Few great composers have received as much criticism as Sibelius for writing miniatures - especially small-scale piano and violin pieces - instead of concentrating on large orchestral works, and above all on symphonies. But for Sibelius himself there was no aesthetic problem. He wrote in his diary (16th May 1910): "One has to combine things great and small. Symphonies and songs." Anyway, it seems absurd to blame a professional composer for trying to maintain his family in the only way he could, by writing music for money. One wonders if he was supposed to write only symphonies and let his large family starve.
Those who have found fault with Sibelius's piano music have usually been music writers or critics. On the other hand, pianists who have taken the trouble to study the music itself have without exception praised Sibelius's piano style for its originality and its suitability for the instrument.
Pianists such as Ilmari Hannikainen, Glenn Gould, Erik Tawaststjerna and Eero Heinonen have seen Sibelius's personal way of writing for the piano as an interesting challenge, and none of them has doubted Sibelius's mastery of the instrument. According to Gould "Sibelius never wrote against the grain of the keyboard. ... In Sibelius's piano music everything works, everything sings - but on its own terms." Gould's conclusion was absolutely positive: "Sibelius was able to make a significant addition to the far too limited piano repertoire of late Romanticism." According to Eero Heinonen
"there are technical difficulties, to be sure, but generally the piano texture is melodious and colourful - but unlike any other piano style".
Sibelius seemed to provide ammunition for the views of his critics by a few careless remarks. He said to his pupil Bengt von Törne (1937): "I write piano pieces in my spare moments ... as a matter of fact the piano does not interest me because it cannot sing."
On the other hand, according to his secretary Santeri Levas (1960), "Sibelius himself had a completely different view of his piano pieces. He appreciated them to the full and considered the opinion of the musical world unfair. .... 'I know that they have a secure future, I know it despite the fact that they have completely fallen into oblivion.' .... Sibelius added that one day his piano pieces might become as popular as those of Schumann."
Sibelius' statement to Levas must come closest to the truth. Otherwise he would scarcely have used the piano throughout his life as a practical instrument, one on which he improvised and gained new ideas. According to contemporaries Sibelius had considerable pianistic skills, charming his audience with his improvised fantasies, even if he was not a professional pianist. Besides, if he had not liked the instrument it would have been quite strange for him to "masochistically" compose a huge amount of music where the piano is either the solo instrument or part of a chamber music ensemble. Overall, Sibelius wrote works for the piano as follows: - over 150 piano works, about 115 of which were published with an opus number, plus approximately 35 more that remain unpublished;- several dozen piano arrangements of his orchestral works;- approximately 110 songs with piano accompaniment; - over 50 chamber music works with a piano part (works for violin and piano and for cello and piano; also piano trios, piano quartets and a piano quintet).Altogether, we find that the piano is included in more than half of Sibelius's compositions, i.e. in approximately 350 works.
Writing in 1931 (actually before all Sibelius's piano works had been published) Cecil Gray claimed that there was no development in the piano works - apart from their insignificance - and that the last piano compositions were clearly inferior to earlier works. However, Erik Tawaststjerna (1955) took a different view: "Many of Sibelius's piano compositions are quite remarkable both as regards their form and their musical material, and they have a personal piano style which is well-suited to the character of the instrument. As a whole they show the same general development as the composer's larger works."
One can certainly agree with the latter view. Like the rest of his output, Sibelius's piano music follows the pattern of his stylistic development. It can be divided into six parts. The first of these belongs to the young Sibelius's "chamber music period" (around 1881-1891), when he adopted a classical-romantic style of form and expression. During the second, "national romantic" period (around 1891-1902) Sibelius's music became more chromatic and created an interesting synthesis of Central European and Finnish elements. During his third, "neoclassical" period (around 1902-1908) Sibelius made more use of classical idioms, although his output was also strongly influenced by Kalevala romanticism and symbolism. During his fourth period of "modern classicism" (around 1908-1919) he wrote sonatinas and rondinos, while at the same time impressionist and expressionist tendencies made their way into his music. The fifth and last active creative period (around 1919-1929) was the time of a "synthetic universal style". Now there was a plasticity that combined notions from classical antiquity, modal tonality, nature mysticism and tonal meditation; now he incorporated both traditional elements and radical modernism. Beyond this, even during his period of "silence" (1929-1940s) he composed works, small in number but original.
Early piano works
During the first period Sibelius's works were mainly of the kind one would expect from music written for the needs of his immediate circle, including his brother and sister and his friends. Yet its scope has turned out to be larger as the early manuscripts have been become objects of serious study. Almost all of the piano works from this period (over 50 of them) remain unpublished. They include harmonic and thematic exercises as well as sonata fragments.
