Programme Notes

Skøl Scandinavia!: Programme Notes by Terry Robbins

May 28, 2018

Peer Gynt Suite No.1, op.46 | Edvard Grieg (1843-1907)

Black and white illustration from Peer Gynt.

1966 Edition of Peer Gynt, with Illustrations by Arthur Rackham, via Wikimedia Commons.

Mention the title Peer Gynt today, and for most people it is Grieg’s name that comes to mind. Strange to think, then, that when the Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen asked Grieg to write some incidental music for his play of that name in 1874, the composer did not respond to the request with much enthusiasm, and came close to turning it down.

While it is true that Grieg did not feel very sympathetic to Ibsen’s drama, which had been published in 1867 and was yet to be performed, it wasn’t the main reason for his reluctance. Grieg was always fully aware of his own limitations; he knew he was at his best in shorter compositions but also realised that, with his mastery of melody and rhythm, his talent was more lyrical than dramatic. Besides, he did not really feel that the play lent itself to musical treatment.

These doubts were not easily dispelled, and the Peer Gynt music entailed more effort for Grieg and involved more soul-searching than any other work of his. It also, as if to make up for all his trouble, gave him his greatest success, with the contemporary music critic Eduard Hanslick going so far as to remark – with some degree of truth – that Ibsen’s drama would survive only because of Grieg’s music.

1888 photograp of Edvard Grieg

Edvard Grieg, 1888, by Elliot and Fry

Grieg composed twenty-three items for Peer Gynt, and the first performance in Christiana (now Oslo) on February 24, 1876 made him a national figure. He later arranged the music for Piano Duet, and eventually took eight of the pieces and arranged them in two orchestral suites of four pieces each, Suite No.1 dating from the late 1880s and Suite No.2 Op.55 from 1891-92.

Suite No.1, containing Morning, Death of Åse, Anitra’s Dance and In the Hall of the Mountain King, is by far the best known and most frequently played, with only Solvejg’s Song from the second suite being as familiar as the music in the first.

Concerto for Flute and Orchestra | Carl Nielsen (1865-1931)

The Danish composer Carl Nielsen was, like his Finnish contemporary Jean Sibelius, the most important composer his country had produced and – also like Sibelius – one of the 20th century’s great symphonists, with a highly distinctive personal voice and style.

In the fall of 1921 Nielsen made a phone call to his pianist friend Christian Christiansen, who happened to be rehearsing Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante for Four Winds with members of the Copenhagen Wind Quintet. As Nielsen and Christiansen talked the quintet members kept playing in the background, and Nielsen was so struck by what he heard that he went round to Christiansen’s home to meet them, immediately feeling that he should write a work for the ensemble.

The following year he completed one of his finest and most popular works, the Wind Quintet, in which – particularly in the Theme and Variations final movement – he depicted the individual players’ personalities and instruments. Such was the success of the work that Nielsen decided to write a solo concerto for each of the five members and their instrument – flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon and French horn.

Unfortunately, 1922 was also the year in which Nielsen was diagnosed with a serious heart condition that would eventually take his life. Once he was sufficiently recovered, both physically and emotionally, to resume composing, his Sixth Symphony consumed his efforts, and it was only after its completion in December 1925 that he was able to start on the concerto project. Sadly, he was only able to complete the Flute Concerto and the 1928 Clarinet Concerto before his death in 1931.

The Flute Concerto was composed while Nielsen was travelling in Italy in 1926 – the manuscript is dated Florence 1st October – and was written for a concert devoted to his works in Paris later that month. Originally intended for the flutist Paul Hagemann, it was dedicated to Holger Gilbert-Jespersen, who had replaced Hagemann in the Copenhagen Wind Quintet. An ongoing stomach complaint meant that Nielsen was unable to complete it to his satisfaction, and the temporary ending at the October 21 premiere, conducted by the composer’s son-in-law Emil Telmányi, was replaced shortly after, the completed work being presented by Gilbert-Jespersen and Nielsen in Oslo on 9 November.

Gilbert-Jespersen had studied in France and was noted as a player of taste and exquisite refinement, one “whose inclination, perhaps,” in the words of the sleeve notes for the 1966 Decca Ace of Clubs LP reissue of his 1954 recording, “lay towards French music and who certainly found vulgarity an anathema.” Nielsen certainly captured that essence in the concerto, and fully understood the instrument: “The flute cannot deny its true nature;” he wrote in his programme notes for the premiere, “it is at home in Arcadia and prefers pastoral moods.”

The above reference to vulgarity, though, is no accident. Throughout the two movements there are touches of rude humour in the form of coarse interruptions by the bass trombone, which Nielsen readily admitted may well have represented his own early days as a brass player in a small town band. If it was an in-joke between composer and soloist it is an ironic one, for it is the bass trombone that finally leads the way through the music’s tonal ambiguity and the apparent search for the right key to the affirmative E major resolution.

