Violin Concerto in D minor (Sibelius)

Program note

Aerial view of a lake in Finland
Jean Sibelius
(1865–1957) Violin Concerto in D minor, op. 47

Allegro moderato – Allegro molto
Adagio di molto
Allegro ma non tanto

By his very nature, Sibelius was not the sort of composer one would expect to compose a concerto. The conception of a concerto as a ‘show-off’ work for the soloist was anathema to Sibelius, who increasingly throughout his compositional career sought to employ the purest, most unselfconscious forms of musical expression, eventually resulting in the astonishing economy of utterance and organic structure of the last two symphonies (Nos 6 and 7).

And yet for all that reluctance to indulge in merely ‘gestural’ instrumental effects, throughout his musical career Sibelius maintained a love of the violin. As a young man he had harboured ambitions of becoming a virtuoso violinist himself, but a comparatively late start to his training, together with a slightly dodgy technique, meant that this career option was not viable in the longer term.

Instead, Sibelius had to content himself with his famous improvisation sessions as he sat high on a rock overlooking a lake, and occasional appearances as a second violinist
in a string quartet at the Helsinki Conservatory. But his frustrated ambitions must have been compensated at least in part by his composition in 1903 of his only concerto of any kind, the Violin Concerto, which is now acknowledged alongside the Beethoven, Brahms, Mendelssohn and Tchaikovsky concertos as indisputably one of the greatest works ever written in the form. (Sibelius’ background as a violinist rather than a pianist may also explain why he, like fellow violinist Elgar, is often regarded as being among the finest and most distinctive orchestrators in musical history.)

Written between the second and third symphonies, the Violin Concerto demonstrates just how successfully Sibelius managed to adapt the virtuoso vehicle to his own expressive needs. For the listener, the concerto is not so much the demonstration of the fiendish virtuosity which it is for the performer, but rather an organic musical whole in which every single hemi-demi-semiquaver contributes to the overall expressive intent. In other words, its technical demands emerge from its artistic purpose.

Nevertheless, as with so many musical masterpieces, the Violin Concerto endured rather traumatic beginnings. On his return from Berlin in 1902, and after years of travelling, Sibelius began to ‘settle down’ in his personal life. Always given to excess during his youth, around this time Sibelius was cajoled by his brother Christian into giving up alcohol (in his capacity as a doctor Christian had recently been dissecting the brains of dead alcoholics).

The composer protested, however:

When I am standing in front of an orchestra and have drunk half a bottle of champagne, then I conduct like a young god. Otherwise I am nervous and tremble, feel unsure of myself, and then everything is lost. The same is true of my visits to the bank manager.

His battle with the bottle notwithstanding, Sibelius completed the fiendishly difficult first version of the Violin Concerto in 1903 and in the following year, as he began to revise the work into its present form, he settled into the log cabin in Järvenpää, where he was to remain for the rest of his long life.

Undoubtedly the concerto had been inspired by Willy Burmester, former leader of the Helsinki Orchestra, a disciple of the great Joachim and a long-time admirer of Sibelius’ music. As early as 1902 Burmester had been enquiring by letter as to the concerto’s progress, and he made various offers of technical assistance and advice. In September 1903 Sibelius sent Burmester a short score, to which Burmester replied, ‘I can only say one thing: Wonderful! Masterly! Only once before have I spoken in such terms to a composer, and that was when Tchaikovsky showed me his concerto.’

But when Sibelius finished the work, his anxiety to arrange a first performance as soon as possible, and Burmester’s unavailability in the short term, meant that Sibelius actually offered the first performance to Viktor Nováček, an unexceptional Helsinki musician who was so slow to learn it that the concert had to be delayed. When on 8 February 1904 the flushed and perspiring Nováček premiered the work with Sibelius conducting, it was not a success, despite some favourable reviews. ‘The public here is shallow and full of bile,’ wrote Sibelius soon afterwards, and he threatened to withdraw the work.

With Burmester still offering to perform the concerto, Sibelius set about revising it, completely rewriting the first movement and also making significant alterations to the slow movement. The new version was completed in June 1905, and again Burmester was passed over as soloist, despite his availability and desire to perform it. Instead, the new version was premiered in Berlin by Karel Halíř, with Richard Strauss conducting.

Amidst the general wrangling and bitterness, Burmester vowed never to perform the concerto, while Joachim, on hearing the Berlin premiere, damned it. ‘Joachim seems no longer in tune with the spirit of our time,’ wrote Sibelius in response. Fortunately the Berlin press was rather more enthusiastic than Joachim,
but even so, the work didn’t really establish itself in the repertoire until the 1930s, when Jascha Heifetz began to perform it. Since that time it has been regarded as a yardstick by which violinists are measured.

Sibelius…sought to employ the purest, most unselfconscious forms of musical expression.

The opening of the concerto is one of the most unmistakable in all music. Over the murmur of muted violins, the soloist enters immediately with an unforgettable, intense and brooding first subject, soon echoed and developed in the woodwind. This Allegro moderato theme is set against a series of fragmentary figures which form a kind of second subject emerging out of the depths of the cellos and bassoons. The movement itself doesn’t sit well with standard sonata principles, however. The development and recapitulation are actually combined, and the cadenza precedes them both. And yet there is a clear organic structure within the movement, with the soloist dominating and the rhythm driving on through a series of orchestral climaxes.

The mood of the Adagio is more restrained, but the characteristic intensity remains, as does the poignancy and sense of regret. The soloist’s entry is prefaced by the woodwinds weaving a series of instrumental lines in thirds, and the strongly accented second subject also derives from this opening idea. After a more agitated middle section, the movement ends with a return of the main thematic material, intensified now and with an apparent reluctance to conclude the proceedings.

The finale is a polonaise in all but name, and a bravura showpiece for the soloist. Sibelius noted, ‘It must be played with absolute mastery. Fast, of course, but no faster than it can be played perfectly.’ It begins with a stamping figure low down in the timpani and strings and the solo part then shoots up heavenwards, with amazingly difficult passages of thirds, harmonics, arpeggios, double-stops – indeed all the pyrotechnics available to the soloist, but at the same time without any sense of self-indulgence or selfconscious display.

The wild dance gathers momentum as it proceeds until a series of majestic flourishes from the violin leads to the final, sharp decisive chords from the full orchestra.

Martin Buzacott
Symphony Australia © 1997
Republished with the permission of Symphony Services Australia

Llewellyn Four: Infinite Possibilities is presented by Shell Australia, a CSO Gold Partner

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