The earliest datable piano work, Con moto, sempre una corda, contains the subscription "Minne af J. S. 1985". It is a pianistically demanding and adventurous salon work which combines mazurka, waltz and scherzo characteristics. In it there are brilliant explicit fermata in the style of Liszt. The three piano pieces from the summer of 1887 - Andante in E flat major, Aubade and Au crépuscule - are charming and colourful fantasies; they are possibly based on improvisations and (pointing to later developments) on contemplations of nature. Trånaden in five movements, a work for narrator and piano lasting almost 20 minutes, is from the same summer. It is one of Sibelius's most extensive piano works; it contains an impressive storm scene and hints of a more mature style, even of the fifth symphony. Valse à Betsy Lerche (1889) is an exciting work containing several episodes, dedicated to the girl the composer was smitten with at the time. The work describes the stages of a love affair: the name of the episodes after the "Introduction" are "douce", "avec force", "à la Betsy", "avec passion" - and "adieu!". Florestan (1889) is a large-scale four-movement work influenced by Schumann. Its demands vary between easy and fairly difficult. The music is imaginative with romantic elements and Sibelian idiosyncrasies. While he was in Berlin Sibelius wrote several sonata expositions and also an E major sonata allegro (1889-1890) - a work which is not only pianistically impressive but also indicative of the future Sibelian style, with its harmonic resting-points and its nature-based figures .
Six impromptus op. 5 (1890-93)
The creation of a Karelian/Karelianistic piano style may well have loomed large in Sibelius's thinking during the first period of his career (1891-1902). In the Six Impromptus (1890-93) we find reminiscences of Sibelius's journey to collect traditional runes in Karelia. Kantele influences and dance tunes from eastern Finland and Karelia can be observed in the pieces. In this connection it is well to remember that Sibelius could play the kantele and that his performances have actually been documented. Intimate knowledge is shown by the Waltz/Berceuse for violin and kantele in E minor (1899) and by two pieces for solo kantele: Moderato A minor (1896-98) and Dolcissimo A minor (1897-98).
Impromptu no. 1 in G minor (Moderato). This is an unaffected and melodious opening piece. Its theme has been regarded as "the musical symbol of Finland, Sibelius's native country" (Ostrowsky).
Impromptu no. 2 in G minor (Lento-Vivace). After the opening chords we hear a trepak dance with a fast middle section (Più vivo) in G major.
Impromptu no. 3 in A minor (Moderato/Alla marcia). This is a fairy-tale march slightly reminiscent of Grieg with a middle section which was very dear to Sibelius. According to Ernst Lampén "Sibelius had just composed his six Impromptus ... He was playing them on the piano … every once in a while he played the middle part of the third Impromptu, with the motto 'dolcissimo'. Sibelius was very pleased with this section; we found it extremely lovely and could not get enough of it. In those days his music was new and strange, but we immediately understood these Impromptus and enjoyed them enormously."
Impromptu no. 4 in E minor (Andantino).
Here we have a melancholy fairy tale based on the alternation and repetition of two motifs. Note the left hand imitation of the second theme, which first appears in the treble.
Impromptu no. 5 in B minor (Vivace).
This is sparkling arpeggio music, written as if for the lute, harp or kantele, and bringing to mind Liszt’s piano piece Les jeux d'eaux à la Villa d'Este. This and the following movement are arrangements based on a play with music called Svartsjukans nätter (1888).
Impromptu no. 6 in E major (Commodo). A sweetly rocking salon waltz with a second section in E minor.
Sonata in F major, op. 12 (1893).
First performance by Oskar Merikanto, 17th April 1895 (Helsinki).
Sibelius's only piano sonata has often been condemned as being essentially a piano arrangement of an orchestral work. But in the opinion of one of the founders of the Finnish piano school, Ilmari Hannikainen (a student of the Russian master Alexander Siloti, who in turn was a student of Liszt), "the F major Piano sonata is a splendid work. Fresh, refreshing and full of life. … I have sometimes heard people mention the orchestral tone of the sonata (the left-hand tremolos) … In my opinion the sonata shows Sibelian piano style at its most genuine. There is no question of there being any tremolos in it. Everything that looks like that is really to be played in quavers or semi-quavers, in the manner of, say, Beethoven's piano sonatas. … When it is well and carefully rehearsed - and performed - the F major sonata is truly a virtuoso piece."
1st movement (Allegro).
The opening movement is powerfully orchestral, indeed Brucknerian.
It brings to mind Kullervo, En Saga and the Karelia music. Sostenutos, tremolos and ostinatos play a significant role. The movement represents Sibelius's Karelianistic pianism.
2nd movement (Andantino).
The main sequence of the movement, which is repeated three times, is based on an unfinished song for male choir in B flat Dorian mode, Heitä, koski, kuohuminen (Kalevala, poem 40). The music is lyrical, sorrowful and expansive. It is interrupted twice by a quietly tinkling kantele dance marked Presto (in C sharp and the F Aeolian mode).
3rd movement (Vivacissimo).
The riotous finale is based on an alternation between two motifs, one a trepak and one lyrical. It has a wild kinetic energy. The forte recapitulation of the second, lyrical motif takes the movement to a dizzying conclusion. In the end Sibelius was able to create an unusual and virtuoso Karelian style in his sonata, which has no obvious models - though perhaps Grieg and Tchaikovsky are lurking in the background.
Ten piano pieces op. 24 (1895-1903).
