Chamber music for violin,
and for piano and violin

Sibelius's first instrument was the piano, and at the age of five he tried to pick out notes and chords on it. When he came to play the violin, too, Janne for a long time favoured free improvisation.

To begin with he used techniques which he probably developed himself. However, it was not until the autumn of 1881 that Janne began to attend regular violin lessons, as a pupil of Gustaf Levander, a bandmaster. Before that Uncle Pehr from Turku gave him a new violin. He sometimes wrote letters to Uncle Pehr asking him for violin strings. Several such letters have survived from the years after he started his studies. Sibelius himself said later, "The violin took possession of me. During the ten years that followed it was my dearest wish, the loftiest goal of my ambition, to become a great violin virtuoso."

The young Sibelius made music with his brother and sister (Linda played the piano and Christian the cello, so they made up a family trio) and with friends in Hämeenlinna. They played in summer resorts too, and these activities inevitably led to composing, with a view to creating a repertoire. Sibelius probably wrote his first compositions around 1881, though most of them have not survived, with the exception of Vattendroppar (Raindrops) (1881?) for violin and cello, and the duo in C major (Adagio [-Allegro]; 1881-82) for two violins.

Early works for violin without opus number

The first works for violin and piano came into existence in the mid-1880s, some of them already before the move to Helsinki in 1885. During his student years in Helsinki, Berlin and Vienna (1885-91) Sibelius wrote a total of 40 works for his own instrument. In addition to small pieces they include two sonatas and two suites.

Sonata in A minor (1884). This was his first proper work for violin and piano. The architecture of the work is classical, and only the ordering of the key signatures is original: the first two movements are in A minor, the third movement, a minuet, is in B minor, and the final rondo is in D major.

Sonata in F major (1889). This work contains some of the earliest signs of maturity in the young genius, who was now finishing his basic school studies. The sonata is an impressive work which makes heavy demands on both instruments. Interestingly enough, the work has a detailed programme, which Sibelius revealed in a letter to Uncle Pehr (6th July1889):

"The 1st movement in 2/4 F major is vigorous and daring, and also sombre, with some splendid episodes; the 2nd movement in A minor is Finnish and melancholy; in it a true Finnish girl is weeping in the A string; next a few country boys perform a Finnish dance and try to coax the girl to smile, but she keeps singing with even more feeling and wistfulness than before; the 3rd movement 3/8 in F major is fresh and spirited and dreamy. People are out on a meadow, celebrating Midsummer Eve, singing and playing. Then a shooting star falls among them. They are surprised but continue with their games, but they cannot play as freely as before, since everybody has become more serious. Finally the atmosphere becomes gloomy and grand (the shooting star!) and also their playing becomes joyful."

1st movement [Allegro]. Its keys and melodic figures (triplets) are influenced by Grieg. For the piano in particular Sibelius writes brilliant arpeggios and octaves. In the violin part melodiousness and virtuosity are successfully joined together.
2nd movement (Andante). A Dorian melody is accompanied by piano notes which resemble the twanging of a kantele. The subsidiary sequences in A major and F major (Più vivo) have bright dance rhythms.3rd movement (Vivace).
3rd movement (Vivace). The mazurka triplets of the finale are playful and lighthearted, with the exception of the transitory darkening (the shooting star).

Suite in D minor (1887-88). The most memorable movements of this work (which is in six movements) are the third movement, Andantino, which is a real pearl of tunefulness, and the final movement, Quasi presto, which impresses with its violinistic bravura.

Suite in E major (1888). The second suite is more of a virtuoso piece than the previous one, a realisation of Sibelius's dreams of being a violinist.

1st movement (Allegro molto moderato). The movement starts melodically and has much of the sweetness of salon music. Instead of a modulation into the dominant (B major) as in standard sonata form, the second theme is in C sharp minor, and it forms a triplet-like section of its own. Double stops, arpeggios - and especially the demanding quasi adagio cadenza, which in places is reminiscent of Bach's sonatas for solo violin - already point in the direction of the violin concerto.
2nd movement (Allegro molto). This movement is splendid concert music with its rapid semiquaver progressions and double stops.
3rd movement (Più lento quasi andantino). This languid slow waltz (valse lente) sounds in parts like a forerunner of Valse triste.
4th movement (Allegro brillante). The final movement is an impressive Wieniawskian salon polonaise. Once again, broken octaves call the violin concerto to mind.

