Chopin and Sibelius: Two Nationalists
Jean Sibelius 1865-1957
Jean Sibelius
Jean Sibelius
Finlandia, Op. 26

Sweden relinquished Finland to the Russian Empire in 1809, where it became an autonomous duchy with significant control over its own affairs. Beginning in 1870, however, Russia gradually began to rescind Finland’s privileges and autonomy. While Swedish was the language of the educated and of the middle class, Russian repression aroused strong nationalist feelings and initiated a revival of the Finnish language. Jean Sibelius was born into this new nationalism and in 1876 enrolled in the first grammar school to teach in Finnish. Finland finally gained its independence towards the end of World War I.

Sibelius was by no means a child prodigy. He started playing piano at the age of nine but didn't like it and took up the violin at 14. Although he had made some attempts at composition at 10, his ambition was to become a concert violinist. For his entire life he regretted not following this dream.

Sibelius’s first success as a composer came in 1892 with a nationalistic symphonic poem/cantata entitled Kullervo, Op.7, which was premiered with great success but never again performed in his lifetime. During the next six years he composed numerous nationalistic pageants, symphonic poems and vocal works, mostly based on the Finnish national epic, The Kalevala. In appreciation, and in order to enable him to compose undisturbed, the Finnish government gave him a pension for life in 1897.

In February 1899 the Russian Imperial Governor published the notorious “February Manifesto,” designed to curtail Finland’s autonomy and facilitate its Russification. Among others restrictions, it imposed strict censorship and forced the closing of many newspapers. In order to support the dismissed staff, a three-day cultural festival was organized in Helsinki to raise funds for the Press Pension Fund. Sibelius provided the music for the grand finale in the form of a dramatic seven-tableaux spectacle depicting episodes from Finnish history. It culminated in a stirring patriotic anthem entitled "Finland Awake." A year later, with some modification, Sibelius recast it as an independent tone poem, Finlandia. With its powerful opening and hymn-like middle section, it became the symbol of Finnish nationalism. Before 1917, in order to evade the Russian censor, it had to be performed under the euphemistic title “Impromptu.”

During the next 26 years Sibelius composed the symphonies and tone poems that made him world famous. But in 1926, beset by a combination of bi-polar disorder and alcoholism, he quit composing, secluding himself in his home bordering the starkly beautiful Finnish forests he had so effectively described in music. He died 31 years later.

The snarling opening chords are clearly meant as a musical symbol of Russian oppression. Example 1 Gradually "Finnish" trumpets rouse the orchestra to resistance. Example 2 But the focus of this brief tone poem is the orchestral patriotic hymn. Example 3 The quasi religious tone is difficult maintain, however, and the piece returns to its militaristic defiance, an orgy of cymbal crashes. The hymn reappears as the concludes.
Frédéric Chopin 1810-1849
Frédéric Chopin
Frédéric Chopin
Piano Concerto No. 2 in F minor, Op. 21

The son of a French father and Polish mother, Frédéric Chopin was born and grew up in Poland; but after the collapse of the Polish revolution against Russia in 1831, he went into exile to France. He settled in Paris, which was then the center of Polish émigrés.

Chopin's chosen medium was the piano as a solo instrument. Although in his late teens he tried to combine the piano with the orchestra, creating the two piano concertos, the Variations Op. 2, Fantasia Op. 13, Concert Rondo Op. 14 and the Grand Polonaise Op. 22, he was uncomfortable with the medium and after age 20 never again wrote for a large ensemble. In all these works, the orchestral scoring is so light that during the nineteenth century it was fashionable to re-orchestrate and "improve" it. Be that as it may, Chopin probably intended the orchestra to serve as a delicate background for the soloist, especially since he himself was known to have had a rather light touch on the piano; heavy orchestration would have drowned him out.

The f minor Concerto, although listed as No. 2, was the first composed (1829-30) but was the second published. It was premiered in March 1830 in Warsaw with the composer at the piano. As was so often the case with composers in the Romantic Era, the inspiration for the Concerto came to Chopin as the result of unrequited love. The object of his ardor was a voice student at the Warsaw Conservatory. But by the time the Concerto was published six years later, he had long forgotten her and dedicated it instead to his pupil, Countess Delphine Potocka, a gifted singer and close friend.