Valse Triste | Jean Sibelius (1865-1957)

Jean Sibelius, 1913

Sibelius’ incidental music for the theatre forms only a small part of his output but contains some of the finest music ever written for the genre.

Arvid Järnefelt

Valse Triste dates from 1903-04, in the middle of a rather morbid four-year period in the composer’s life when an ear condition threatened him with total deafness. The waltz was originally one of six pieces for strings from the incidental music to Kuolema (Death), a play written by the composer’s brother-in-law Arvid Järnefelt, the son of the Finnish composer Armas Järnefelt. It was revised for orchestra the following year and first heard in that version at Helsingfors on 25 April 1904.

Valse Triste depicts a scene in which a woman, in her last mortal sleep, participates in a waltz that is dominated and terminated by Death. The haunting melody, after a brief struggle, finally subsides in a sigh of resignation.

Symphony No.1 in E minor, Op.39 | Jean Sibelius (1865-1957)

Jean Sibelius, 1891

Sibelius was still only 32 when, in 1897, the state government granted him an annual stipend so that he could devote himself fully to composition. This gesture, clearly recognizing the composer as the emerging nationalist voice in Finnish music, reflected the growing confidence of a developing nationalist movement in the arts.

For centuries Finland had been dominated by Sweden and Russia, with Swedish being the main language well into the 19th century and with Russia ruling the country from 1809 until 1917, when Finland finally achieved independence. The first signs of a national artistic awareness appeared in 1835, when the national epic poem the Kalevala – which for centuries had been handed down orally – first appeared in a printed version.

Even so, it was another 25 years before the first musical work inspired by the Kalevala appeared, and another 22 before Martin Wegelius, one of the earliest native Finnish composers and a teacher of the young Sibelius, established the country’s first conservatory, the Helsinki Music Institute, in 1882. This was the year that also saw the founding of the Finnish-language Helsinki University Chorus and the Helsinki Orchestral Society (later the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra), the country’s first professional orchestra.

Sibelius’ maturity thus coincided with a significant advance in Finland’s search for a political and cultural identity after years of domination, and his music gave voice to the sentiments prevalent in the country at a time when inflammatory and patriotic printed words were banned by the Tsarist regime.

It is perhaps easy to regard Sibelius as a bleak, solitary and austere figure who produced music as cold and forbidding as the landscape itself, but it is a view that is at best misguided and at worst mistaken. For a start, his music is neither as bleak nor as remote as is sometimes imagined, but rich, warm and expansive, and while his personal voice is undeniably that of the ‘Far North’ a warm heart beats beneath the cold winds that often seem to blow from the pages of his scores.

Neither was Sibelius a nationalist composer in the normal sense of the term. True, he was steeped in Finnish literature and mythology, but while the epic folk legends of the Kalevala provided the inspiration for the series of orchestral works that included The Swan of Tuonela, Pohjola’s Daughter and Lemminkainen’s Return and that are purely Finnish in colour, mood and melody, Sibelius did not directly quote folk songs or show any signs of having been influenced by folk material.

Sibelius had studied in Berlin and Vienna in his youth, and at home the Russian influence was obviously much in evidence – St. Petersburg was, after all, a mere 200 miles to the east. Especially influential was the music of Tchaikovsky, whose Sixth Symphony pre-dated Sibelius’ first by only five years, and which had made a deep impression on Sibelius when it was performed in Helsinki in 1894 and 1897.

Despite breaking most of his ties with the German and Russian Romantics at the end of the 1890s, however, Sibelius never fully embraced the new century, and always remained in part a Romantic. He could not be bothered with the new concepts of Schoenberg and Stravinsky; for him, the conventional sounds were more than adequate, although he used them with great originality, especially in the way he constructed melodies and in his treatment of form.

This unmistakeable individuality, employing a totally new method of symphonic structure, began to blossom in the Second Symphony written, appropriately enough, in 1901 at the start of the new century. For its part, and despite the clear presence of the seeds of this individuality, the First Symphony looks back to the old century, and owes much to Brahms, Beethoven and the Germanic symphonic tradition in form, although in content – melody, harmony, style etc. – it looks east to the music of Russia, with Borodin and particularly Tchaikovsky the main influences. “There is much in that man that I recognize in myself,” Sibelius said of Tchaikovsky in a letter to his wife, but later on it was the differences, not the similarities, that mattered more to Sibelius. “His symphonies are very human,” he wrote two years later, “but they represent the soft part of human nature. Mine are the hard part.”

The First Symphony was started in 1898 and first performed in Helsinki on 26 April 1899 with the composer conducting the Helsinki Philharmonic. This version did not survive, however, and a revised version was premiered on 1 July of the following year with the same orchestra conducted this time by Robert Kajanus who would later, in May 1930, make the first recording of the symphony with the London Symphony Orchestra for the HMV label in England.

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