Among the works for violin written during the years of study in Helsinki there are charming pieces which bear witness to the composer's melodic talent: Andante grazioso (1884-85), [Andante molto, C major] (1886-87) and Andante cantabile (1887). Among the works for solo violin, the Étude in D major (1886) with its rapid scale progressions comes closest to the caprices of Paganini in the techniques it demands. En glad musikant (1924-25) for solo violin includes a poetry text (by Ture Rangström) written above the notes.

Violin compositions with opus number

During his years of study Sibelius wrote two violin works to which (in their revised versions) he later gave an opus number.

Op. 2, No. 1, Romance in B minor (1911). The first version of the piece is from 1888. At this point it did not have a name other than the tempo marking, Grave. The piece, named Romance in its revised version, did not later undergo many melodic changes. However, there are small differences in the texture of the piano writing. Once again the violin part points in the direction of the violin concerto.

Op. 2, No. 2, Epilogue (Allegro, 1911). This Perpetuum mobile (1888), which was originally based on violin tremolos and broken chords, was considerably extended in its revision (1911). At the same time its dramaturgy grew in scope. It also lost its tremolos and received its present name. The work is characterised by tritones, like the fourth symphony, written the same year.

It is quite remarkable that after his student years Sibelius "forgot" his violin almost completely for over 20 years, and concentrated on composing for his new favourite instrument, the orchestra. But in part it was his economic difficulties during and after the war (1914-18) that led him to compose 29 original works for violin and piano (1915-1929) in addition to a large output of piano music.

These new violin works include a great number of popular encore pieces. They also include difficult and enigmatic pieces with tonal ambiguities and polyrhythmic melodies, pieces which require concentration if they are to be understood. Altogether, it is incomprehensible that violinists who love the wonderful salon works of Wieniawski, Sarasate and Kreisler, have not yet discovered Sibelius's violinistic lyricism.
Among the older generation of violinists it was Emil Telmányi who performed these later pieces most often. Younger violinists have almost entirely shunned Sibelius's works for violin - with the exception of the concerto. One problem may be that copies of the music have been hard to come by, since in many cases they have been out of print for a long time. In any case, Sibelius's violin music always turns out to be rewarding: it is well written and avoids the most obvious solutions. So there is reason to expect a great increase in the popularity of these pieces in the future.

The violinist Melinda Scott (1998) has divided Sibelius's violin music into six categories:

1) "lyrical" (delicate melodies in a rather slow tempo)
2) "folk music influenced" (rhythmically strict, clear and regular phrases)
3) "imaginative" (impressions inspired by the natural world)
4) "classical and fantasy-like" (Rondino op. 81, No. 2)
5) "virtuoso dances" (bravura pyrotechnics)
6) "rich in figures/ornate" (allegro tempi)

Four pieces for violin (or cello) and piano op. 78 (1915-17)

No. 1, Impromptu (Commodo, 1915). A piece which excitingly uses the close relationship between C major and A minor, with the addition of F sharp, giving the music a flavour of the C Lydian or A Dorian modes.

No. 2, Romance (Andante, 1915). The piece is joyfully melodic. It is perhaps Sibelius's most charming individual instrumental work. There is an equally splendid arrangement for cello. The piece can be compared to Anton Rubinstein's famous Melody in F major in its melodic perfection and resulting popularity.

No. 3, Religioso (Sostenuto assai, 1917). A Baroque pastiche in the style of Vitali, with shades of a "lamento". Also very suitable for cello.

No. 4, Rigaudon (Allegretto, 1915). A lighthearted Wianiawskian dance adaptation of the kind that several (violinist) composers, Fritz Kreisler in particular, wrote in order to entertain the audience.

Six pieces for violin and piano op. 79 (1915-17)

No. 1, Souvenir (Tempo Moderato, 1915). After the dialogue at the beginning, this sentimental piece overflows with the nostalgic charm of the salons of, say, St Petersburg. The languishing violin sings from the heart, accompanied by full-bodied chords from the piano. The piece also recalls the slow movement of the violin concerto.