This somewhat heterogeneous opus, which was composed over a long period, contains those piano pieces of Sibelius that are perhaps most popular and most frequently played. In this opus Sibelius does not so much continue to develop the Karelian idiom as combine it with an impressive and more traditionally romantic piano style. The result is nevertheless exciting and unique.
No. 1, Impromptu in G minor (Vivace; 1895).
This massive and dramatic impromptu to some extent continues to move in the landscape of opus 5, but adds to it a progression which brings to mind Schubert's Erlkönig, and the fatefulness of the orchestral ballad Skogsrået (The Wood Nymph) (1895). In places the work shows interesting anticipations of Valse triste (1904).
No. 2, Romance in A major (Andantino; 1895). This is a dramatic (love) scene which opens with a duet between the treble and the middle range of the instrument. The expressive style of the movement is orchestral, even Wagnerian, although the climax also brings to mind Brahms's orchestral style. This is the most extensive movement of the opus. It used to be part of repertoire of the pianist, Siloti.
No. 3, Caprice in E minor (Vivace; 1898). A favourite piece with a virtuoso character, bringing to mind violin techniques, even Paganini. It is based on repetitions, octaves, broken chords and rapid scale figures. As a counterbalance we hear in the middle section a simple, folk-like melody. Its syncopating accompaniment associates it with Souda, souda, sinisorsa.
No. 4, Romance in D minor (1895)
No. 5, Valse in E major (Vivace; 1898?). A Chopinesque waltz which is popular among piano students. The particular feature of the main sequence is the 2/4 time left-hand accompaniment which is set against a waltz rhythm.
No. 6, Idyll in F major (Andantino; 1898?). The first and last sequences are in a gently rocking 6/8 time which resembles Chopin's ballad in F major. In the middle of the piece a fierce storm breaks out, with the right hand imitating a virtuoso violin solo. In a later version (1904) the middle section is in part transposed one octave lower.
No. 7, Andantino in F major (1899). A catchy, melodic miniature, which could very well exist also in an arrangement for string orchestra. There is also another version (1899) which is very similar to the previous version.
No. 8, Nocturno in E minor (Andante; 1900). This contains a passionate cello-like melody which rises to a splendid climax. The work would also be very well suited to a string orchestra.
No. 9, Romance in D flat major (Andantino; 1901). This work is much loved by Finnish pianists. It is a melodically radiant favourite, whose climax is an example of genuine virtuoso writing à la Liszt.
No. 10, Barcarola (1903)
Kyllikki, three lyrical pieces op. 41 (1904)
This may well be Sibelius's best large-scale piano work of more than one movement. There is no absolute certainty of its connection with Kalevala, but it can be analysed and interpreted on the basis of such a connection. The work can be seen as a triptych portraying the principal character's three successive states of mind. Even the harshest critics of Sibelius have admitted the excellence of the work. Glenn Gould, who recorded it, valued Kyllikki despite its quasi-virtuoso character and traditional limitations, seeing it as a significant addition to the piano repertoire. Kyllikki can be regarded as the principal and final work of Sibelius's Kalevala-inspired piano period.
1st movement: Largamente-Allegro. The Allegro episode, which starts after the heavy introduction, is in a masculine, bellicose and fully-textured piano style, which can easily be associated with Lemminkäinen's abduction of Kyllikki. The main theme resembles the opening of Beethoven's Waldstein sonata, and its lyrical variant occupies the place normally taken by a secondary theme. However, it is difficult to grasp the traditional form, as the listener's attention is taken up by powerful, chordal, octave progressions in contrary motion, which bring in the recapitulation very brutally. The final Pesante is a more merciless version of the opening Largamente, while the B flat Dorian/D flat major has been turned into C sharp major.
2nd movement: Andantino. This gives us a melancholy inner landscape with a static main theme, which doubles in tenths both a tonic (B flat) and a dominant (F) pedal point - and also the theme itself. In the middle section the music for a time becomes nocturnal. It includes a wistful "adieux" motif (in the manner of Beethoven's sonata "Les adieux") and proceeds through a surprisingly impressive climax until it once again falls into a brooding mood, i.e. the mood of Kyllikki.
3rd movement: Comodo. The finale has sometimes been considered too light and short compared with the previous "deep" movements. On the other hand, the function of the finale of a classical multi-movement work is to provide relaxation and a sense of closure, often in a dance rhythm. The polka-type rhythm of the finale suits the work as a whole and is programmatically linked with Kyllikki going dancing without permission. Moreover, the contrasting Tranquillo episode links the movement with the more serious character of the previous movement. In the finale one also finds a quality of pastoral lucidity which tends to counteract the high-spirited nature of the movement.
Ten pieces op. 58 (1909)
Whereas Kyllikki combines Sibelius's Kalevala Romanticism (1st and 2nd movement) and a more classical tendency (the "jeu" character of the 3rd movement), Ten pieces (1909) represents a period of modernity, introversion and experimentation. Traditional elements still occasionally appear, as Sibelius never entirely gave up the vocabulary of Romanticism. At the same time, in the wake of the third symphony (1907), the classical approach becomes increasingly dominant. The most essential factors in opus 58 are a new polyphonic-linear way of writing, with economical and graphical textures, concise and concentrated expression and experimental harmony employing exciting dissonances. The music is bold and innovative, and should definitely not be labelled as domestic or salon music. For the pianist the music poses challenges both in terms of intellectual grasp and technique. Sibelius was conscious of the progress he had made, since he wrote in his diary (28th September 1909) that he felt that the technique
"would be better than in other similar works".
