Sibelius’ Symphony No. 2, Dvořák’s Cello Concerto, and Fartein Valen’s The Churchyard by the Sea.
In a programme of romantic radiance and glowing intensity, the Oslo Philharmonic performs Sibelius’ vibrant second symphony (1902) and Dvořák’s famous Cello Concerto (1895). Fartein Valen’s evocative The Churchyard by the Sea (1934) is inspired by French contemporary poetry and an abandoned cholera graveyard in the west of Norway. These timeless masterpieces will be performed by a new generation of young talent: Finnish conductor Dalia Stasevska and gifted Austrian cellist Kian Soltani.
Sibelius’ second symphony represented the composer’s international breakthrough. His first symphony had been a success, but was strongly coloured by the composer’s admiration of Tchaikovsky. His second symphony was a work written purely in his own style. The work opens with the featherlight introduction by the strings of the melodic theme, answered by the twittering of the woodwinds, everything in a spring-like, light D Major key. The second movement starts with mystical pizzicati in the deep strings before the bassoons sound one of Sibelius’ most melancholy themes. Gradually, the pulse quickens, leading us towards a violent, catastrophic outbreak of the brass, ending with the strings playing an ethereal theme. A ragingly wild scherzo, interrupted by two oboe songs of stoic calm, build a bridge to the finale, where an optimistic life force and melancholy battle side by side until the final triumph and the powerful conclusion.
When Sibelius’ second symphony was premiered in Helsinki in 1902, the disgruntlement with the Russian ruling powers had reached new heights in Finland, and the Fennomans’ crusade for Finnish language and culture had intensified accordingly. In this context, Sibelius − the composer who a few years earlier had given the people the explosive Finlandia, and the equally political The Breaking of the Ice on the Oulu River − seemed to fit the role of national hero and cultural icon perfectly. Despite the circumstances of the time and the symphony’s unambiguous narrative, the work should not be viewed as a political one. The composer was adamant that his symphonies did not have any programmatic content, and that the music should speak for itself.
Just like Sibelius, Czech composer Antonin Dvořák (1841−1904) became a national icon in his own country. Yet, his compositions were not primarily motivated by nationalism or politics. His Cello Concerto is first and foremost a masterpiece of melodic invention and represents a splendid richness of ideas. From the very first bar, Dvořák conjures up one far-reaching melody after another. Just listen to the beautiful horn melody in the first movement, for example − the composer’s own favourite. When the soloist enters, every tone and every line is positioned exceptionally well for the cello instrument. This movement has often been described as being among the composer’s most successful, independent of genre.
The magnificent first movement is followed by a restrained second movement containing a personal greeting to the composer’s sister-in-law, Josefina. Here, the movement suddenly breaks off, changing from G major to minor, with a quote from Dvořák’s own song Lasst mich allein, from 4 Lieder, Op. 42: Josefina’s favourite song. The final movement is a hefty rondo, but towards the end, an epilogue follows, where both the first movement and the above-mentioned song return.
Dvořák’s Cello Concerto was first performed in London in 1896, and has since then been one of the most popular solo concertos in the classical repertoire.
Fartein Valen (1887−1952) struggled far more than Sibelius and Dvořák to achieve public acknowledgement of his music, which in a divided music press was often described as “modernistic” and “atonal”. He did not wish to compose so-called “nationalistic” music, which many Nordic composers still did, long into the 20th century. Although more recent research has shown that Valen’s relationship to tradition and tonality was far more complex than previously assumed, there remains little doubt that his musical language is further from the dominant stylistic ideals of the 19th century than that of many other of his contemporaries.
Valen was inspired by Schoenberg, Reger, and many other modern composers in the first decades of the 20th century, and created his own unique style, characterised by an uncompromising counterpoint − featuring a musical web of melodic lines with untraditional tone constellations both within and between these. Valen’s style granted him relatively few admirers and friends, both in his time and afterwards, but certain works have remained − and perhaps the most famous of these is namely Le Cimetière Marin, better known as The Churchyard by the Sea.
The Churchyard by the Sea is in many ways a sort of modern tone poem − written in one movement with a descriptive title and a programme to follow, comment or explain the musical content. Prior to a performance of the work in Oslo in 1947, Valen wrote the following note in the programme booklet:
I had the idea for The Churchyard by the Sea when I, during a stay in Mallorca, read a translation of Paul Valéry’s famous poem in the Spanish newspaper El Sol on 8 May 1933. “Le Cimetière Marin is Paul Valéry’s masterpiece”, the foreword to the translation states, “and counts among the masterpieces in the poetry of today and of all time. It is a philosophical meditation in the manner of Parmenides and Zenon, and expresses the immutability of existence and the transience of life; a meditation by the sea in a graveyard in Cette”. This turned my mind to another graveyard, in Norway; an old, abandoned cholera graveyard just by the sea in the west of the country, where I live. The music does not follow the poem programmatically, but seeks to give expression for the feelings which are evoked universally when Man is confronted with the power of death.
(Fartein Valen, programme comment, 10 September 1947)
Since its world premiere in Oslo in 1934, The Churchyard by the Sea has remained Valen’s best-known and most often performed orchestra work, next to his Violin Concerto.
In 1919, Jean Sibelius (1865−1957) was one of the hottest names in Nordic music life. The performance of his second symphony as part of "Nordic Music Days” in Copenhagen that year was described as the festival’s great highlight. The Oslo Philharmonic was quick to grasp the spirit of the times, and played the piece at its very first subscription concert, two days after its own inaugural concert, in September 1919. In 1921, Sibelius himself visited Christiania on his way home to Finland from Bergen. He conducted his own works with the young orchestra, was bequeathed a wreath, and met King Haakon II, Knut Hamsun, and many other central figures in Norwegian public life.
The Oslo Philharmonic has always had an important role in promoting and performing new Norwegian music, and in 1934, the orchestra performed the world premiere of Fartein Valen’s The Churchyard by the Sea. Valen’s music had not always been well-received and understood by critics and audiences in Oslo, but this work was praised in the Norwegian music press. Jens Arbo wrote in Morgenbladet that “Valen achieves an uncommonly strong effect with his sensitive lining up of contrapuntal voices”, and Hans Jørgen Hurum wrote in Norges Handels og Sjøfartstidende that “With Le Cimetière Marin (The Churchyard by the Sea), Valen appears to have created one of the most beautiful and noblest of works written in recent years in any country”. This performance represented, together with successful performances of several other of the composer’s orchestra works in the 1930’s, Valen’s breakthrough as a composer.
(Tekst: Thomas Erma Møller; Translation from Norwegian: Sarah Osa; In photo: Dalia Stasevska; Photo: Jarmo Katila)Read more
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