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Finnish Perfection: the Sibelius Violin Concerto

Terez Mertes

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Published: October 26, 2015 at 3:39 PM [UTC]


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.”

SibeliusJean 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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From Terez Mertes
Posted on October 27, 2015 at 12:13 AM
Hey! There are lovely images on my blog now! Thank you, Laurie! (I'd forgotten how to link images from another article - or maybe I never learned.) And thank you for the link to OFF BALANCE! : )

From Laurie Niles
Posted on October 27, 2015 at 5:59 AM
You are most welcome! I roll out the welcome mat (and the Photoshop and hyperlinks) for a nice blog submission! Whose Sibelius music is this? Is it yours?
From Anne Horvath
Posted on October 27, 2015 at 1:41 PM
One of my teenage students recently attended a concert featuring the Sibelius. This young person has little concert-going experience, and is not familiar with the repertoire.

This young person was SO excited, SO impressed, SO moved, SO overwhelmed, and SO inspired by this performance, that they could barely describe it. Isn't that great?

Also, that picture of the first page is really something. What would Heifetz say?

From Terez Mertes
Posted on October 27, 2015 at 3:49 PM
Anne, I was thinking of you as I wrote the longer blog for my own site, as it includes an excerpt of Montserrat's concerto competition in DESPERATE LITTLE SECRETS. Lucky you, to have read the whole manuscript, all those years back. (And did I thank you enough for that?)

Just love that the young student loved the Sibelius and was so enthusiastic. So much fun to hear about that kind of enthusiasm!

Laurie, no, that wasn't my music sheet, it's was an online image that came up when I Googled the Sibelius and clicked on "image." So very cool and colorful tho, huh?

From Tom Holzman
Posted on October 27, 2015 at 5:34 PM
Terez - very interesting blog. Sibelius was a true giant, and we tend to forget that because all we hear of him on the classical music stations are Finlandia and Karelia Suite, which, IMHO, are more patriotic kitsch than great works. Thanks so much for all of the information on him. I am not surprised that you recognize your creative struggles in his. I suspect that many truly creative people struggle in the same way.
Posted on October 27, 2015 at 8:15 PM
One of my favorite concertos to play and listen to. I think my teacher would kill me if my music looked like that, at any age. Why does every new edition start with mf and a down bow? So much more effective to start out quietly and build.
Thanks for sharing - what a fun memory of my childhood!
Posted on October 28, 2015 at 5:01 PM
After playing in orchestras, I have heard the last movement of the Sibelius Violing Concerto often played to fast!
I heard a comment of a student of Jan Damen, former Concertmaster of a.o. the Concertgebouw Orchastra,that Damen heard from Sibelius that the finale is a Dance of the Dead. This is proof ; the finale is not a virtuoso display.
From Terez Mertes
Posted on October 29, 2015 at 3:52 AM
I enjoyed all these comments - thank you!

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