Finlandia, Opus 26 1899/1990 | 8 mins
In the 1890s, Sibelius was recognized by Finland as its greatest composer. After 1900, he became famous around the world. Finlandia was the turning point. Its popularity surprised no one more than Sibelius, who had agreed to contribute some music to a public demonstration in Helsinki. 1899 was a time of heightened political tensions as the Russian hold on Finland was growing tighter, and so this simple and brief, but stirring piece, crowned by a big, singable tune, struck home like a thunderbolt. Finlandia is richly scored and imaginatively colored—those dark clouds at the top are particularly unforgettable. LISTEN FOR: It boasts one of music’s great melodies, although it sometimes catches audiences by surprise, coming at the very last minute!
Violin Concerto in D minor, Opus 47 1902/1905 | 31 mins
In no violin concerto is the soloist’s first note—delicately dissonant and off the beat—more beautiful. The first movement, with its daring sequence of disparate ideas, its quest for the unity behind them, its boldness and violinistic brilliance, is one that bears the unmistakable stamp of Sibelius the symphonist (many believe he is perhaps the greatest after Brahms). The Adagio is some of the most moving music Sibelius ever wrote. When the solo violin enters with its melody, it speaks in tones we know well and that touch us deeply. The final movement has been described as “a polonaise for polar bears.” Its charmingly aggressive melody is enlivened by the timpani battling the strings. The rhythm becomes more and more giddily inventive, especially via the reckless bravura embellishment that the soloist fires. It builds to end in utmost and syncopated brilliance.
Symphony No. 1, Opus 10 1925 | 28 mins
Shostakovich wrote his first symphony while still a teenager—he was just eighteen when he started this work. The assurance with which young Shostakovich realizes this large-scale piece is as impressive as its vigor and freshness. It’s easy to hear what music he had been listening to, and what had delighted him. DID YOU KNOW? He owes, for example, some of his nose-thumbing, wrong-note humor to Prokofiev, he is fascinated by Mahler and his ways of twisting the tails of commonplaces, and we see Stravinsky’s characterful rage. He takes everything just a bit further and finds ways of playing it up—offering things in unexpected order, interrupting, linking, reverting. LISTEN FOR: Shostakovich’s orchestral imagination is outstanding, as the timpani solo in the finale attests. The slow movement (Lento) in particular reveals that he had much to say and much of astonishing depth while still just in his teens, with every phrase a signal of the arrival on the scene of a new, eloquent, personal, unmistakable voice.
Jeanette Yu is Director of Publications at the San Francisco Symphony.