Suite | Symphony No.5 | Rakastava



Karelia Suite, Op. 11
Jan Sibelius (1865 – 1957)

At the time of Sibelius’ birth, Finland was emerging into national consciousness, but still dominated and rules by Russia; in addition, as a legacy from past rule, Swedish remained the official language, including in schools. Young Jan’s parents countered these influences by sending him to a grammar school that taught in native Finnish. There he was introduced to the national epic, the Kalevala, and this together with the collection of folk literature made by Elias Lönrot were the sources of inspiration for much of the  music he was to write. Sibelius also had a love of nature, and much of his creative energy was devoted to setting legend and landscape to music.

Sibelius became a major force in Finnish music with the Kullervo Symphony of 1891/2, which drew on mythology for inspiration, and the following year he composed En Saga and the Karelia Suite. It was written for the Vipuri Student’s Union as incidental music to a series of seven historic tableaux about the province of Karelia, now part of Russia. The first movement (Intermezzo) is well known as a TV tune, but originally depicted Karelians passing in procession to pat tribute to a Lithuanian prince. The sombre Ballad portrayed a deposed ruler listening to a minstrel at the castle in Vipuri, and is based on folk tunes. The finale (Alla Marcia) described the call to battle, and so provides a stirring climax to one of the composer’s most popular works. 

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Symphony No. 5 in E flat, Op. 82
Jean Sibelius (1865 – 1957)

Tempo molto moderato – allegro moderato ma poco a poco stretto
Andante mosso, quasi allegretto
Allegro molto

Sibelius was born the year after Strauss and both lived to a great age, but for the last 30 years of his life Sibelius lived as a virtual recluse and composed nothing, in contrast to Strauss, who continued to compose until 1948 (the last piece being September from the Four Last Songs), even though his style had changed remarkably little. This symphony was written during the First World War. Even though Finland was not an active participant in the conflict, the blockade of the Baltic and the later political unease in Russia meant that times were hard. The first version was completed in time for the composer’s 50th birthday and given its first performance in Helsinki in December 1915, with his friend Robert Kajanus conducting. Although the work was well received, Sibelius was dissatisfied (as ever) and withdrew it. The final version was heard four years later, in November 1919.

As might be expected the form is unusual. The first movement in particular is complex in structure (though not to listen to!). The horns lead at the beginning and play a prominent role in the whole symphony. The thematic material, brief to the point of being cryptic, is set out by the wind, and the strings enter quietly in a supporting role. Indeed for much of this movement the strings provide background music, like the rustling of pine trees in the forest. On the occasions they do combine with the wind, the two groups are syncopated – if we are together, we’ve got it wrong! Eventually an impassioned tune is given to the strings in unison, leading to a glowing climax. In the original version, this marked the end of the first movement and the second was a scherzo, but during his reshaping of the work Sibelius linked the two so that the stately 12/8 tempo of the beginning breaks into fast 3/4. The energy levels increase too. After a passage of great nervous intensity the drive is even harder, and the bars grouped in fours so as to restore the original rhythmic pattern. When it seems that the limit has been reached, the end is characteristically abrupt, like meeting a cliff edge.

The slow movement is the perfect release from all this tension. With an almost static quality, a simple tune is decorated in different ways, going nowhere in particular. The famous last movement is introduced by a scurrying tune on the violas, taken up by the other strings so that it sounds like a moto perpetuo. In time the music calms and broadens and the horns give the first hint of the bell-like cadences that are to dominate the rest of the piece. This is built up to a magnificent climax, the equal of any other in symphonic music, before the movement is ended with six huge hammer blows for the full orchestra, unequally spaced. The effect is stunning.

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Rakastava, Op. 14
Jean Sibelius (1865 – 1957)

    The Beloved
    The Path of the Lover
    Goodnight, my beloved – farewell

In 1872, at the age of seven, Sibelius was enrolled at a Finnish-speaking school – until that time, Swedish and Latin were the only languages allowed in Finland. There he heard the collections of ancient epic poems Kalevala and Kantelatar, including Rakastava (“The Lover”). These works fired his imagination and Sibelius went on to become a leading member of the Nationalist Movement in music.

In 1893, the year he wrote the Karelia Suite, he set Rakastava to music (an unaccompanied choir), but later in 1911, he re-arranged it for strings, tympani and triangle – the latter has just six soft notes in the middle movement. Sibelius was at the height of his creative powers at this time, having written four of his mighty symphonies, and the Rakastava music was close to his heart.

The theme of doomed love also appears in Romeo and Juliet and in Tristan and Isolde. The music takes the form of a tryptich – the two outer movements resemble each other and frame a brief central movement. The evocative scoring suggests a bleak and frozen landscape.

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