Ilmari Hannikainen understood the uniqueness of the opus earlier than many others. In 1935 he wrote: "10 piano pieces op. 58 is my latest great discovery and infatuation. The whole suite is like a string of pearls in which every pearl glistens brightly. And the style of these pieces! Sibelius is always Sibelius from start to finish, but in op. 58 it is as though he were embarking on an entirely new piano style, which - one cannot say resembles - but is rather spiritually related to Beethoven's last style. The first piece, Rêverie, is one of the most sparkling gems in this precious sequence." The composer Joonas Kokkonen, too, was an early admirer of Sibelius's new style when he asked (1955): "Who else but Jean Sibelius wrote in a two-voiced polyphonic piano style at that time, or handled the instrument in a melodic-linear fashion, and created a lyrical atmosphere with extremely restricted but nevertheless efficient means?"
No. 1, Rêverie (Lente). The French title of the work and the tempo marking reveal the impressionistic-expressionistic starting point (Debussy, Scriabin). The opening piece is excitingly modern. The texture, which is mainly two-voiced, is based on considerable independence of the hands: as a counter to the cello-like, rising melody on the left hand we have flowing sextuplet rhythms and tonal allusiveness; the atmosphere is mysterious and enigmatic. Although the middle section and the denser repeat of the opening also contain more traditional elements, the innovative character of the piece as a whole satisfies both the musical and the intellectual curiosity of the listener.
No. 2. Scherzino (Con moto). The piece makes an exciting impression with its hint of bi-modalism and its vivacity. The composer saw in it "a touch of Benvenuto Cellini", referring perhaps to the lively character and capriciousness of that sharp-witted Renaissance artist.
No. 3. Air varié (Andante). The piece is a remarkable achievement with its tonal adventures and Northern salutes to Bach: its two-voiced inventiveness with its surprises in rhythm and pitch makes the movement an almost neoclassical box of delights.
No. 4. Der Hirt (Vivacetto). "The Shepherd" is a briskly neoclassical piece. It has a quality of innocence, in the spirit of the French Baroque of the 18th century. A special feature of the middle section is an accompaniment ostinato which recalls the Passepied movement of Debussy's Suite bergamasque. It provides a contrast to the 3/4 time signature and is repeated in 2/4 time.
No. 5. Des Abends (Andantino). The title "In the Evening" refers to Schumann. Indeed, the composer described the movement as "(his) best piece as far as the atmosphere is concerned". Its apparent simplicity conceals unpredictable changes of key.
No. 6. Dialogue (Allegro grazioso). A dialogue between the bass and the treble, digressing to surprising key areas.
No. 7. Tempo di Minuetto. According to the composer the piece is "in E flat minor and melancholy in the style of bygone days". Here Sibelius juxtaposes a brooding minuet episode with a music-box texture. This excellent piece is distanced ("entfremdet") in a way that might reflect nostalgic reveries of the composer at a particular moment.
No. 8. Fischerlied (Allegretto). In "The Fisher Song" the long, assertive accompaniment figure on the left hand supports Italianate melodic material, which is combined with harp-like arpeggio figures.
No. 9. Ständchen (Moderato). A distancing effect similar to that in the Menuetto (no. 7) can also be found in this serenade; the violinistic trills of the middle section disturb the serene atmosphere which is more characteristic of the genre.
No. 10. Sommerlied (Largo).The "Summer Song" in E flat major is pervaded by a solemn or even religious atmosphere. The chorale-type melody is accompanied by powerful harmonies.
Three sonatinas op. 67. Two rondinos (1912)
Sibelius's new, modern classicism is considerably deepened in the sonatinas and rondinos. The use of these genres is connected with the general neoclassical aspirations of the era, as is evident in Ravel's piano sonatina (1903-05) and in the sonatinas of Reger (1905-08) and Busoni (1910-21). Sibelius's endeavours in this direction, written to revive Classicism, were more retrospective than other contemporary works, and his own Classicism was generally far-removed from "cubist" neoclassical adaptations (Bach with "wrong" bass lines, capricious and broken rhythms). The sonatinas and rondinos were Sibelius's first "pure water" pieces, to be distinguished from the "cocktails" served by his contemporaries. They are short and pithy but their content is important - in short, they are classical.
Sonatina no. 1 in F sharp minor.
1st movement, Allegro. It would be hard to find a more condensed and noble theme than the one heard here. Its continuation is short, but it introduces an exciting, chromatic theme, with cadences leading to the dominant of the main key, C sharp minor. In the next stage the chromatic theme also incorporates the triplet motif of the main theme. There is no clear boundary between the exposition and the development section, but the listener can notice the recapitulation section from return of the main theme in its original pitch.
