Jean Sibelius was born on December 8, 1865, in Tavestehus, Finland, and died on September 20, 1957, at Järvenpää, Finland. He began his Violin Concerto in September 1902, completed the work in short score—that is, with the orchestration worked out but not written down in detail—in the fall of 1903, and finished the full score about New Year 1904. The first performance was given at Helsingfors (Helsinki) on February 8, 1904, with Victor Nováček as soloist and the composer conducting the Helsingfors Philharmonic. Sibelius withdrew the work for revision, a task he accomplished in June 1905. In its new and present form, the work had its premiere in Berlin on October 19, 1905, with Karl Halir as soloist and Richard Strauss on the podium. Maud Powell, who was also the first to play the Dvořák and Tchaikovsky concertos in this country, introduced the Sibelius in the United States when she played it on November 30, 1906, with the New York Philharmonic under Vassily Safonov. The first San Francisco Symphony performances were given in February 1932 by Jascha Veissi, Basil Cameron conducting; in the most recent performances, in October 2009, Vadim Repin was soloist and Osmo Vänskä conducted. The orchestra consists of two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, timpani, and strings. Performance time: about thirty-one minutes.
In no violin concerto is the soloist's first note—delicately dissonant and off the beat—more beautiful. It made Sibelius happy, too. In September 1902 he wrote to his wife Aino—and this was the first mention of the concerto—that he had just had “a marvelous opening idea” for such a work. But after that inspired start the history of the piece was troubled. Sibelius was drinking heavily and seemed virtually to be living at Kamp's and König's restaurants in Helsingfors. He was limitlessly inventive when it came to finding ways of running from work in progress. He behaved outrageously to Willy Burmester, the German virtuoso who had been concertmaster in Helsingfors for a while in the 1890s, who admired Sibelius and was ambitious on his behalf, who stirred him up to write a violin concerto and of course hoped to give the first performance. Sibelius sent the score to Burmester (“Wonderful! Masterly! Only once before have I spoken in such terms to a composer, and that was when Tchaikovsky showed me his concerto”) and let word get about that the work would be dedicated to him, but at the same time pushed for a premiere at a time when Burmester was not free or, at best, would have had too little time to learn a piece that in its original form was still more demanding technically than it is now.
Victor Nováček was a violin teacher with no reputation as a performer. That he would fail with this concerto was a foregone conclusion, yet that was the plan the self-destructive Sibelius chose. After the near-disastrous premiere Burmester offered his services again for a series of performances in October 1904—“All of my twenty-five years’ stage experience, my artistry and insight will be at the service of this work. . . . I shall play the concerto in Helsingfors in such a way that the city will be at your feet”—only to find himself passed over again, this time in favor of Karl Halir, concertmaster in Berlin, a former member of the Joachim Quartet, and himself a distinguished quartet leader. Burmester never played the work, and the dedication finally went to yet another player, Ferenc von Vecsey, a Hungarian violinist born in 1893, who in his prodigy days was one of the concerto's earliest champions.
From Bach to Bartók, many of the great keyboard concertos have been written by composers for themselves. More of the famous violin concertos have been written for others to play. Sibelius wrote his for a kind of ghostly self. He was a failed violinist. He had begun lessons late, at fourteen, but then “the violin took me by storm, and for the next ten years it was my dearest wish, my overriding ambition, to become a great virtuoso.” In fact, aside from the double handicap of his late start and the provincial level of even the best teaching available in Finland, he had neither the physical coordination nor the temperament for such a career. In 1890-91, when he was in Vienna studying composition with Robert Fuchs and Karl Goldmark, he played in the conservatory orchestra (its intonation gave him headaches), and on January 9, 1891, he auditioned for the Philharmonic. “When he got back to his room,” we read in Erik Tawaststjerna's biography, “Sibelius broke down and wept. Afterwards he sat at the piano and began to practice scales.” With that he gave up, though a diary entry in 1915 records a dream of being twelve and a virtuoso. His Violin Concerto is, in any event, imbued both with his feeling for the instrument and the pain of his farewell to his “dearest wish” and “overriding ambition.”
The two violin concertos that most imaginatively explore the structural and expressive potential of cadenzas are Elgar's and Schoenberg's. Without intending anything as dramatic or fantastical, Sibelius assigns a role of unprecedented importance to his first-movement cadenza, which in fact takes the place and function of the development section. The original 1903-04 version has two large cadenzas in the first movement, the familiar one that survives and another, near the end, that is full of echoes of the solo Bach pieces to which Sibelius never advanced.
