Violin concerto

Op. 47 Violin concerto in D minor: 1. Allegro moderato, 2. Adagio di molto, 3. Allegro ma non tanto. 1. First public performance in Helsinki, 8th February 1904 (Viktor Novácèk, Orchestra of Helsinki Philharmonic Society under Jean Sibelius). Final version 1905; first public performance in Berlin, 19th October 1905 (Karl Halír, the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra under Richard Strauss). Piano score 1905.

Jean Sibelius's violin concerto is the most frequently recorded and performed concerto of the violin concertos composed in the 20th century. At the start of the 21st century there were over 50 recordings available.

Sibelius started to plan his violin concerto as early as 1899. "I have been thinking of writing a violin concerto. If the music of the king [the King Christian II orchestral suite] goes well, I won't give any of my old works to anyone [any publisher?] before I have thoroughly revised them," he wrote to Adolf Paul on 2nd September. The next mention of a violin concerto is from the summer of 1902, in a letter from Axel Carpelan to his cousin Lydia Rosengren:

"He has also been drafting a ballad or an incantation (Kanteletar) for soprano and large orchestra (for Mrs Ekman, who will sing four of his songs at her autumn concert). There are also 20 pieces for a ballet, which unfortunately does not have a text, while a violin concerto with orchestra and a great fantasy for orchestra are at the drafting stage, as well as a small book of piano works which will be published at Christmas. So you see that he makes a good use of his time. After that he will start writing a string quartet."

Not long after that Sibelius himself wrote about the concerto. "I have got wonderful themes for the violin concerto," he revealed to Aino on 18th September 1899. However, the Sibeliuses would soon move back to Helsinki. Sibelius's work was disrupted, and alcohol became a real risk to his health over the next few years.

In the autumn of 1903 the composer announced that he would dedicate the concerto to his acquaintance, Willy Burmester, who once had been the first violinist of Kajanus's orchestra and who had subsequently had a successful career in Central Europe as a violin virtuoso. In December 1903 the composer was able to tell Carpelan that he had completed two movements of the concerto, but that the orchestration of the third movement remained to be done.

At the beginning of 1904 Sibelius was writing the concerto like a man possessed and playing the themes on his violin day and night. Aino Sibelius described the composition process to Axel Carpelan:

"Janne has been on fire all the time (and so have I!) and this time there has once again been an 'embarras de richesse'. He has such a multitude of themes in his head that he has been literally quite dizzy. He stays awake all night, plays incredibly beautifully, cannot tear himself away from the delightful melodies - he has so many ideas that it is hard to believe it. And all the themes are so capable of development, full of life.

"The first public performance of the concerto took place on 8th February 1904. Viktor Nováček played the concerto at the first public performance, since despite his promise Sibelius had not waited until Willy Burmester had time to perform the work. The concert was repeated on two further occasions. Merikanto wrote that the performance of Nováček, who played from memory, was "masterly", but this was probably not the case. According to Carl Lindelöf, who was the leader of the orchestra, Nováček was sluggish in the rehearsals and grumbled about the difficulty of the swift runs in the work. Indeed, the concerto was terribly demanding.

In his second review Merikanto noticed that Nováček was not really a "masterly" player. He wrote, "In the hands of Burmester it would probably have a magnificent effect (...) However, Nováček (...) could only partly give to his performance that brilliance and radiant assurance which is absolutely necessary in this kind of virtuoso piece."

The critics were not particularly enthusiastic about the concerto itself. According to Flodin, Sibelius had given in to conventional virtuosity, and this was the "rock" that wrecked the whole ship. Evert Katila praised the work in Uusi Suometar, but suggested a few changes. Merikanto, for his part, was utterly delighted with the slow movement but considered the finale to be weaker and too difficult. He prophesied that violinists would mostly play the slow movement in the future.

Burmester swallowed his pride and suggested that he would play the concerto in Helsinki in November 1904. "I can put into this work everything that my 25 years of concert experience, art and instincts make possible," he declared.

However, Sibelius decided that he had to rewrite the work. "I shall remove my violin concerto; it will not be published until two years have passed. The first movement must be rewritten, the same goes for the proportions in the andante etc." he wrote to Axel Carpelan in June 1904.

Indeed, Sibelius did complete a second version - condensed and slightly easier - in the spring of 1905, but he gave it to Karel Haliř to perform. Burmester was offended, and he never performed the concerto.

The concerto slowly became more popular during the decades that followed. The turning point came in the 1930s, when Jascha Heifetz recorded the work and made it world famous.