2nd movement, Largo. The slow movement is based on two appearances of a singing, viola-like theme; on the second occasion it is transposed one octave higher and harmonised more or less as a chorale. The movement ends with an F sharp major chord, a Picardy modification of the main key.
3rd movement, Allegro moderato. In the finale we hear a short playful motif under the orchestral/violinistic octave tremolo of the right hand. The subsidiary sequences are marked by a sparkling major-accented motif, first in G major, then at the end in F sharp major, which also remains the optimistic final key of the sonatina.
Sonatina no. 2 in E major.
1st movement, Allegro. Sibelius's liking for Bach is evident in this happy work. The movement is opened by imitation and an exchange between voices, and this is also heard in what follows. More important than the boundary between the subsidiary theme and the introductory sequence, (though there is such a boundary if one looks for it) is the general ellipsis of sonata form, the obscuration of boundaries and above all the endless polyphonic play.
2nd movement, Andantino. Once again we hear a double melody, now in the cello register while the accompaniment figures on the higher registers twinkle from a clear sky. Before the recapitulation there are expressive minor ninth intervals.
3rd movement, Allegro. The dance-like E major diatonic material of the finale theme is pure joy. This time the finale is based on early-classical sonata form.
Sonatina no. 3 in B flat minor.
The B flat minor sonatina is one of Sibelius's most important experiments in concentrating the multi-movement form, uniting the movements and preparing the thematic material of the different movements from the same material. The sonatina precedes the masterly fusions found in the first movement of the fifth symphony and in the seventh symphony. The sonatina has in theory three movements, but the last two are fused together, and the opening movement presents material used in the finale. The first movement and the second half of the second movement follow early-classical sonata form, in which the movement contains two halves of roughly equal length. The sonatina is a perfect expression of Sibelius's masterly control of form.
1st movement, Andante-Allegro moderato. The short six-bar introduction presents the main theme of the sonatina, the Db-F-C-F-Bb progression. The Allegro moderato section adds to the theme an upwards arpeggio and triplet ornamentation.
2nd movement, Andante-Allegretto. The first half, Andante, turns the singing progression of the opening motif into a funeral march and introduces the 1/16-figure of the closing stage. It also contains a puzzling, two-voiced contrary motion passage which reaches to the highest and lowest registers; it resembles a homage to Beethoven and is repeated in the Allegretto section. The Allegretto is based on a Siciliano alteration of the main motif.
Rondino no. 1 in G sharp minor (Andantino).
The first rondino, which contains questioning pauses and remarkable sighing motifs, resembles Liszt's "Valse oubliée" (undiscovered until recently).
Rondino no. 2 in C sharp minor (Vivace).
The tenth tremolos on the right hand make a violinistic impression. Otherwise the second rondino is close to the fashionable neoclassicism of the period, since it is based on a cheerful polka rhythm and contains several sharp dissonances. The music of Poulenc and Prokofiev is not very far from this unusual frolic.
Bagatelles op. 34 (1913-16); Pensées lyriques op. 40 (1912-16).
These two collections by Sibelius, each containing ten pieces, could be easily passed over as light music for domestic purposes only - and they have indeed been characterised in this way. However, Guy Sacre, the compiler of the massive French piano music encyclopaedia (La musique de piano, 1998), ranks these collections as "among the best of Sibelius's works", adding that they "constitute a kind of Jugend-Album, which is pleasant to play for the fingers and mind of a young (and a more mature!) pianist practising his prima vista playing". Even if the opuses contain no outstanding works, they are imaginative and excellent pieces, which certainly all Finnish piano students find indispensable. Many of them are charming tributes to the pianism of Chopin, Schumann, Liszt and Tchaikovsky.
Valse, op. 34, no. 1 (Con moto; 1914). This is a kind of miniature Chopin piece, providing excellent preparatory practice for the more demanding works of the great master of the piano. The explicit pause at the end resembles that in Chopin's Minute Waltz.
Air de danse, op. 34, no. 2 (Allegretto; 1914). A charming gavotte pastiche.
Boutade, op. 34, no. 5 (Con moto; 1914). This "Boutade" (caprice) is somewhat Chopinesque. In its ppp waltz parts the main note of the melody always strikes a dissonance with the accompaniment.
Joueur de harpe, op. 34, no. 8 (Stretto-Lento e dolce; 1916). "The Harpist" is a fine work with arpeggios. It closely resembles The Bard (1913-14).
Reconnaissance, op. 34, no. 9 (Vivo; 1916). "Recognition" is a charming bow in the direction of Schumann based on alternating repetition on both hands.
Menuetto, op. 40, no. 4 (Grazioso; 1913). The movement is a genuine Rococo Dance.
Berceuse, op. 40, no. 5 (Andantino; 1913). This "Cradle Song" is a small melodic pearl. It has also been arranged for orchestra. The composer suffered greatly on hearing a café arrangement of the piece.
Rondoletto, op. 40, no. 7 (Allegretto; 1914). A Viennese polka in a moderate tempo. There are delightful harmonic deviations from the home key.