What leads up to that big cadenza is a sequence of ideas that begins with the sensitive, dreamy melody that introduces the voice of the soloist. This leads to what we might call a mini-cadenza, starting with a flurry of sixteenth notes marked veloce. From this solo passage there emerges a declamatory statement upon which Sibelius's mark is ineluctable, an impassioned, super-violinistic recitation in sixths and octaves. What follows is a long tutti that slowly subsides from furious march music to wistful pastoral to darkness. It is out of this darkness that the development/cadenza erupts, an occasion for sovereign virtuosity, brilliantly, fancifully, and economically composed.
Whether comparing his own concerto with Brahms's, which he heard in Berlin in January 1905, or, many years later, with the Prokofiev D major, Sibelius set store by having composed a soloistic concerto rather than a symphonic one. It seems an odd point for him to be so stubborn about it for so long. True, there is none of the close-knit dialogue characteristic of the great concertos of Brahms, Beethoven, or Mozart (the Mozart of the piano concertos, not the early, lovely, and quite simply composed violin concertos). Sibelius opposes rather than meshes solo and orchestra or casts the orchestra as accompanist. But while it is true that the Sibelius is one of the really smashing virtuoso concertos, it would be a mistake to associate it with the merely virtuosic tradition represented by the concertos of, say, Tchaikovsky, Bruch, and perhaps even the elegant Mendelssohn, to say nothing of Paganini, Vieuxtemps, Wieniawski, and others of that ilk. Sibelius's first movement, with its daring sequence of disparate ideas, its quest for the unity behind them, its bold substitute for a conventional development, its recapitulation that continues to explore, rearrange, and develop, its wedding of violinistic brilliance to compositional purposes, is one that bears the unmistakable stamp of the symphonist—perhaps the greatest symphonist after Brahms.
The second and third movements proceed from a lesser level of structural ambition, which does not mean, however, that the Adagio is anything other than one of the most moving pages Sibelius ever achieved. Between its introductory measures and main theme there is a fascinating disparity. Clarinets and oboes in pairs suggest an idea of rather tentative tone, one also in which something survives of Sibelius's early passion for Wagner. This is a gentle beginning, leading to the entry of the solo violin with a melody of vast breadth. Sonoro ed espressivo, it speaks in tones we know well and that touch us deeply. The world and the gestures evoked are the world and the gestures of Beethoven, particularly those of the Cavatina in the B-flat major Quartet, Opus 130. Sibelius never found, perhaps never sought, such a melody again: This, too, is farewell. Very lovely, later in the movement, is the sonorous fantasy that accompanies the melody (now in clarinet and bassoon) with scales, all pianissimo, broken octaves moving up in the violin, and with a delicate rain of slowly descending scales in flutes and soft strings.
“Evidently a polonaise for polar bears,” said Donald Francis Tovey of the finale—a remark it seems no program note writer can resist quoting. The charmingly aggressive main theme was an old one, going back to a string quartet from 1890. The enlivening accompaniment in the timpani against the figure in the strings is one of the fruits of revision. As the movement goes on, the rhythm becomes more and more giddily inventive, especially in the matter of the recklessly across-the-beat bravura embellishment the soloist fires across the themes. It builds to a drama that reminds us how much Sibelius enjoyed Dvořák's D minor Symphony when he heard Hans von Bülow conduct it in Berlin in 1890, to end in utmost and syncopated brilliance
Michael Steinberg, the San Francisco Symphony’s Program Annotator from 1979 to 1999 and a contributing writer to our program book until his death in 2009, was one of the nation’s pre-eminent writers on music. We are privileged to continue publishing his program notes. His books are available at the Symphony Store in Davies Symphony Hall.
More About the Music
Recordings: Sarah Chang with Mariss Jansons and the Berlin Philharmonic (EMI Classics) | Maxim Vengerov with Daniel Barenboim and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (Teldec) | Leonidas Kavakos with Osmo Vänskä and the Lahti Symphony Orchestra (BIS)
Reading: Jean Sibelius, by Erik Tawaststjerna, in English translation by Robert Layton (Faber & Faber and University of California Press) | The Music of Jean Sibelius, by Burnett James (Fairleigh Dickinson University Press) | Sibelius, by Cecil Gray (Oxford University Press)