Length: c: 22 minutes
Orchestration: 2 flutes (both = piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, percussion (bass drum, cymbals, tambourine, and triangle), and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: March 10, 1929, Georg Schnéevoigt conducting
Sibelius wrote incidental music for theater productions throughout his active career. Often written in a lighter, frankly more commercial style than his more personal developments in the tone poems and symphonies, this music nonetheless figured importantly in Sibelius’ emergence as one of the dominant musical figures of the early 20th century.
A case in point is the music that Sibelius wrote for King Christian II, a historical play by the Swedish writer Adolf Paul that was produced in Helsinki in February 1898. Sibelius extracted a suite of five numbers that almost immediately became his first published orchestral music, and when the composer left late in February for an extended trip to Germany, he took it with him. In Germany the Leipzig firm Breitkopf & Härtel picked it up and a year later the suite also became his first music publically performed in Germany. Reviews were critical and Sibelius wrote to Ferruccio Busoni that he regretted being introduced by “salon music,” but it was a crucial connection for Sibelius, with both the publisher and the German musical public.
The play deals with the travails of the titular 16th-century king, who makes the dynastic and political mistake of falling in love with a commoner. She is poisoned by a rival and after a bloody revenge he is deposed, dying in prison. The atmospheric, gently waltzing Nocturne was originally an entr’acte, as was the fiery Ballade depicting the political turmoil. Sibelius paired the yearning string Elegy with the rustic Musette, so sometimes the suite is described as being only four numbers. The elegant Serenade was the prelude to Act III, introducing court dancing. This is gracious, immediately appealing music – salon music, perhaps, but with many hallmarks of Sibelius’ sterner stuff, from musical details of orchestration and an inclination to end motives with a whiplash to the prevailing melancholy.