No. 2, Tempo di Minuetto (Largamente, 1915). The piece is reminiscent of Rachmaninov's preludes in the way it uses an old dance form - partly respectfully, but partly employing modern "deconstructive" techniques that bring the minuet into the modern age. It is not an easy work with its abundance of double notes, runs and changes in texture.

No. 3, Danse caractéristique (Lento, 1916). This is no standard work. There are many sudden changes of direction and technical demands (e.g. fast progressions and left-hand pizzicatos). After the improvisation at the beginning, the work settles into a Russian gopak, which in its turn dissolves into an improvisation, after which the same figures are repeated. The work is harmonically vigorous. As with the previous work, performance of the work requires a perfect sense of balance and form on the part of the violinist, because of the fragmentary and contrasting way in which it moves forward.

No. 4 Sérénade, No. 5 Tanz-Idylle, No. 6, Berceuse (Andantino). The most interesting of the movements is perhaps the lullaby, reminiscent of Liszt's piquant harmonic language.

Sonatina in E major for violin and piano op. 80 (1915)

Sibelius's only later violin work in several movements is a carefully considered work in a quasi-classical style, based on happy childhood memories: "Been dreaming about being twelve years old and a virtuoso. The sky of my childhood and stars. Lots of stars." (Diary, 14th January 1915).

1st movement [Allegro]. After the brief introduction, which contains a great number of thirds, the violin - accompanied on the piano by ringing figures that sparkle like stars – begins an innocent, vivid E major theme, which brings to mind the thematic material of the piano sonatina in the same key.
2nd movement (Andantino). In the middle part, where the expression is more serious, the melodic sighs lead to a section meditating on and expressing "the pain of life", and to a sense of stasis.
3rd movement (Lento-Allegretto). The slow introduction prepares the way for the main theme of the finale, which is joyful and has elements of a dance. The movement does contain some surprising dramatic passages, but these are softened by the joyfully jingling bells-in-the-snow accompaniment on the piano.

Five pieces for violin and piano op. 81 (1915-18)

This is perhaps Sibelius's last "bread-and-butter" opus for the violin, but in this case, too, necessity turned into a virtue, since the collection includes some of the composer's best individual pieces for violin.

No. 1, Mazurka (1915). The Mazurka may very well be Sibelius's best salon piece or showpiece. But it is not easy: there are extensive leaps, double stops and chords, flute notes and pizzicatos. The work requires a perfect technique and a refined taste to show all its intoxicating qualities.

No. 2, Rondino (Allegretto grazioso; 1917). This is one of Sibelius's most charming pieces for violin. It has the grace and charm of the Rococo style, and a new classicism – which is unforced, and which arises from the composer having over many years adopted and internalised the ideals of classicism.

No. 3, Valse (Poco con moto; 1917). The waltz was Sibelius's favourite dance, and he used in almost a hundred compositions. The sensibility of this violin waltz avoids conventionality, especially because of the inventiveness of its middle section. The work brings to mind Tchaikovsky's ballets.

No. 4, Aubade (Andantino con moto; 1918). The introductory chords at the beginning of the "Morning Song" can be heard as notes enabling the singer of a serenade to tune his instrument. The playful scale runs of the more agile main sequence have a kind of Mozartian lightness.

No. 5, Menuetto (Moderato assai; 1918). This is more a paraphrase or evocation of a minuet than a regular classical dance. Sibelius does not treat old genres in such a cubistic manner as Stravinsky; still, this minuet is anything but a pastiche: Sibelius seems to be aiming to dissolve all genre characteristics.

Novellette op. 102 (Allegro; 1922 This is a melodically abundant piece. It is largely based on modal improvisation and the resulting ambiguities. The E-centred melody (the key signature at the start is E minor) is accompanied by a lower fifth with an added A minor sixth chord. Under this chord there is another lower fifth on D. Upon this note is based a ninth chord. The resolution takes place with an E minor sixth chord. The melody flows somewhere in the midst of this, arriving at E major at the end of the piece. This is a kind of Nordic impressionism in the style of Debussy's Arabesques.

Cinq danses champêtres for violin and piano op. 106 (1924)

In the fashion of the last symphonies and the piano pieces which were created at the same time, the works for violin also come close to orchestral expression and are stylistically multifaceted. In the five country dances there is nothing folkloristic or rustic; they are miniature studies which contain exciting innovations.

