Incidental music

Op. 83 Everyman (Jedermann)

Music for Hugo von Hofmannsthal's play of the same name; 16 parts. Completed in 1916; first performance in Helsinki at the National Theatre on 5th November 1916 (Helsinki City Orchestra under Robert Kajanus). Piano arrangements of three sections (Episodio, Scèna and Canzone) made in 1925-26.

In the summer of 1916 Jalmari Lahdensuo from the Finnish National Theatre commissioned Sibelius to compose the music for Hugo von Hofmannsthal's version of the medieval morality play, Everyman. Lahdensuo later recollected the commission in detail.

"The bright spring sunshine gleamed on the dazzling white pine boards in the drawing room of Ainola. The master was sitting at the grand piano. He was dipping into the score of a symphony by Scriabin, playing sections from here and there. While he was doing this he talked about the tendencies in modern music and how effects that had previously been considered odd could be adapted into the structures of symphonic music."

"At that time the latest idea was to use optical methods for parts of compositions in which auditory perceptions were no longer sufficient to manifest the flight of the composer's creative imagination. In the climaxes listeners also had to be spectators – just as in a theatre. A kind of colour organ had been invented by which it was possible to produce different kinds of lights and colours with continuously changing combinations, and to show them on the wall behind the orchestra, which was playing in darkness. Scriabin had brilliantly utilised these expressive tone effects in the symphony, the one that Sibelius was browsing through and describing enthusiastically [probably Scriabins’s Prometheus]." (...)

"This topic had actually come up quite naturally in connection with the purpose of my visit. The point was that I had come to ask Sibelius to compose the music for 'Everyman', the medieval morality play which, if he agreed, would be performed at the Finnish National Theatre."

"Sibelius had already composed incidental music before this - for 'King Christian', 'Pelleas and Melisande' and 'Svanehvit' - but mostly only overtures and interludes, not music that actually accompanied events on the stage. Now the music was to be entirely like this, i.e. its purpose was to intensify the acoustic and optical aspects of the stage performance - and to be intensified by them. In other words: it was to be a more extensive and practical application of Scriabin's music, with its optical complementation."

Sibelius became enthusiastic about the plan and promised to write more music for the play than Lahdensuo had ever dared to hope for. However, for the next meeting he demanded exact information on the duration of every scene, even though the text had not even been translated yet. The unfortunate director had to try to give approximate durations.

The incidental music was completed on 6th October 1916. The rehearsals started the same month. Sibelius became impatient, as the music did not suit the tempo of the play. The lines of the Devil in particular always seemed to fall in the wrong place in the music. Sibelius had made the same demands on himself that would be made on film composers a few years later: the music should be synchronised with the words and action, down to the last second. Nevertheless, Sibelius was not writing music for a film, and this led to difficulties.

The first public performance of Everyman took place in November 1916, and Sibelius's incidental music was said to have saved the play. According to the composer Leevi Madetoja, it would have been impossible to find in stage music anywhere else the kind of realism that was bound so closely to the moods of the play, "realism in the in the best sense of the word", as he put it. Sibelius himself noted that the production seemed to be "a great success". Nevertheless, the circumstances could have been better. Aino Sibelius said, "The music of Everyman is really beautiful. It‘s just a shame that one cannot hear it properly because the orchestra has to play behind the stage."

The plot of Everyman is as follows: after two loud notes on the brass the prologue announces that the story has a moral. Next, God declares his disappointment with the sins of humankind, and He asks Death to fetch Everyman, who will stand for mankind. The bells chime the interval of a fourth.
Soon we see Everyman admiring his possessions. He turns beggars away from his door and delivers a eulogy to Mammon. His mother begs him to do penance, but Everyman is more interested in a coming celebration, which the music anticipates. Now comes the song Me kutsun saimme (We’ve received an invitation) which utilises a church mode (the Aeolian mode). Everyman has forebodings of evil, but he is cheered up with new songs. During a love song Everyman once again hears the chimes sounding his death knell, and he gulps down more wine. Finally Death arrives to carry out his task. Everyman begs for somebody to accompany him on his last journey. The servants follow him, carrying his money chest, but when Death approaches the servants flee. Mammon, who rises from the money chest, has no intention of following Everyman to the grave either.

Neither can Good Works - or the personification of them - help Everyman, since he is in such a sorry state after his sinful life. He suggests that his sister, Faith, could be the solution. With her help Everyman finally repents and prays. The Devil continues to torment him – and it was this very scene that drove Sibelius to desperation, as the music and the entry of the Devil did not always coincide in the stage performances. The Devil's music is fascinatingly chromatic. However, the bells tell us that the Devil has been defeated and that eternal life is beginning for Everyman. He enters his grave, accompanied by Good Works. The male choir finally makes its entry with the song of the angels.

Everyman consists of 16 pieces, the duration of which varies from a few seconds to ten minutes. They follow Hofmannsthal's directions fairly accurately. The music has a meditative and dark tone that lies somewhere between the fourth and the fifth symphonies. The instrumentation is exceptional: the basic Sibelian orchestra is enhanced by a piano, an organ and a mixed-voice choir.

Sibelius did not prepare an orchestral suite from the music. Thus the music became forgotten, even though the play was performed with great success in the jubilee years 1935 and 1965. The director, Glory Leppänen, later recollected the requirements laid down by Sibelius in 1935: “The music had to follow the text precisely to the beat, since the musical phrases reflected the words. There were to be no exceptions. The text had to be adapted to the notes; this had to be strictly adhered to."

In 1995 the music became accessible to the general public through a recording by Osmo Vänskä and the Lahti Symphony Orchestra. The British composer Thomas Adès is among those who have expressed their admiration for the austere and original music of Everyman.