Sibelius' Finland

Prepared by Ken Meltzer

Vltava (The Moldau) from Má vlast (My Fatherland) (1874-1879)

Bedřich Smetana was born in Leitomischl, Bohemia (now, Litomyšl, the Czech Republic) on March 2, 1824, and died in Prague on May 12, 1884.  The first complete performance of Má Vlast took place at the National Theater in Prague on November 5, 1882, with Adolf Čech conducting. 

Approximate performance time is twelve minutes.

In the autumn of 1874, Bedřich Smetana suddenly found himself totally deaf.  Smetana was forced to resign all of his public appointments, and it appeared that the career of the first great Czech nationalist composer was at an end.  But Smetana’s passion to express unbounded love for his Czech homeland was too powerful.  This devastating period witnessed the triumphant birth of Smetana’s orchestral masterpiece, Má vlast (My Fatherland).  Smetana composed this collection of six orchestral tone poems during the period from 1874-1879.

Smetana dedicated Má vlast to the city of Prague.  The first integral performance of the work occurred on November 5, 1882, with Adolf Čech conducting.  In his biography of Smetana, Václav Zelený described the event: “Everyone rose to his feet and the same unending storm of applause was repeated after each of the six parts…At the end of (the concert) the audience was beside itself and the people could not bring themselves to take leave of the composer.”

The following is Smetana’s description of The Moldau:

Vltava (The Moldau)—

Two springs gush forth in the shade of the Bohemian forest, the one warm and swift flowing, the other cool and tranquil.  Their waters join and rush joyously down the rocky bed, glistening in the light of the morning sun.  The hurrying forest brook becomes the River Moldau (Vltava), which flows across the land of Bohemia, widening as it goes.  Passing through dark forests, the sounds of the hunter’s horn are heard ever nearer.  Through meadowlands it passes where a wedding feast is being celebrated by peasants with song and dance.  At night, water nymphs play in its gleaming depths in which are reflected fortresses and castles from the glorious past.  At the Rapids of St. John, the stream becomes a roaring cataract, beating its way through rocky chasms, widening at last into the majestic river that flows through Prague, greeted by the mighty old fortress, Vyšehrad, where it vanishes over the horizon lost to the poet’s sight.

Concerto No. 3 for Piano and Orchestra (1945)

Béla Bartók was born in Sînnicolau Mare, Hungary, on March 25, 1881, and died in New York on September 26, 1945.  The first performance of the Third Piano Concerto took place in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on February 8, 1946, with György Sándor as soloist, and Eugene Ormandy conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra. 

Approximate performance time is twenty-three minutes.

On October 8, 1940, one month before Hungary joined the Axis alliance, Hungarian composer Béla Bartók and his wife, pianist Ditta Pásztory, gave a farewell concert at the Academy of Music in Budapest.  The Bartóks then departed their native land for the United States, arriving in New York harbor on October 29, 1940.  During the journey to the United States, the composer wrote: “this voyage plunging into the unknown from what is known but unbearable...God only knows how and for how long I’ll be able to work over there.”

Bartók’s fortunes continued to decline when he settled in New York.  His health deteriorating from the onset of leukemia, Bartók was often unable to fulfill the few commissions he received.  Still, there were some brighter moments for Bartók in the United States.  A 1943 commission from conductor Serge Koussevitsky supported the composition of one of the masterpieces of the 20th century, Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra.  Koussevitsky and the Boston Symphony Orchestra presented the world premiere of Bartók's miraculous composition at Symphony Hall on December 1, 1944.  Bartók reported: “The performance was excellent.  Koussevitsky is very enthusiastic about the piece, and says it is ‘the best orchestral piece of the last 25 years.’”

Tibor Serly

Nevertheless, Bartók realized that his life was drawing to a close.  During the summer of 1945, Bartók attempted to complete his Third Piano Concerto, a work he hoped would serve as a concert piece for his wife.  On September 21, Bartók’s friend and pupil Tibor Serly visited the composer at his apartment.  There he found Bartók in bed, desperately working on the final movement of his Piano Concerto.  The next day, Bartók was taken to West Side Hospital.  He died four days later.

