As violinists, students and classical music lovers, we need no introduction to the Sibelius Violin Concerto. It’s in a class of its own—complex, gripping, devilishly complicated. It sounds like no other concerto in the violin repertoire. Listening to Finnish composer Jean Sibelius’ masterpiece, you hear dark, wintry night; pure, crystalline melody above a cushion of pianissimo strings (starlight has a sound!); brooding motifs; a violin that laments but never stops singing. In the second movement, the adagio di molto, a gorgeous melody arises amid the lower voices that makes your heart swell and swell, even as it’s breaking.
“The movement is so haunting, so intense,” my violinist character recounts to the narrator, in my novel, Off Balance. Years back, she’d performed the concerto in an international competition, under a crushing weight of anxiety and despair. “You hear the brass from the orchestra slowly building, and there you are with your violin, desperately trying to… I don’t know. Stay alive. Survive against the odds. The pain of it—I felt like a bird in the dead of winter, knowing I would die, because the cold was just too much to overcome. But you know what? I’ll bet that bird keeps singing sweetly until the instant before it dies. Because what else can you do if you were born to sing? That’s what the Adagio will always be for me. That feeling.”
Jean Sibelius was born on December 8, 1865, which means in a matter of weeks, we will be celebrating his 150th birthday. Most people talk about his seven symphonies as being at the core of his success as a composer. Some of them I quite like (No. 3 in C-Major and the No. 5, with its glorious ending). But the Violin Concerto rises above them all, timeless and omnipotent, more spiritual experience than entertainment. Commenced in 1899, completed in 1904, a mediocre premiere prompted Sibelius to hold off on publication. He revised, whittled it down, and the concerto re-premiered in 1905, this time to acclaim. And oh, what acclaim it deserves.
Jean Sibelius is not just Finland’s most famous composer; he’s a cultural colossus, a national hero, having played a symbolic role in Finland’s quest for independence (granted in 1917). He’s a household name throughout the world, certainly the classical music world. His music is rich and unforgettable, and the classical music legacy he left behind for Finland is unparalleled in any other country in the world. (The annual Finnish expenditure on the arts is roughly two hundred times per capita what the United States government spends through the National Endowment for the Arts*. Further, Finland’s musical culture has produced more world-class composers and performers per capita than any other country.)
For being a hero and musical icon, however, the guy was human, and he struggled. For the last thirty years of his life he didn’t publish new material, although he worked away at an eighth symphony for much of that time. Like so many creative artists, he struggled particularly on the inside. In 1927, when he was sixty-one, he wrote in his diary, “Isolation and loneliness are driving me to despair. . . . In order to survive, I have to have alcohol. . . . Am abused, alone, and all my real friends are dead. My prestige here at present is rock-bottom. Impossible to work. If only there were a way out.” *
For many an artist, creativity tends to arise amid an environment of immoderation. That’s why you hear about alcoholism, suicide, rehab, breakdowns, among the artistic sect of the population. I’ll admit it; I myself feel manic, rather psychotic, when I’m in the process of producing my most creative work. It’s the place where you’re on fire inside. I can feel that, like a tactile presence, in good art. I can tell when an artist has gone inside the fire, trudged through the long, dark night of the soul, gotten lost in those places.
There is something immoderate about this concerto that enormously appeals to me. Something vulnerable and unspeakably beautiful, right there along something dark and brooding. They illustrate that not only do darkness and beauty coexist, they enhance each other. How fitting that a Finnish composer should have so aptly illustrated the beauty of light amid so much wintery darkness.
* Factoids courtesy of Alex Ross’s informative and interesting article, Apparition in the Woods, from The New Yorker.
A longer version of this article, and links, as well as a novel excerpt, can be found at THE CLASSICAL GIRL.
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