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Violin Concerto in D minor, Op. 47

About the Work

Jean Sibelius
Quick Look Composer: Jean Sibelius
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: Christoph Eschenbach, conductor: Mahler's Symphony No. 5 / Leonidas Kavakos, violin, plays Sibelius's Violin Concerto May 7 - 9, 2015
© Thomas May

The violin was the instrument with which Jean Sibelius initially hoped to build a spectacular international career as a performer. In that sense, the Violin Concerto he wrote at the end of his 30s-his only contribution to the concerto genre-might be seen a work combining fantasy and farewell. Between his adolescence and early 20s, Sibelius had nurtured the dream of fame as a violin virtuoso. But he was forced by a failed audition at last to give up that particular plan. Still, the richly varied exploration of the instrument's personality in the Violin Concerto in a sense sublimates his ambitions-to borrow a psychiatrizing explanation for matters of artistic creativity. The super-virtuoso called for in the Concerto is perhaps a kind of idealized alter ego for the composer.

Another remarkable aspect of the Violin Concerto in terms of Sibelius's career up to this point is that this is an abstract composition. It lacks any obvious connection to the realm of Finnish mythology-the very subject matter that had inspired Sibelius to write his Kalevala-inspired works. The latter, along with other pieces referring to Finland's cultural history or natural beauty, are what had made him famous in the first place. Of course there's never been a shortage of commentators who try to superimpose an extramusical dimension-often hearing "Northern" landscapes and local color, from dancing polar bears (a long-standing cliché applied to the finale) to the aurora borealis. Overall, in its abstraction, together with its personal meaning as an emblem of Sibelius's internal image of the virtuoso violinist, the Violin Concerto achieves an admirable synthesis between tradition and novelty, solo display and musical substance.

And with this single addition to the violin concerto literature, Sibelius bequeathed a masterpiece now prized as one of the most musically satisfying in the repertoire. (Sibelius also composed several shorter Humoresques as well as serenades and a suite for violin and orchestra). As is often the case, the Concerto got a less-than-promising introduction to the world that hardly anticipated the esteem and admiration it would eventually secure. For one thing, the issue of the solo performer turned disastrous when it came to the first performance, which took place in 1904 in Helsinki. Willy Burmester, a German violinist and former student of none other than Joseph Joachim (inspiration for the great Violin Concerto of Johannes Brahms) had initially encouraged Sibelius to write the work for him.

Although the music Sibelius produced deeply impressed Burmester, a scheduling snafu prevented him from taking part in the premiere. (Sibelius was responsible for insisting on the inconvenient date and venue). Sans Burmester, another violinist (teaching then in Helsinki) had to be called in to play the solo part, but without adequate preparation. It was a fiasco. Sibelius withdrew the score and then prepared a new, tighter version that trimmed away some of the excessively showy solo writing of the original. Burmester gamely offered to serve as champion of this revised version, but in a perversely self-destructive gesture, the composer snubbed Burmester by again allowing the new premiere to be scheduled at a time that conflicted with Burmester's engagements. This time the Czech violinist Karel Halír was called on to take his place, and the premiere of the revised version was conducted by Richard Strauss.

By this point the peeved Burmester-understandably feeling personally insulted-swore off performing the Violin Concerto. His advocacy might have won it popularity at an earlier stage. As it happened, decades passed before the Concerto earned more widespread recognition. Jascha Heifetz and Ginette Neveu number among the most eloquent early champions of a work that boasts an unbelievably rich discography. (Connoisseurs interested in comparing the standard version with the somewhat overwrought original can seek out Leonidas Kavakos' recording with Osma Vänskä and the Lahti Symphony on BIS. Otherwise, the Sibelius estate has categorically prohibited performances of the original score, which was withdrawn by the composer).

But there is other reason besides the dearth of adequate champions in this formidably challenging work's early years that account for its neglect at the time. This is the issue of "typecasting," of trying to fit Sibelius and his musical world into a pre-established pattern. After all, the composer's early successes-the patriotic Finlandia above all-made it easy to identify Sibelius as the "northern bard" and musical voice for an emerging Finnish national consciousness. At the same time, Sibelius had become impatient of being "explained" as the modern repository of ancient Finnish folklore or as a mouthpiece for Finland's struggle for independence (the latter being a commonplace interpretation of his hugely successful Second Symphony of 1902).

In any case, the Violin Concerto marks a significant turning point for Sibelius. Despite the ongoing influence of late Romanticism, the composer was becoming increasingly preoccupied with the abstract processes of long-form musical thought and transformation. His next symphony, the Third, even reveals a newfound neoclassical attitude. The Violin Concerto achieves a synthesis of brilliant solo writing and symphonic coherence. The large-scale design adheres to the conventional concerto layout: a grand opening movement; a slow, lyrical middle movement; and an earthy and energetic finale. Yet into this architecture Sibelius introduces some formal innovations and treats

The first movement lasts longer than the other two combined and tends toward dramatic writing for the violin soloist, who is set in relief against the orchestral ensemble. The opening sound picture-orchestral violins trembling in softly muted clouds of D minor-provides an arrestingly atmospheric backdrop against which the soloist comes into focus playing the first theme (its first three notes are the seed of much of the material to come). The solo violinist is depicted by Sibelius as a strong-minded individualist and soon launches a small cadenza. The brooding emotions of the second theme, introduced by the orchestra, are intensified by the soloist's ruminations. A shorter third theme gives way to the soloist's much more substantial cadenza. As a formal innovation, this cadenza takes the place of a conventional development. Sibelius uses this section and the recapitulation toward which it is destined to supply new perspectives on the material heard at the beginning of the movement. The coda seals the movement with a heightened sense of emotional urgency.

After such expansive musical thoughts, the Adagio presents a satisfying foil. The second movement moreover contains internal contrasts that are well paced and calibrated to underscore the opening melody's serene beauty.

Analysts have discerned a combination of rondo and sonata forms in the finale. In terms of character, this music pulsates with an almost-aggressive rhythmic energy. Sibelius reserves some of the Concerto's most taxing technical demands for this movement, which contains a veritable textbook of virtuoso gestures. Yet the virtuosity of the Sibelian "alter ego" already shows the symphonist-in-waiting. The result is a thrilling consummation of the marriage between performer and composer.