The Kennedy Center

Night-Ride and Sunrise

About the Work

Image for Sibelius Composer: Jean Sibelius
© Peter Laki

After the premiere of Sibelius's tone poem Night Ride and Sunrise, one critic in St. Petersburg was wondering "who [was] riding where and why."  The performance, conducted by Alexander Siloti, was grossly inadequate (something that even Siloti admitted in a letter to the composer), but one suspects that the work would have bewildered its first audience even if what they heard had been closer to what Sibelius had written.  For Sibelius, whose native Finland was at the time a Grand Duchy within the Russian Empire, was speaking a musical language that was as incomprehensible in the capital as was Finnish itself.  Night Ride and Sunrise was entirely free from the influence of Rimsky-Korsakov, the master of masters who had left such a profound mark on Russian music and who passed away the year this work was written.  At the same time, it had nothing in common with "official" moderns such as Debussy or Richard Strauss, whose music had just begun to be known (and intensely debated) in Russia.  One might in fact modify the critic's question and ask where Sibelius was heading in this "night ride" and why.

In the works of his early maturity, Sibelius single-handedly created the Finnish national style in music, inspired by the folk music of his country and the national epic Kalevala in particular.  After 1905, he entered a new period that has been called "modern classicism":  less obviously nationalistic, Sibelius's music became more tightly constructed and more economical, developing a small number of motifs in ways of his own devising.  The resulting music did not adhere to any classical formal patterns, yet it was characterized by a high degree of structural coherence.  One of the most interesting works from this period, which began with Sibelius's Symphony No. 3, was Night Ride and Sunrise, a long-neglected but fascinating score.

Unlike many other of Sibelius's tone poems, like the four movements of the Lemminkäinen suite or Pohjola's Daughter, Night Ride and Sunrise is not based on the Kalevala; accordingly, the work is largely free from all folk-music influences.  Shortly before his death, Sibelius told his secretary that the original impulse for the work had come from a sleigh ride he had taken around the turn of the century and a fantastic sunrise he had seen during that trip.  Earlier he had explained to his English biographer, Rosa Newmarch, that the symphonic poem portrayed "the inner experiences of an average man riding alone through the forest gloom, sometimes glad to be alone with Nature, sometimes awe-struck by the stillness or the strange sounds which break it, but thankful and rejoicing in the daybreak."

The first half of the piece, the "Night Ride," is dominated by a single, galloping rhythmic figure (an alternation of long and short notes in a fairly fast tempo) that appears in the violas and cellos after a brief and startlingly abrupt introduction.  The volume and orchestration of this rhythmic motif is sometimes louder and fuller, sometimes softer and thinner, and its melodic shape is either linear (ascending-descending) or circular (hovering around certain pitches).  The rhythm remains unchanged for almost eight minutes but the pitches are never predictable.  At a certain point, a new static and immutable new theme, marked lugubre and played by the woodwind, is superimposed on the gallop.  Then a woodwind theme falls away and the galloping rhythm becomes more mysterious through the increased use of chromatic half-steps and is eventually smoothed out into a succession of even sixteenth-notes as the "lugubrious" second theme returns, now played by the strings.  (The relentless repetitions of this motif have caused one commentator to refer to the piece as "proto-minimalist.")  Finally, the sixteenth-notes fall away and only the lugubre theme remains, providing a bridge from the "night ride" section to the second part of the piece, the "sunrise."  To the accompaniment of the plucked violas and cellos, the woodwinds introduce a new melody whose shape is closely related to the earlier lugubre theme.  This new theme, which symbolizes the sunrise, is, then, organically connected to the first half the piece, the night ride.  The transition between the two halves is gradual, like daybreak itself.  (Similar gradual transitions may be found in several of Sibelius's later works, including the Fifth and Seventh Symphonies-a fact that may help us understand why the sunrise was such an important metaphor for this composer.)  The gently undulating "sunrise" theme goes through a number of variations and appears in different instrumental colorings before the climactic moment is reached.  As a previous commentator has remarked, Sibelius's is a Nordic sunrise, "not a great, glorious burst of color such as we perceive in Ravel's Daphnis and Chloe."  The mood is starker and more austere and the temperature noticeably colder, yet the sight is equally majestic.