Incidental music

Sibelius: Music for "The Tempest" by William Shakespeare, op. 109 (1925-26)

Sibelius's late period has puzzling aspects. When the composer approached the age of 60, he found it more and more difficult to work. "Self-criticism is increasing to the point of impossibility," he commented. Yet there is no trace of these problems in the compositions dating from the start of the 1920s. The writing of the sixth and the seventh symphony (1923, 1924), and the music for The Tempest (1925-26) and Tapiola (1926) seem to have been rather easy for Sibelius compared to the difficult composition process of the fifth symphony (1915-19). Most importantly: in the same way as Sibelius in his last symphony perfected a genre which was vitally important to him, Tapiola is a masterly conclusion to his series of symphonic poems and The Tempest is his most magnificent work of incidental music.

The immediate impetus for The Tempest was an inquiry from Sibelius's Danish publisher Wilhelm Hansen, who asked in May 1925: "Have you composed music for The Tempest? Det Kongelige Teater in Copenhagen is going to perform this play and would like to use your music."
Interestingly enough, as early as 1901 Sibelius's friend and patron Axel Carpelan (died 1919) had suggested: "Now look here Mr S., shouldn't you someday direct your interest to the dramas of Shakespeare … The Tempest should be very appropriate for you: Prospero (magician), Miranda, spirits of the earth and air etc." Given that Sibelius would shortly (1926) compose another work that had been suggested by Carpelan, a "Waldsymphonie" (realised as Tapiola), one could speculate that the subject-matter of The Tempest had been in his mind for a long time. The fate of another aging artist, Prospero, may have been one that he felt he could identify with.

The score of the new stage work began to take shape surprisingly quickly, during the autumn of 1925, and possibly also at the beginning of the following year. The incidental music lasts for over an hour. It is composed for vocalists, mixed-voice choir, harmonium and a large orchestra. The music comprises 36 pieces in all.

The first public performance took place in Copenhagen on 15th March 1926, and the music of the play was considered particularly successful.
"Shakespeare and Sibelius, these two geniuses, have found each other," was one comment.

Immediately after the premiere Sibelius wrote: "The Tempest music has many themes which I would like to deal with more thoroughly. Because of the drama I have only been able to outline them." It appears that the climax of Tapiola and its whole-tone and chromatic textures do indeed develop from the overture to The Tempest. Unfortunately, the composer gave up his intentions in other respects. The two orchestral suites prepared from the incidental music, plus the overture (published as a separate piece) comprise 19 pieces in all. In these Sibelius actually condensed and combined items from the stage music, sometimes in somewhat strange ways which obscured the drama. Consequently, restoration of the original incidental music for concert performance is completely justified, especially since many of the pieces that Sibelius left out of the suites are of high musical excellence. The restored (i.e. the original) version is described below.

In The Tempest Sibelius's orchestral genius is at its most splendid. His ingenuity, his talent for creating utterly new orchestral colours seems inexhaustible. The magical sonorities of the pieces - which are familiar from the suites – are revitalised when we hear them in their original form. A dreamlike, intoxicating atmosphere is conjured up by the harp and harmonium in the Chorus of the Winds (No. 4) and by the combination of harp and harmonium with high muted strings and solo flute in The Oak (no. 9).

Moreover, in the reconstituted version certain pieces strike home with full force. These include the short, recurrent phrases depicting the flight of Ariel (nos. 3, 5, 21, 28-30), and various items that are pruned to a torso in the suites but which are allowed their full extent in the incidental music - the characterisation of the villainous Antonio (no. 17) and the thrillingly dissonant portrait of Prospero (no. 32). In addition, the interlude depicting Caliban (no. 11) and the powerful baroque portrait of Prospero (no. 8) are both much more impressive in their original length.

Above all one is grateful for ten entirely new pieces, among them a few delightful songs. These include Ariel's Third Song (no. 10) and the wild Stefano's Song (No. 12). In waltz rhythm we have Iris's Recitation (no. 24) and the gallant Juno's Song (no. 25). Finally, we have the splendid Cortège (no. 34) and, to conclude, the questioning Epilogue (no. 34 bis).

In the original music for The Tempest Sibelius proves to be a tone poet at the height of his creative powers. The music ranges from Baroque in the style of Corelli and Purcell to Stravinskian Neoclassicism (Scene, no. 31) and Prokofievian brashness (Caliban pieces 11 and 13). Despite the range of styles he manages to keep the music together. He combines the grossest commedia dell'arte (Stephano's and Caliban's songs, and The Drinking Companions' Canon, no. 16) with the most elevated tragedy (the Prospero pieces) – and in a genuinely Shakespearean spirit. In The Tempest Sibelius created one of his most ingenious orchestral scores.


With the help of Alonso, King of Naples, Antonio has seized power from his brother Prospero, Duke of Milan. With his daughter Miranda, Prospero
has settled down on a desert island, whose inhabitants - Ariel, a spirit of the air, and Caliban, a monster - he rules over by means of his magic powers. After several years a ship sails past the island. On board are Antonio and also Alonso, together with his son Ferdinand, his brother Sebastian and the courtier Gonzalo. The musical pieces start from this point (1-34bis.):

No. 1, Overture (later the ninth piece of the first concert suite, = I/9 The Tempest).
The ship sinks in a tempest raised by Prospero.

