Sibelius: Symphony No.3

Jean Sibelius (1865-1957)
Symphony No.3 in C major, Op.52

1. Allegro moderato
2. Andantino con moto, quasi allegretto
3. Moderato - Allegro ma non tanto

The early years of the twentieth century were a busy time for Sibelius. After years of struggle he was finally establishing his name as a composer, and conductors such as Toscanini and Henry Wood were performing his works. The English were taking to his music particularly, and so it was natural that he should be invited to visit the country by another prominent (though now half-forgotten) musician, Granville Bantock, who conducted the British première of Sibelius's First Symphony in March 1905 during the composer's stay.

England's appeal to Sibelius may not have been entirely unconnected with Bantock's generous hospitality, so lavish that Sibelius declared that he "never made the acquaintance of English coinage." While such attentions were understandably welcome and helped smooth the way for the Royal Philharmonic Society's proposal that he should bring his planned third symphony to England in 1907, there is a dark undercurrent: Sibelius had a drink problem, and such unconstrained bonhomie cannot have helped matters. His new publisher Robert Lienau's desire for more new works was an unwelcome pressure, and drove him further into the bottle. Progress on the new symphony was therefore slow, and the Society had to wait until February 1908 for its première. Bantock conducted, and Sibelius expressed his gratitude by dedicating the symphony to him. A pattern had been set, and Sibelius's subsequent career would be characterised by increasing self-doubt, struggles with alcoholism and consequent procrastination.

The Third Symphony represents a new maturity in Sibelius's style. Gone is the romanticism of the first two symphonies. In its place is a new, pared down sound, restrained in its emotions and textures. The moderately-sized orchestra that Sibelius uses could not be more in contrast to prevailing fashions in 1908 – Mahler had recently produced his Eighth Symphony, the "Symphony of a Thousand" whose extravagantly large forces were much more in tune with mainstream tastes. It is interesting to note that one of the few other composers defying fashion at this time was Schoenberg, whose Chamber Symphony is similarly a reaction against the overblown excesses of late Romantic music. Within a decade, the First World War would put an end to large orchestras (not least through the wholesale slaughter of thousands of young men who might otherwise have taken up the profession) and stripped-down neoclassicism would become the trend. Sibelius's music stands apart from these trends though. He is not interested in the ironic recycling of archaic clichés, but taking the principles of symphonic thought as the starting point for something entirely new. When Sibelius and Mahler met, around the time that the Third Symphony was being composed, their differences were encapsulated in Sibelius's declared fascination with the possibilities of creating symphonies bound together by intricate relationships between all the musical ideas and motifs, and Mahler's insistence that "the symphony must be like the world: it must embrace everything!" He did not see that Sibelius's approach could create the sense of an entire world just as effectively as his own, more diffuse structures.

The Third Symphony is in only three movements: The first movement's quietly vigorous opening opens out into bright cold sunlight, tempered by Nordic melancholy. Then a withdrawn, will o' the wisp of an intermezzo precedes a finale that starts fleet-footedly before mutating into a noble conclusion. It is often said that the way Sibelius constructs his music is by taking scraps and building up themes from them. This is precisely how the last movement of this symphony works – but it is in fact the only movement in all Sibelius's symphonies where this happens.

Beethoven: Violin Concerto

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
Violin Concerto in D major, Op.61

1.Allegro ma non troppo
3.Rondo. Allegro

Franz Clement, the dedicatee and first performer of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, is a man recalled by some with horror. At the concert in December 1806 when he gave the first performance, rather than play the whole concerto through in one go he performed the first movement in the first half of the concert and the remaining two in the second half. In between he interspersed a number of other pieces, including a set of variations of his own composing, played on one string with the violin held upside down, before continuing with the remaining two movements of Beethoven’s piece.

A little perspective is required. Those who complain po-facedly about this sullying of the concerto’s artistry would do well to remember the dedication to Clement that Beethoven scrawled on the manuscript, which consists mainly of a tortuous pun on the violinist’s “clemency”. Beethoven clearly saw no contradiction between the expression of divine ideas and a cheap joke, and there is no reason why we should be troubled by such things.

That Clement performed the concerto at sight with no rehearsal may be true or may be a tale put about to bolster his reputation as a technical master, but Beethoven certainly finished the concerto very late. Again, though, this was not such an unusual situation as it appears to us. Late into the nineteenth century, virtuosi such as Liszt were accustomed to rolling into whichever town was next on their tour itinerary and only then organising concert dates and assembling the necessary local musicians to form an orchestra. Spontaneity was the order of the day, and if we like to believe we treat this music with more reverence we might also consider what we have lost in the process.

Although now one of his most loved pieces, the Violin Concerto remained relatively unknown until Joseph Joachim took it into his repertoire in the latter part of the nineteenth century. Until then it was more likely to be heard on a very different instrument: as a violin concerto was not an enormously sellable genre, Beethoven rewrote the solo part for piano.

The concerto is unusual for Beethoven in its overall feeling of sublime calm, which is not to say that there is not plenty of drama to be had in the vast opening movement, which is filled with incident and surprises. The second movement is so filled with rapturous stillness that it takes a sudden and violent interjection to dispel the mood and prepare for the energetic finale, whose joyfulness and cheeky touches (including the soloist’s only two plucked notes in the entire piece) remind us that humour and profundity can make perfectly happy bedfellows.

Fauré: Pelléas et Mélisande

Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924)
Pelléas et Mélisande, Op.80
4.Mort de Mélisande
Maurice Maeterlinck’s symbolist play Pelléas et Mélisande has been a source of inspiration for a number of composers: in the wake of Debussy’s opera, Schoenberg, Sibelius and Cyril Scott all composed works on the subject. Before any of these eminent modernists turned their attentions to the subject, however, Gabriel Fauré’s score composed for the first performance of the play in English in London in 1898 gained the distinction of being the first music inspired by the drama to be heard in public.

Fauré was overworked at the time and so entrusted his pupil Charles Koechlin with the orchestration of the music. Fauré himself subsequently revised three movements for a larger orchestra in 1901, and the addition in 1909 of the famous Sicilienne completed the four movement suite that we hear tonight.

The circumstances of the work may seem unlikely, but Fauré made several attempts to establish himself in London. However, he never managed to impress the English as much as did his titled contemporary Dr Edvard Grieg. Indeed, the reception of his music was decidedly lukewarm: “It is scarcely satisfactory, being wanting alike in charm and in dramatic power… its continued absence of tangible form, not to speak of its actual ugliness at many points, is such as to disturb rather than assist the illusion of the scene,” wrote the Times.

Such sniffy judgements were not uncommon for a composer who was and often still is dismissed as a purveyor of lightweight salon songs. But this is to misunderstand how his music works. Those looking for lurid expressions of breast-beating despair in the death of Mélisande, for instance, will be disappointed. Fauré’s music eschews melodrama, and prefers to make its point in more undemonstrative, subtly shaded ways. Its exquisitely attractive surface should not blind the listener to its great subtlety and originality, an art that conceals itself. Often seen as a marginal figure of the late nineteenth century, Fauré really deserves to take his place as a farsighted figure of the early twentieth century, whose influence, through such composers as his contemporary Satie and his favourite pupil Ravel, has persisted through a significant strand of the past century; rarely if ever drawing attention to itself, but there nevertheless.