The Kennedy Center

Kuolema, Op. 44

About the Work

Image for Sibelius Composer: Jean Sibelius
© Richard Freed

Sibelius composed this piece as part of his incidental music for Arvid J?rnefelt's play Kuolema in 1903, and it was performed with the play that year, in Helsinki. The National Symphony Orchestra first performed Valse triste on January 29, 1933, under Hans Kindler, and presented it most recently in a Millennium Stage concert on July 15, 1998, Elisabeth Schulze conducting.

The score calls for flute, clarinet, 2 horns, timpani, and strings. Duration, 5 minutes.

The several sets of incidental music Sibelius composed for plays constitute one of the most attractive segments of his catalogue of work. Sibelius himself valued this part of his output sufficiently to prepare concert suites from several such scores, but we seldom have opportunities to hear them. His music for Maeterlinck's Pell?as et M?lisande (1905) and for Hjalmar Procop?'s Belshazzar's Feast (1906) must make any listener wonder why such works are not standard fare in our concert halls. Even more intriguing is the richly colored and almost extravagantly tuneful score for The Tempest (1925), contemporaneous with the Finnish master's valedictory masterpieces Tapiola and the last two of his seven symphonies.

The one example of Sibelius's theater music that definitely has not suffered anything resembling neglect is Valse triste. Originally, this "Sad Waltz" was the first of the six numbers in the score he composed for his brother-in-law Arvid J?rnefelt's play Kuolema, in 1903. (It may be noted that Sibelius's wife, Aino J?rnefelt, had two creative brothers: Arvid, the playwright, and Armas, the composer whose miniatures Praeludium and Berceuse were among the pieces recorded by the NSO under Hans Kindler, back in the 1940s.) When the play was revived eight years later Sibelius added two additional pieces, a Canzonetta and Valse romantique which he published together as his Op. 62. The title Kuolema means "Death," and in the opening scene of the play an old widow, the mother of the drama's hero, dances a waltz with Death himself, whom she mistakes in her delirium for her dead husband. Erik Tawaststjerna, in his biography of Sibelius, noted:
The play is very much of its period. In the first act in particular, one is reminded of Strindberg's A Dream Play. Reality and dreams intermingle, and in the moment before her death the mother relives a ball scene from her youth: phantom-like figures in evening dress glide noiselessly while Sibelius's music tries to mirror an interplay between this vivid memory and the sense of oncoming death.
Sibelius scored his original Kuolema for string orchestra, with a bass drum added in the penultimate piece and church bells at the end of the last one. In 1904 he revised this first piece for larger orchestra and had it published separately under its now familiar title. It became enormously popular--and became a classic example of a score virtually given away by its composer, only to make its publisher rich. In this case Sibelius sold all rights to the Leipzig firm Breitkopf und H?rtel for the equivalent of about 25 dollars, and never received a penny in royalties; for years he hoped, in vain, to create another such piece for his own benefit.