Act 1

No. 2, Miranda Falls Asleep (I/7b: Berceuse). Miranda is shocked at seeing the shipwreck. Prospero tells her about his past, then uses his magic to make her fall asleep.
No. 3, Ariel Flies In. Prospero calls on Ariel's help. (Note: Being a spirit, Ariel is asexual. On the stage the role is usually played by a man or a young boy, but Sibelius gave the role to a female vocalist.)
No. 4, Chorus of the Winds (II/1: Chorus of the Winds). Ariel tells how he sank the ship; the music depicts the gentle winds after the tempest.
No. 5, Ariel Hurries Away. Prospero tells Ariel to leave, and to turn into a mermaid whom only Prospero can see.
No. 6, Ariel's First Song with introduction and chorus (II/8: The Naiads). After an exchange of words between Prospero and Caliban, Ariel returns as an invisible mermaid, playing and singing, accompanied by the barking of dogs and the crowing of cocks.
No. 7, Ariel's Second Song (I/8b: Ariel's song). Ferdinand is sitting on the beach
mourning his father, whom he believes to be dead. Ariel confirms the death in his song.

Act 2

No. 8, Interlude (II/4: Prospero). The music paints a portrait of the noble Prospero, after which we move to the characters from the shipwreck.
No. 9, The Oak Tree; Ariel plays the flute (I/1: The Oak). Alonso is grieving,
believing his son to be dead. The others curse their fate, that they have ended up on a desert island. Ariel comes to play the flute, whereupon some members of the groupfall asleep.
No. 10, Ariel's Third Song. After the others have fallen asleep, Antonio and Sebastian intend to kill Alonso and Gonzalo, but Ariel returns to hinder the plans.
No. 11, Interlude [Caliban] (I/6: middle part of Scène). This is a portrait of the monster Caliban, whom Prospero has enslaved.
Nro 12, Stephano' Song. Caliban meets the jester Trinculo, who was saved from the shipwreck, and the hard-drinking cup-bearer Stephano, who sings with a bottle in his hand.
No. 13, Caliban's Song (I/3 Caliban's song). When Caliban gets his "heavenly drink" he thinks Stephano is a god and regards him as his new master.

Act 3

No. 14, Interlude [Miranda] (II/7: Miranda). The act begins with an interlude which portrays the charming girl Miranda; with the help of Prospero, Miranda and Ferdinand have found each other.
No. 15 (I/2: Humoreske). Stephano, Trinculo and Caliban squabble with each other.
No. 16, Canon (I/5: Canon). The companions plan to kill Prospero, sing a canon and march off, guided by Ariel's music.
No. 17, Devil's Dance (II/9: Dance Episode). Antonio and Sebastian once again plan to murder Alonso; a Spanish dance portrays Antonio.
No. 18, Ariel as a Harpy (I/1: The Oak, only the first chords). Devilish creatures set a table for the survivors, but the feast ends when Ariel arrives in the guise of a harpy and wipes the table clean with his wings.
No. 19, Dance II [The Devils Dance Away] (I/4:The Harvesters, final sequence). Strange creatures carry away the table and disappear, dancing.
No. 20, Intermezzo (II/2: Intermezzo). Alonso repents of his deeds, believing that Prospero has caused his son's death as revenge; the music between the third and fourth acts depicts Alonso's grief.

Act 4

No. 21, Ariel Flies In [= No. 3]. Prospero admits that he has tested Ferdinand. But now he grants Miranda to Ferdinand and summons Ariel.
No. 22, Ariel's Fourth Song (II/5: Song). At the request of Prospero, Ariel conjures up a harvest feast from antiquity, complete with goddesses, to celebrate the engagement of the young couple.
No. 23, The Rainbow (I/8a: Interlude). A rainbow illuminates a feast held in honour of Iris, the goddess of the rainbow.
No. 24, Iris's Recitation. Iris's recitation is accompanied by a waltz rhythm.
No. 25, Juno's Song. In her waltz song the supreme goddess Juno wishes the young couple "riches, love, long life, kindness, happiness and honour".
No. 26, Dance Of The Naiads (II/3: Dance of the Nymphs). The mermaids dance a charming minuet.
No. 27, The Harvester (I/4: The Harvesters). The harvesters join in the dance.
No. 28, Ariel Flies In [= No. 3]. Prospero remembers Caliban's deceitful plan and summons Ariel again.
No. 29, Ariel Flies Off [= No. 5]. Prospero commands Ariel to fetch fine garments to lure the thieves, and Ariel hurries away.
No. 30, Ariel flies In. Ariel returns immediately after carrying out the command.
No. 31, The Dogs (I/6: Scéne). Caliban, Stephano and Trinculo intend to kill Prospero, but are charmed by the garments.
They try them on, until spirits in the shapes of dogs - summoned by Prospero - drive the villains away.

Act 5

No. 31bis, Overture (II/6: Song II). As an introduction we hear an Overture. This is the same music as Ariel's 5th song which comes a little later.
No. 32 Intrada (I/7a: Intrada). Prospero in his magician's robe commands Ariel to go and free those he has practised his magic on; his decision to give up his magic powers is characterised by "mindless chords followed by festive music".
No. 33, Ariel's Fifth Song (II/6: Song II). Prospero once again dresses in the apparel of the Duke of Milan and sets Ariel free. Ariel rejoices.
No. 34, Cortège. Both the virtuous characters and those who had fallen into error come to Prospero. He pardons everybody. After the amnesty and a happy reunion the whole party proceeds to Prospero's cabin to the rhythm of a festive polonaise.
No. 34bis, Epilogue.

For a performance in Helsinki in 1927 Sibelius wrote this additional concluding piece, full of majestic resignation, in the spirit of Prospero's music