Jean Sibelius is one of those composers I struggle with from time to time. He seems like a composer whose music I should like more than I do, and yet, I don’t dislike his music. I’ve never really made a huge effort to listen to him, so I suppose the fault is mine. His life and career straddled the transition from Romanticism to Modernism, but Sibelius is generally best seen as one of the Romantics, albeit a highly nationalized one, coming from Finland and thus having a sound world all his own, quite distinct from the Wagner-Brahms thing going on farther south. Sibelius’s music is more of a cloth with Carl Nielsen’s, I suppose, but I tend to find it more distant, more difficult to really find the emotional center. But I also find that the more I listen to it, the more the internal logic of what he’s doing shows up. Sibelius’s music doesn’t so much sing or emote, as contemplate. It’s very inward-looking music.
In terms of performance, Sibelius was on my very first orchestral program, way back in the college days. It was the work below, his Concerto for Violin and Orchestra. It was nearly impossible in those early rehearsals to get any real feel for the work, as our orchestra only had half its complement for most rehearsals (our ranks would be padded out by paid pros from Waterloo/Cedar Falls, the large city twenty miles south), and we didn’t have the soloist (a violinist from the University of Iowa, named Leopold La Fosse) available for most of it, either. These were hardly ideal circumstances on which to engage with a piece of music, which is a shame because it was — and is — quite the concerto, when you really hear it.
(Those sparse rehearsals got a lot better over time. The orchestra’s director, Dr. Janice Wade, was in the early stages at that point of really striving to build a string program from almost nothing at Wartburg. By the time I graduated, four years later, we had a full orchestra present each week at rehearsal. Dr. Wade could be idiosyncratic, to say the least, but I came to deeply admire and respect the job that she did with that group. Indeed, some of my fondest musical memories come from my time under her baton. She retired a short time ago.)
Here’s the Sibelius Violin Concerto.
Tomorrow: A really modern composer!