Prior to his death, Bartók had, for the most part, finished the Third Piano Concerto, save the orchestration of the final seventeen bars, which Serly completed.  Despite the undeniably tragic circumstances under which Bartók composed his Third Piano Concerto, the work displays a profound strength, optimism and joy of life.  It is in that sense a triumph, albeit posthumous, for one of the 20th century’s greatest composers.

The Concerto is in three movements.  The first (Allegretto), opening with the soloist’s introduction of the expansive principal melody, features virtuoso writing throughout.  The slow-tempo second movement, in A—B—A form, juxtaposes a hushed chorale (Adagio religioso) with a central middle section (poco più mosso) suggesting the sounds of bird calls.   A reprise of the opening section leads to the finale (Allegro vivace), which follows without pause. A brief upward flourish by the soloist precedes the introduction of a syncopated figure, the recurring principal theme of this rondo finale. The work concludes with brilliant writing for the soloist, capped by a bold ascending passage.

Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Opus 43 (1902)

Jean Sibelius was born in Tavastehus, Finland, on December 8, 1865, and died in Järvenpää, Finland, on September 20, 1957.  The first performance of the Second Symphony took place in Helsinki, Finland, on March 8, 1902, with the composer conducting. 

Approximate performance time is forty-three minutes.

In the fall of 1900, Jean Sibelius and his family departed their native Finland for Italy, stopping first in Berlin.  In February 1901, they finally reached their destination—the village of Rapallo, located just south of Venice.  There, Sibelius began work on his Symphony No. 2.

In May, Sibelius and his family returned to Finland.  There, Sibelius continued to work on his Second Symphony.  In November of 1901, Sibelius informed his friend, Baron Axel Carpelan that he had almost completed the Symphony.  However, Sibelius continued to revise it, necessitating the postponement until March of the planned January 1902 premiere.

Sibelius conducted the premiere of his Second Symphony in Helsinki on March 8, 1902. It was a rousing success, and Sibelius repeated the program on March 10, 14 and 16, each time to a capacity audience.  This was a particularly tumultuous period, a time when Finland was under the grip of Russian domination.  Patriotic emotions were at a fever pitch.  Sibelius had previously composed overtly nationalistic pieces, such as Finlandia (1899), and the Finnish people were anxious to find a similar message in the new Symphony.

In an article that appeared the day after the premiere of the Symphony No. 2, Finnish conductor Robert Kajanus ascribed the following program to the last three movements of the Second Symphony:

The Andante strikes one as the most broken-hearted protest against all the injustice that threatens at the present time to deprive the sun of its light and our flowers of their scent...The scherzo gives a picture of frenetic preparation.  Everyone piles his straw on the haystack, all fibres are strained and every second seems to last an hour.  One senses in the contrasting trio section with its oboe motive in G flat major what is at stake.  The finale develops toward a triumphant conclusion intended to rouse in the listener a picture of lighter and confident prospects for the future.

Years later, conductor Georg Schnéevoigt, a close friend of Sibelius, wrote that the opening movement depicts the untroubled pastoral life of the Finnish people before the onslaught of foreign oppression.

Throughout his life, Sibelius was consistent in his emphatic denial that the Second Symphony was based upon any such programs.  Still, it is not at all surprising that the Finnish people continued to find a personal message of hope in this fiercely dramatic (and in the end, triumphant) work by their greatest composer.  More than a century after its premiere, the Symphony No. 2 remains a source of inspiration and pride for the Finnish people, as well as a mainstay of the international symphonic repertoire.

The Second Symphony is in four movements.  The first (Allegretto) opens with a repeated ascending figure in the strings, based upon a three-pitch motif that will form the nucleus for several themes throughout the Symphony.  The slow-tempo second movement (Tempo, Andante, ma rubato) incorporates music Sibelius first associated with an encounter between Don Juan and Death.  The third movement is a quicksilver scherzo (Vivacissimo), contrasting with a pastoral episode.  The concluding movement (Finale. Allegro moderato) follows without pause.   The Symphony’s opening three-note motif is now presented in an heroic transformation.  In the stunning climax, the motif undergoes its final and most eloquent transformation.