Polonaise. Alla polacca, op. 40, no. 10 (1916). Every piano student loves this aristocratic and suitably pompous festive polonaise.
Four lyrical pieces op. 74 (1914)
It may easily seem that in the middle of his darkest creative period, marked by abstinence from alcohol and tobacco, Sibelius wrote "too many" miniatures. Indeed, many writers have simply lumped together the piano opuses 74-99 (1911-22) and regarded them collectively as "insignificant, "worthless", "trivial" or "unrewarding" pieces. However, this has led to a number of Sibelius's first-rate works being ignored. For instance opus 74 is definitely one of Sibelius's best piano suites. Guy Sacre is quite right in saying that it is "moving and poetic, a collection worth preserving as a whole".
No. 1, Ekloge (Eclogue) (Andantino). This piece draws its inspiration from classical antiquity and its pure and innocent classicism is disarming.
No. 2, Sanfter Westwind (Gentle West Wind) (Con moto). One Sibelius's most enchanting piano pieces. It may have influences from Debussy's L'isle joyeuse and Ravel's sonatina. It points in the direction of The Oceanides (1914).
Cinq morceaux op. 75 (1914-19)
Sibelius's "tree cycle" is one of the finest examples of the composer's sensitive, pantheistic way of feeling: "the trees speak" to him. The popularity of the opus speaks for itself.
No. 1. När rönnen blommar (When The Rowan Blossoms) (Allegretto, 1914). This piece brings to mind Tchaikovsky's piano songs. It is a "chanson triste" or a "chanson sans paroles".
No. 2. Den ensamma furan (Grave, 1914). "The Solitary Pine" givens an impression of utter steadfastness. At the time of its composition it was interpreted as a symbol of Finland standing firm against the icy winds from the east.
No. 3. Aspen (Andantino, 1914). "The Aspen" breathes enigmatic impressionism. The responses from the baritone register of the left hand and the bare accompanying chords on the right hand are Nordic in their taciturnity.
No. 4. Björken (The Birch) (Allegro, 1914). The birch, the favourite tree of the Finns, "stands so white". The first two strophes of the piece are in B flat Mixolydian mode. Their left-hand ostinato produces the effect of a field, by minimalist means. The Misterioso closing of the work, the third strophe, remains strangely open: the scale points in the direction of A flat Mixolydian, but it can also be interpreted as striving in the direction of a D flat centre. The riddle is not solved, since a low D flat note appears under the concluding open chord (A flat - E flat).
No. 5. Granen (The Spruce) (Stretto-Lento; 1919). This is one of Sibelius's indisputable hits, a slow waltz comparable to Valse triste. The fast arpeggios in the Risoluto section are truly stunning.
Treize morceaux op. 76 (1911-19)
The suite is heterogeneous as a whole, but it contains several extremely popular pieces. Many of them are short and simple, but there are also important works among them. In Erik Tawaststjerna's opinion the opus "contains some of Sibelius's finest miniatures".
No. 2, Etude (Leggiero, 1911). This violinistic étude is a popular technique exercise among pianists, who even try to break speed records when playing it. It is Sibelius's Für Elise.
No. 9, Arabesque (Vivacissimo, 1914). This resembles the études of Liszt in its swiftness and lightness.
No. 11, Linnaea (Twinflower) (Andantino con moto, 1918). This flower (Linnaea borealis) was Linnaeus' favourite flower and was named after him. To Sibelius it was the symbol of poetry.
No. 12 Capriccietto (Vivace, 1914). This is an exciting, tonally meandering piece which successfully avoids settling into G minor until the very last bars.
No. 13 Harlequinade (Commodo, 1916). A whimsical, ever-changing work on par with Debussy's shortest preludes (e.g. Minstrels).
Cinq morceaux op. 85 (1916-17)
With the "Tree Suite" in mind Sibelius wrote a corresponding "Flower Suite". It forms a distinctive series of worthwhile pieces.
No. 1. Bellis (Presto; 1917). "The Daisy" is a music-box-like virtuoso "Blumenstück" on the white keys. The style is that of a salon piece.
No. 2. Oeillet (Con moto; 1916). "The Carnation" is a remembrance of a ball. It was described by Erik Tawaststjerna as "the most inspired and brilliant of Sibelius's miniatures in waltz rhythm". The A flat minor variation in the middle section darkens the atmosphere a little.
No. 3. Iris (Allegretto e deciso; 1916). This is a challenging but rewarding work for the pianist. It is both serious and poetic in its fragility and determination.
No. 4. Aquileja (Allegretto; 1917). This piece ("Aquilegia" or "Columbine") serves its purpose as a biedermeier-style work in the manner of Edward MacDowell.
No. 5. Campanula (Andantino; 1917). "The Bellflower" rings out with its appoggiaturas and offers a bright, sparkling finale.
Six pieces op. 94 (1914-19). Six bagatelles op. 97 (1920). Huit petits morceaux (1922)
In his three "bread and butter" suites Sibelius comes close to the practical aesthetics of French composition and in this sense shows a kinship with Satie and Poulenc. Like many of his predecessors and contemporaries Sibelius wrote dance pastiches (cf. Grieg, Paderewski, Rachmaninov, Prokofiev, etc.). The textures are restrained, yet sensuous and translucent.