Although Chopin has the reputation for musically "wearing his heart on his sleeve," he was also gifted and innovative in his use of harmony and phrase structure. The Concerto capitalizes on all the pianistic qualities that were to catapult him to fame in Paris. It opens in a gruff mood, Example 1 followed by a more lyrical second theme introoduced by the solo oboe. Example 2 When the piano enters in a standard double exposition, it inserts its own second theme before taking up the oboe theme. Example 3 The development section of the first movement is a major departure from true development as understood by Beethoven. Chopin's music never argues; rather, his development could be described as a commentary on the themes and on what had gone on before, his customary tendency is to embellish and decorate the pianistic line. Example 4 This long section is almost serpentine in the way it slides in and out of new keys and deftly manipulates phrasing and the themes themselves. In this regard, the Concerto foreshadows the composer's future, even more adventurous harmonic writing.

The slow movement is intense and still lyrical, with the ornamentation of the main theme gradually becoming an integral part of it. With its seemingly endless, fluid lines, elaborate ornamentation and recitative-type passages, this movement has led scholars to compare Chopin with the contemporaneous Italian bel canto style of opera composer Vincenzo Bellini, whom Chopin greatly admired. Chopin provides a brief orchestral introduction Example 5 where embellishment now becomes an integral part of the first theme with the entrance of the piano. Example 6 After all the trills and decorations, however, Chopin gets down to the real meat of the movement in what has become one of the most quoted of his melodies. Example 7

The finale is a rondo, although unusual in that it is a waltz. Example 8 Not surprisingly, it provides the pianist with glittering runs and pyrotechnics to show off against a largely superfluous orchestra. The rondo is never played quite the same way twice. The third episode is in mazurka rhythm. Example 9 The mazurka became one of Chopin's signature rhythms, an expression of his nationalistic feeling. It originated as a Polish folk dance in triple meter from the Mazovia district near Warsaw. But mazurka became an umbrella name for a number of related dances: the fiery mazurek, the lively oberek or the slower and more sentimental kujawiak. All three dances originated from the older polska, a dance in which a strong accent falls on the second or third beat of the measure, accompanied by a tap of the heel. Chopin composed nearly 60 mazurkas for piano solo, as well as several that have been lost. A horn fanfare heralds a spectacular coda. Oddly, there is not a single cadenza in this piece.

The Concerto was received enthusiastically at the premiere, but Chopin had his doubts as to whether the audience actually understood it: "The first allegro...received, indeed, the reward of a 'Bravo,' but I believe this was given because the public wished to show that it understands and knows how to appreciate serious music. There are people enough in all countries who like to assume the air of connoisseurs!"
Jean Sibelius
Symphony No. 5 in E-flat major, Op. 82

All his life Sibelius suffered from bouts of alcoholism. Early on it caused a tremor in his right hand that prevented him from fulfilling his primary ambition of becoming a concert violinist. At numerous times in his life he went on the wagon, only to backslide repeatedly. It was during one of his dry periods late in 1914 that he started composing his Symphony No. 5, premiering it in 1915 in celebration of his 50th birthday. The version generally performed today, however, is the product of four additional years of revisions.

The Symphony is strongly influenced by the sounds of the forests and lakes surrounding Sibelius' home in Ainola, north of Helsinki. An early inspiration for the finale came on April 21, 1915, when he saw sixteen swans in flight over his house:

“One of my greatest experiences! Lord God, that beauty!…Their call the same woodwind type as that of cranes, but without tremolo. The swan-call closer to the trumpet, although there is something of a sarrusophone sound. A low refrain reminiscent of a small child crying. Nature mysticism and life's Angst! The Fifth Symphony's finale-theme: Legato in the trumpets!!”

The final version of the Symphony presents a musical puzzle: is it in three movements or four? The first movement is in two sections, each of which presents the same thematic material, but in two entirely different moods. The first section opens with a brooding fanfare introduced by the horns and taken up by the woodwinds that makes up the bulk of the thematic material for this melancholy, sometimes even threatening, part. Example 1 The second section, marked Allegro moderato, takes the same material but in a whirling triple meter, in a more optimistic mood. Example 2

The second movement, Andante mosso, quasi allegretto is a set of freely structured variations on a short thirteen-note motive, although without the formal repeat structure of the classic variation form. Example 3

A hushed chromatic whirring theme in the strings introduces the Finale. Example 4 The movement shares this excited motive, often in counterpoint, with a somber chordal phrase in the horns that recurs throughout as an ostinato Example 5 – perhaps a memory of the sound of the flying swans. The Symphony concludes with a cadence consisting of six staccato chords played by the entire orchestra. Example 6

Copyright © Elizabeth and Joseph Kahn 2014