March 2, 2019

Singing Sibelius

Sibelius was one of the featured composers at Tomoko’s November concert. Miwako Isano sang soprano, and Tomoko accompanied her.

Sibelius is considered Finland’s greatest composer and helped develop his country’s national identity, even though his songs were written in his mother tongue Swedish. He drew upon the Finnish landscape in his tone poems, and he captured the spirit of Finland in his patriotic works. 

Jean Sibelius was born in 1865 and died in 1957. Sibelius’s family vacationed on the coast each summer, which started his love of nature: picturesque, primitive and sublime. 

Although he started with piano, Sibelius turned to the violin and considered going professional, but he chose to become a composer instead.

Varen flyktar hastigt (Spring flies fast), Opus 13 No. 4 was one of a set of seven songs with lyrics by Runeberg, published in 1982; the opus was his first publication with his name on the title page. The song elegantly captures the essence of Nordic seasons. Sibelius had just returned to Finland from Vienna, and wanted to express Finnish culture in his music through incorporating the tonalities of traditional folk music such as natural-minor tonics and accentuating Finnish language rhythms. At that time Finland underwent a national romanticism, partly in protest to Russia’s looming preoccupation of the country.

The end of the 19th century marked the most productive time for Sibelius in composing songs that were performed the most often in Europe at the time and globally since then. The songs were generally melancholy and even chilling in effect.  

The duet performed two songs from the 1899 Opus 36: Demanten pa massnon (The diamond on the March snow) and Säf, säf, susa (Reed, reed, rustle). The former uses a diatonic approach to express the transition of seasons. The latter bemoans the cruel treatment of a young woman in love, using a metaphor of crashing nature. 

Their final selection was the last song in the Opus 37 five-series set, published in 1901. Flickan kom ifran sin alskings mote (The girl returned from meeting her lover). The song expresses a traditional sense of lost innocence and sexual change. It also became one of Sibelius’s most celebrated pieces. 

Even though Sibelius touted Finnish nationalism, his songs resonate universally.

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