Nouvellette, op. 94, no. 2 (Allegro; 1914). The piece resembles Beethoven's bagatelles, Schumann's novellettes and Sibelius's Karelia suite.
Mélodie, op. 94, no. 5 (Largamente-Andantino; 1919). The melody is in places briskly accompanied by tenths on the left hand. The melody and the piano texture bring to mind Schumann and Brahms.
Gavotte op. 96, no. 6 (Allegro moderato; 1919). This is a genuine gavotte adaptation of French Baroque court ballet music.
Lied op. 97, no. 2 (Andantino; 1920). A tender song in the spirit of Grieg. It used to be part of the repertoire of Emil Gilels.
Humoristischer Marsch (A Humorous March), op. 97, no. 4 (1920). The style of the piece ranges from Beethoven, via Schumann, to Prokofiev.
Animoso, op. 99, no. 6 (1922). A "Reiterstück" in the style of Schumann.
Petite marche, op. 99, no. 8. A somewhat orientalist march, which also contains suggestions of the seventh symphony. (1922).
Five Romantic Compositions op. 101 (1923-24)
After the light and impressionistic tree and flower suites (opuses 75 and 85) and the character pieces and dances (opuses 76, 94, 97, 99) influenced by French ballet and neoclassicism, Sibelius's last three piano opuses (op. 101, 105, 114) add depth to impressions of nature. Instead of a thin and refined piano texture the last piano works are marked by orchestral sonorities and by similarities to the sixth and seventh symphonies. "The linear style has given way to a more massive, richer handling of the piano" (Erik Tawaststjerna). The Five Romantic Compositions "could be played as a suite," said the composer - in other words, in his last opuses Sibelius was attempting to unite the individual pieces more closely than in the earlier more heterogeneous collections.
No. 1. Romance (Poco con moto). The harmonies of this work are bolder than in the earlier romances of opus 24.
No. 2. Chant du soir (Andantino). The "Evening Song" is a straightforward musical depiction which shows kinship with the sixth symphony.
No. 3. Scène lyrique (Andante-Vivace). This "Lyrical Scene" reaches the masterly violinistic dimension of the sixth symphony in its polka-like and quick-moving Vivace sequence.
No. 4. Humoresque (Commodo). This Humoresque could be a mazurka for violin.
No. 5. Scène romantique (Moderato assai). The "Romantic Scene" has been described by Tawaststjerna as "perhaps the most perfect piece in the opus", and by Heinonen as "one of the most perfect gems in Sibelius's piano output". The piece has the charm of Schumann's novelettes, spiced with Fauré-like harmonies.
Five Characteristic Impressions op. 103 (1923-24)
The suite offers Sibelius's most powerful and orchestral pianism. One can see aspects of the seventh symphony in the work.
No. 1. The Village Church (Largo). The Village Church represents Sibelius's late "Olympian" style. The work is based on Sibelius's Andante festivo for string quartet (1922), still unknown at the time. It has something of the breadth of the seventh symphony. All three works are in C major. The compositional technique also shows similarities to Debussy's preludes, especially in the arpeggio section.
No. 2. The Fiddler (Con moto). This an relaxed and cheerful work. It may be connected to Sibelius's playing with folk musicians - a practice which he continued to indulge in after moving to Järvenpää.
No. 3. The Oarsman (Allegretto). The Oarsman's C major diatonicity also points towards the seventh symphony.
No. 4. The Storm (Allegretto molto). The Storm might be connected with the incidental music for Shakespeare's The Tempest, which Sibelius wrote a year or two later.
No. 5. In Mournful Mood (Moderato). In Mournful Mood is a Mahlerian funeral march in miniature.
Five Esquisses op. 114 (1929)
Sibelius's last piano opus is a masterly farewell to the instrument. In it he managed to find new dimensions, finally achieving a kind of pianistic sound that corresponded to his orchestral works. The five deep, pantheistic nature impressions also show Sibelius's late style at its purest. Their pitch-related and tonal-modal organisation is at times revolutionary, and it offers a noteworthy alternative to the chromatic compositional style of the early 20th century which led to atonalism.
According to the musicologist-pianist Joseph Kon from Petrozavodsk, the sketches contain "tonal and harmonic innovations" and "reveal in Sibelius's thinking an aspiration which surprisingly makes him a figure resembling Scriabin and Bartók". Kon refers to a new interpretation of the intervals and of the exceptional Sibelian outbursts in the pieces. In addition, the works are marked by two overlapping pentachords which generate a higher third-based structure (a concept presented by Sibelius in his trial lecture of 1896). Unfortunately the suite was not published until 1973, so it is still not very well known. The intelligibility of the music is further obscured by several misprints resulting from hasty and careless editorial work.
No. 1. Maisema. (Landscape) (Andantino). The delicacy of the piece is created by simple melodic elements, their third interval transpositions and arpeggios. The ninth chord, so dear to Sibelius, is heard here and there and its occurrence in the B flat dominant, decorated by a minimalist arpeggio figuration, leads the piece to an E flat Ionic major conclusion.
