Sibelius: Violin Concerto

Violin Concerto in D minor

Jean Sibelius
BORN: December 8, 1865. Tavestehus, Finland
DIED: September 20, 1957. Järvenpää, Finland

COMPOSED: Begun in September 1902. The work was completed 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. After its world premiere, Sibelius withdrew the work for revision, a task he accomplished in June 1905

WORLD PREMIERE: The first version was premiered on February 8, 1904. Victor Nováček was soloist, with the composer conducting the Helsingfors Philharmonic, at Helsingfors (Helsinki). In its new and present form, and the version that is played at these performances, the work received its premiere on October 19, 1905. Karl Halir was soloist, with Richard Strauss on the podium, in Berlin

US PREMIERE: November 30, 1906. Maud Powell, who was also the first to play the Dvořák and Tchaikovsky concertos in the US, with Vassily Safonov conducting the New York Philharmonic

SFS PERFORMANCES: FIRST—February 1932. Jascha Veissi was soloist, Basil Cameron conducted. MOST RECENT—November 2015. Leonidas Kavakos was soloist, Michael Tilson Thomas conducted

INSTRUMENTATION: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, and strings

DURATION: About 31 mins

THE BACKSTORY  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, who ended up giving the premiere of this piece, 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.

Sibelius wrote this concerto 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, 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 one of the great Sibelius biographies, “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 imbued both with his feeling for the instrument and the pain of his farewell to his “dearest wish” and “overriding ambition.”

THE MUSIC  Sibelius gives unprecedented importance to his first-movement cadenza (when the violinist plays a virtuosic section alone, without accompaniment). 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 notes marked veloce (rapid). From this there emerges a declamatory statement upon which Sibelius’s mark is ineluctable—an impassioned, super-violinistic recitation. Then the orchestra joins in music that slowly subsides from furious march music to wistful pastoral to darkness. It is out of this darkness that the cadenza erupts, an occasion for sovereign virtuosity, brilliantly, fancifully, and economically composed.

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. He opposes rather than meshes solo and orchestra. The first movement, with its daring sequence of disparate ideas, its quest for the unity behind them, its bold substitute for convention, 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 Adagio is one of the most moving pages Sibelius ever achieved. Clarinets and oboes in pairs suggest a rather tentative idea; this is a gentle beginning, leading to the entry of the solo violin with a melody of vast breadth. It speaks in tones we know well and that touch us deeply. 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 (very quietly), moving up in the violin, and with a delicate rain of slowly descending notes in flutes and soft strings.

“Evidently a polonaise for polar bears,” said British writer and musicologist Donald Francis Tovey of the finale—a remark it seems no 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 to end in utmost and syncopated brilliance.

Michael Steinberg

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: 
Leonidas Kavakos with Osmo Vänskä and the Lahti Symphony Orchestra (BIS)  |  Maxim Vengerov with Daniel Barenboim and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (Teldec) 

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)

(October 2017)