Music for the play Death: Valse triste, Scene with Cranes, Canzonetta, Valse romantique
[Op. 44] Death. Music for Arvid Järnefelt's play of the same name; six pieces. First performance in Helsinki at the National Theatre, 2nd December 1903 (conducted by Jean Sibelius). (Revised versions: see orchestral works op. 44 and 62a.)
Op. 44 no. 1 Valse triste. Revised version of the music composed for the first scene of Arvid Järnefelt's play Death (1903). Completed 1904; first performance in Helsinki, 25th April 1904 (Orchestra of Helsinki Philharmonic Society under Jean Sibelius). Piano arrangement 1904.
Op. 44 no. 2 Scene with Cranes. Revised version of the music composed for scenes 3 and 4 of Arvid Järnefelt's play Death (1903). Completed 1906; first performance in Vaasa, 14th December 1906 (Orchestra of Vaasa Orchestral Society under Jean Sibelius).
[Op. 62a] Canzonetta (Rondino der Liebenden) for string orchestra. Adapted from the music composed for Arvid Järnefelt's play Death (1903). First version 1906. Final version 1911; first performance in Helsinki at the National Theatre, 8th March 1911 ("Apostol's Concert Orchestra", under Alexey Apostol).
Op. 62b Valse romantique (Waltz intermezzo). Completed in 1911 for Arvid Järnefelt's play Death; first performance in Helsinki at the National Theatre, 8th March 1911 ("Apostol's Concert Orchestra", under Alexey Apostol).
The music which Jean Sibelius wrote for Arvid Järnefelt's play Death turned out to have far-reaching consequences. It included the composer's greatest hit, Valse triste. The original incidental music has been performed very rarely, but along with the Valse triste the Scene with Cranes is still in the basic repertoire.
There are several different accounts of the creation of the Death music. Arvid Järnefelt's son Eero recollected that the composer visited the family and was asked by Arvid to write the music. According to Eero, Sibelius played the first chords of Valse triste in Arvid Järnefelt's home. However, the composer himself rejected this version of events. He claimed to have written the work while living at Antinkatu 17 in Helsinki. Thus, only minor details would have originated at the grand piano in Arvid's home.
According to the painter Sigurd Wettenhovi-Aspa, Valse triste originated on the upper floor of the Kämp Restaurant. In this version of events Sibelius had a cold and medicated himself with quinine, which made his ears ring. Valse triste was supposed to have taken shape during the long evening at the restaurant; eventually the composer was able to complete it by taking quinine at home as well.
Five other pieces were needed, before Death could be performed on 2nd December 1903.
The first piece was the first version of Valse triste. In this, a sick woman sees Death in the shape of her former husband and abandons herself to a dance. In the morning she is found dead.
The second piece was Paavali's song, in which an orphan boy sings in the midst of a snowstorm and enters the cottage of a witch. The third piece, Elsa's song, introduces the audience to a young woman whom Paavali is in love with. The fourth piece Andante describes a flock of cranes; the birds bring a child to Elsa and Paavali. In its original form this piece of incidental music was only nine bars in length. Later Arvid Järnefelt made corrections to the scene so that Paavali hears the voice of his mother in the birds. In the fifth piece, Moderato, Paavali has grown up. He is working as a journalist but dreams of starting a nursery school. A fire breaks out, and Paavali sees the ghost of his mother with a scythe in her hand. The sixth piece, Andante ma non tanto, depicts the breaking up of the house as the fire rages, and the ringing of church bells. Elsa is left alone, but she tells the audience that Paavali will live on in people's hearts.
At the premiere of Death Sibelius conducted the orchestra behind the stage. The newspapers had no separate reviews concerning the incidental music, but in his review of the play Eino Leino commented dryly that some of the tableaux had retreated "further and further from the scope of artistic criticism". The text was regarded as naive.
The play received only six performances (December 1903), with reduced ticket prices on the two final occasions.
At this stage Valse triste was all that survived of the play. Sibelius prepared it for publishing in 1904. He sold the work for a lump sum to a Finnish publisher who in turn sold all the works by Sibelius that were in his possession to Breitkopf & Härtel, in 1905. With amazing speed the published work gained popularity all over the world. During a single year eighty orchestras ordered the score of Valse triste from Breitkopf, and soon various arrangements of it were also being played in restaurants. The popularity of the piece did nothing to ease Sibelius's financial difficulties, but he did conduct the work - often as an encore demanded by the audience – throughout his active period as a conductor.
In 1906 Sibelius took another look at the incidental music. He combined the material of the third and fourth movements to produce the excellent Scene with Cranes. It ended up within opus 44 together with Valse triste, but was not published until the 1970s.
It appears that in 1906 Sibelius also wrote Canzonetta, but it could not be used until 1911. In that year Arvid Järnefelt made changes to his play and Sibelius gave him a couple of additional pieces for the revised version. The additional pieces, Rondino der Liebenden and Waltz intermezzo, were later called Canzonetta and Valse romantique. They ended up within opus 62.
In 1911 the incidental music consisted only of the new pieces plus Valse triste. According to the composer, the premiere was a "fiasco", since the music was inaudible due to the way the theatre and production was set up. The critic of Helsingin Sanomat wrote that the new pieces were not up to the level of Valse triste.
After the premiere Sibelius himself was self-critical: "The Canzonetta is lovely, and the Waltz [Valse romantique] is good, but no more than that." He made an even more critical comment on the Valse romantique: "This valse romantique thing. Insignificance. Definitely not 'me'."
Even later in life he liked to conduct the Canzonetta. There was something in this miniature, (which lasts just a couple of minutes) that also fascinated the composer Igor Stravinsky. Stravinsky later made an arrangement of his own of the Canzonetta.