No. 2. Talvikuva (A Winter Scene) (Allegretto). The alternation between the A major/Ionian and A-Aeolian-Ionian mode, and the two different kinds of music connected to them, make the movement a combination of sweet and sour, joyful and sad.
No. 3. Metsälampi (A Woodland Pond) (Con moto). The piece is based on modal scale improvisation (D Dorian mode with a lower B third) and on a central chord (B-D-F-A-C-E-G) generated by a piling-up of thirds, together with modifications of this central chord. Here Sibelius's pitch organisation represents the state of the art of its time. This is Sibelian musical thinking at its most ingenious. On the basis of the technique chosen the composition could go on forever.
No. 4. Metsälaulu (A Song in the Woods). The piece is like an endless song telling of the eternity of the forest. It is based on the Sibelian field technique, with the propagation of a central chord. This time the central chord B-D#-F-A-C/C# contains two tritones (B-F, D#-A) and two alternative ninths (C/C# ). The result is a modern and fascinating tonal vision.
No. 5. Kevätnäky (A Vision in Spring). A fleeting image in which E major is modified by Mixolydian and Ionian-Aeolian features and an A# tritone. Sibelius's modal technique is flexible and surprising.
Piano arrangements of orchestral works
Sibelius's first-rate pianism and knowledge of the instrument is evident in the numerous piano arrangements he made of his own orchestral works and of Finnish folk songs. According to Erik T. Tawaststjerna "some of Sibelius's arrangements are most impressive concert pieces" (1990). Especially performable, successful and frequently played are the pianistic realisations of Finlandia op. 26 (1900) and Valse triste op. 44, no. 1 (1904). And indeed, every inhabitant of Helsinki knows The bell melody of Kallio church, which was published under the title Die Glockenmelodie in der Kirche zu Berghäll op. 65b (1912). Its piano arrangement is easy but impressive. The arrangements of the three lighthearted pieces of Op. 96 (1919-21) - Valse lyrique, Autrefois, Valse chevaleresque - are splendid encore pieces for concerts.
Six Finnish folk songs as piano arrangements (1902-03)
In his "serious" compositions, Sibelius tended not to use Finnish folk songs in ways which would make them immediately recognisable. However, the main theme of the Kullervo opening movement has been compared to melodies from the west of Finland. And in fact, starting from the second movement of Kullervo, Sibelius used Karelian tunes throughout his output, making them part of his musical language. Six folk song arrangements gains particular interest from the fact that in his academic trial lecture of 1896 ("Some aspects of folk music and its impact on the art of music") Sibelius had openly acknowledged the influence of the melodies and modality of folk song and rune singing on his own harmonic principles.
In his folk-song adaptations, too, Sibelius gives a clear picture of his compositional technique, and he harmonises melodies in ways that deviate from the romantic style. He avoids the dominant and traditional tonal functions. Moreover, instead of the tonic of the melody he emphasises its lower fifth (subdominant) and he creates a peculiar ambiguity by often delaying the disclosure of the keynote until the very last bar of the piece.
No. 1. Minun kultani (My Sweetheart) (Allegretto). A simple melody, in places unaccompanied and played as doubled octaves. The chordal accompaniment progresses in parallel motion. The E in the bass and the use of the B Aeolian-Ionian scale (the 6th and 7th notes are the same in both upwards and downwards motion: G sharp and A sharp) add a fascinating touch to this B-centred piece.
No. 2. Sydämestäni rakastan (I love with all my heart) (Andante). The most pared-down arrangement within the collection. The B pedal point and the Dorian C# note create a beautiful sense of stasis before the piece comes to an end with the final E.
No. 3. Ilta tulee, ehtoo joutuu (Evening draws on) (Andantino). The piece has the key signature of C# minor/E major. It alternately emphasises the A and E centres, and the 1/16 ostinato C#-D# twangs like a kantele, although the end reveals the surprising F# centricity of the work. One of Sibelius's most successful single piano pieces as regards texture and modal ambiguity.
No. 4. Tuopa tyttö, kaunis tyttö kanteletta soittaa (That lovely girl is playing the kantele) (Moderato). The most virtuoso piece in the suite. It is the repeated arpeggios that provide the kantele dimension. The C and F major arpeggios (with added notes) on both hands call to mind the pianistic cembalo technique introduced by Liszt. The harmonisation and the altered notes of the piece point in many different directions, even if the strong C harmonies anticipate the conclusion in F major.
No. 5. Velisurmaaja (A Brother's Murderer) (Andante con moto). The most modern piece in the collection. It has been compared to the works of Bartók because of its exciting tritone chromaticism (B# against the F# of the bass). The C#-based melody, which has been harmonised with parallel chords based on the C# Aeolian-Ionian scale, finally gets F# as its centre.
No. 6. Häämuistelma (Recollections of a Wedding) (Moderato). A touching A flat major melody which is harmonised in A flat Ionian. It flirts in its turn with the one fifth lower D flat tetrachord.
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