Jean Sibelius was born on December 8, 1865, in Tavestehus (Hämeenlinna), Finland, and died on September 20, 1957, in Järvenpää, Finland. He composed Valse triste in 1903. It was premiered on April 25, 1904, with the composer conducting the Philharmonic Society. These are the first subscription performances by the San Francisco Symphony. The score calls for flute, clarinet, two French horns, timpani, and strings. Performance time: about five minutes.
In 1903, Sibelius wrote six numbers for Kuolema (Death), a play by his brother-in-law, Arvid Järnefelt. The play was unsuccessful, but a year later Sibelius salvaged one of the numbers, reworked it and called it Valse triste. These simple but haunting bars were written for a scene in which a woman on her deathbed rises to dance with a series of spectral partners. One can only conjecture how it might have worked in its original dramatic context, but on its own it is wonderfully evocative of darkness, delirium, and collapse. Sibelius tried in later years to recapture his music in Valse lyrique and a Valse chevaleresque, but it eluded him and the Valse triste remains stubbornly unique. Had he not sold its copyright for 300 marks, Sibelius could have become a rich man simply on account of the popularity of Valse triste.
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: Herbert Blomstedt conducting the San Francisco Symphony (Decca) | Osmo Vänskä conducting the Lahti Symphony Orchestra (BIS)
Reading: Jean Sibelius, by Erik Tawaststjerna, in English translation by Robert Layton (Faber & Faber and University of California Press; three volumes, out of print but peerless) | The Music of Jean Sibelius, by Burnett James (Fairleigh Dickinson University Press) | Sibelius, by Cecil Gray (Oxford University Press)