No. 1 (Largamente assai). In the spirit of "the pathos of life" the piece is full of dignity and grand expression. It is characterised by both crystallised purity and virtuoso gestures. This is Sibelius at his most full-blooded, balanced by the polka rhythms of the Vivace sequences.

No. 2 (Alla polacca). This is no traditional polonaise; it comprises a harmonically fascinating distancing from and deconstruction of a polonaise. In a somewhat similar manner to Sibelius's Wedding March for orchestra (1911) it can be heard mainly as a parody of a genre, one that moves far from its normal function. The piece ends with a Lydian cadence, reminiscent of the seventh symphony

No. 3 (Tempo moderato). The piece attracts attention with its improvisatory character, its many contrasting gestures and full-bodied textures in which the double octaves of the piano play a significant role.

No. 4 (Tempo di Menuetto). In his minuet adaptation Sibelius is living through a new period of innovatory violin writing characterised by unconstrained expression.

Four pieces for violin and piano op. 115 (1929)

The existence of Sibelius's later opuses cannot be explained by a lack of money, for at this stage the composer was a wealthy man and free from debt. And it is hard to believe that the last two violin opuses would have been written with the general public in mind. On the contrary, the violin works published in 1929 are enigmatic experiments with material in the style of Beethoven's late bagatelles or Liszt's piano compositions from the 1880s.

No. 1, Auf der Heide (Andantino). "On the Moor" presents a peaceful landscape. It unfolds with diatonic chords and melodic sequences, first based on E/G and then on A/C, until chromatically descending chords take us into cumulus clouds portrayed by harp-like arpeggios. The close of the piece is full of harmonic interest.

No. 2, Ballade (Allegro moderato). The Ballad experiments with exciting appoggiatura dissonances, which resolve into new dissonances in the style of late-period Liszt. In the middle of the piece E minor changes into a grandioso type of Largamente in E major. The work tells an enigmatic tale, but one with a positive ending.

No. 3, Humoreske (Tranquillo). A pared-down, odd-sounding piece.

No. 4, Die Glocken (Presto). "The Bells" is one of Sibelius's boldest pieces as regards his organisation of pitch. It is also extremely difficult to explain. Its saltarello character is slightly detached, but the "Dies irae" motif which emerges at the end points in the direction of a danse macabre and a death knell. There are bells in the partly unison piano texture, but the modally ambiguous opening, centred on E, goes through many transmutations until C sharp is established as the centre. Accordingly, the work is based on a piling-up of thirds via the chromatic transformations C# - E - G# - B - D# - F# - A# - C# (E#, G#, B#, D, Fx, A, C); thus the entire twelve-tone palette is employed during the piece.

Three pieces for violin and piano op. 116 (1929)

The last violin opus is as enigmatic as its predecessor.

No. 1, Scène de danse (Tempo moderato). This strange dance is centred around G sharp, but more important are its digressions, its exciting harmonic extensions and the almost crazy-sounding ostinato accompaniment from the piano, which is generated by the left hand repeating a tritone, while the violin too has a tritone relation to the right hand of the piano. In this piece there are parallel seventh chords with flattened fifths, linked in a chain-like fashion, a feature suggestive of Debussy's technique.

No. 2, Danse caractéristique (Tempo moderato). This piece almost completely reverses tonal gravity. Although the piece is centred around C, in the bass there is an almost permanent B flat, and thereafter a B-G ostinato. However, the ostinato does not work as a dissonance. On the contrary, it is remarkably independent. Consequently, the basic chord is not the second-interval manifestation of a C major seventh chord (third inversion). Neither is it a G minor first inversion or a G minor triad root position arrived at via the chord G-D-G on the right hand. It is something between these two. From time to time the tritone C-F# appears in the bass, and the middle part flows around a temporary tonic Eb. The work is thus based on the acoustic scale C-D-E-F#-G-A-Bb-C and the third intervals C-E/Eb-G-Bb-D-F#.

No. 3, Rondeau romantique (Largamente-Tempo commodo). The final movement is more conciliatory and gentle than the others. In addition to its basic diatonic harmony, it has the extra piquancy of the tritone, which appears in various roles.