In Sibelius's opinion a soloist waiting for his turn was not a very interesting sight. Consequently, the soloist in this concerto goes straight to the point and presents the magnificently undulating opening theme. It is full of Sibelian features, and contains a hint of the Dorian mode.

In the first version the continuation of the work is more difficult and heterogeneous than in the final version. The first movement has 542 bars in the first version, and 499 bars in the final version. The difference is due to the fact that there is a second, slightly Bach-like cadenza in the first movement of the first version. The cadenza is fine music, but it is only vaguely connected with the rest of the work, and the composer did not feel it fitted the final version.

The final version proceeds without these kinds of meanderings. It sets up a tension between the virtuoso soloist and the symphonist: Sibelius the violinist saw the concerto as an opportunity to fulfil all his virtuoso dreams. On the other hand, Sibelius the symphonist provided the orchestra with more important material than had hitherto been usual in virtuoso concertos. Erkki Salmenhaara noted how "the virtuoso material springs organically from the themes". Even the solo cadenza of the first movement is now an integral part of the architectonic whole.

The violin is indisputably the king of the concerto: in the final version Sibelius reduces the orchestration just enough so that the soloist is never blanketed out. When the soloist occasionally falls silent, the orchestra gets an opportunity to present its entire harmonic and dynamic richness. For the first time the orchestra shows the dark colours it is capable of, led by the bassoon and the strings:

Excerpt from the score of the violin concerto.
Breitkopf & Härtel.

This initiates a magnificent transition which to some extent anticipates the material of the secondary theme. The leaping fifths of the secondary theme take us straight into the final theme. The organic development in all this is seamless; Sibelius's mastery of form is indisputable.

The development sequence is a handsome solo cadenza in which the main theme is treated in a virtuoso manner. All the double-stops, scale figures and trills serve both the need for virtuosity and the composition as a whole. The main theme is repeated in dark colours, with the violinist playing on the G string. The orchestra continues with a tremendous build-up and the violin responds. The flutes present the final theme and the violinist accompanies it with dizzying arpeggios. In the final climax the dramatic material of the main theme is - for one last time - utilised to its full extent.

The second movement, Adagio di molto, is the one closest to the first version. Sibelius has done little more than get rid of a few meandering passages and virtuoso tricks. The static and heartfelt beauty of the main theme requires restraint and simplicity from the violinist.

Excerpt from the score of the violin concerto.
Breitkopf & Härtel.

The whole movement continues in the same atmosphere. In the first version the atmosphere was broken by a passage of virtuoso runs just before the end, but in the final version the atmosphere is restrained and the beauty remains intact.

Excerpt from the score of the violin concerto.
Breitkopf & Härtel.

A great deal has been said about the tempo markings of the finale. Sibelius replaced the marking Allegro ma non tanto (fast but not too fast) with Allegro. He emphasised that the virtuoso character of the concerto would emerge only if the finale was played at the metronome marking 108-116 indicated by the composer. It is true that the composer accepted the slow tempo in Ginette Neveu's recording, as the violinist played so well. Today many violinists need as much time for the finale as Neveu did, but this can lose some of the liveliness of the movement. Things are not improved by the characterisations of well-meaning music writers: David Tovey for one described the finale as a polonaise of polar bears, which is hardly what the composer had in mind. It does fit the secondary theme, but the finale as a whole is something entirely different.
Excerpt from the score of the violin concerto.
Breitkopf & Härtel.

Erik Tawaststjerna saw elements of an "incantation ritual" in the rhythms. The soloist develops the theme into dazzling figures and progressions of thirds. In the original version the soloist led the music to a dance-like and Mendelssohnian bridge passage, but in the final version this superfluous two-minute bridge passage has been removed and the orchestra can introduce the secondary theme earlier:

Excerpt from the score of the violin concerto.
Breitkopf & Härtel.

The orchestra and the soloist take turns in developing the motifs. The main theme is also handled in the minor key, and above the secondary theme we hear virtuoso flute-like notes from the violin. The victory over the forces of darkness seems to be secured only in the very last bars, when the solo line rises up to the heavens, supported by two beats from the orchestra.

Excerpt from the score of the violin concerto.
Breitkopf & Härtel.

The composer's wife had a liking for the original version: "I prefer the first version of the violin concerto. Papa changed it when the critics tore it to pieces (...) Many virtuoso parts were left out. Now the concerto is easier," Aino Sibelius later recollected. Her view gained some support later, when the original version became world famous through a recording made by Leonidas Kavakos with the Lahti Symphony Orchestra in 1991.

Nevertheless, the final version of the concerto - the one we are familiar with today - was composed with more controlled taste and is the more balanced masterpiece. In this version even the most demanding virtuoso parts serve the musical whole.