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Composed: 1902-1904; rev. 1905
Length: c. 32 minutes
Orchestration: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, strings, and solo violin
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: November 5, 1931, Artur Rodzinski conducting, with violinist Efrem Zimbalist
Sibelius composed just one concerto, but his contribution to the genre counts as among the most musically satisfying examples in the repertory. The Violin Concerto achieves a remarkable balance between virtuosity and substance, solo fireworks and symphonic coherence. Its future reputation, however, was anything but assured when Sibelius publicly unveiled the work in 1904 – and even after he presented it the following year in its revised and definitive form.
By all accounts, the virtuoso side of the equation suffered at that first performance. Despite having a potentially powerful champion in Willy Burmester – a student of Joseph Joachim and the violinist who had originally encouraged Sibelius to write the piece – the composer’s erratic scheduling precluded Burmester from taking part. He remained eager to perform as soloist in the premiere of the revised version, but the assignment again went to another violinist.
The insulted Burmester thereafter swore off taking on the Concerto. Even with Sibelius’ revisions – he tightened the score and trimmed away some excessively showy writing – the Concerto remains notoriously challenging. Several decades passed before it became more widely recognized, thanks to the advocacy of such artists as Jascha Heifetz and Ginette Neveu.
Another possible reason why the Concerto took time to establish itself is simply that Sibelius’ early successes so closely identified him as “the voice” of an emerging Finnish national style. But the composer had grown weary of his music being treated merely as an evocation of Finnish folklore or a call to arms in the struggle for national liberation (a commonplace reaction to his Second Symphony, which was a triumph when it premiered in 1902). The Violin Concerto marks a turning point in his career. Even while still writing within the rhetoric of late romanticism (his following symphony, the Third, would veer toward a neoclassical direction), Sibelius was becoming more overtly preoccupied with abstract processes of musical transformation – though there’s never been a shortage of commentary that purports to discover extra-musical elements of local color in the Concerto, from polar bears to the aurora borealis.
The Violin Concerto is, on another level, a work of fantasy and farewell. From adolescence until his early 20s, Sibelius had hoped to become a violin virtuoso, but a failed audition forced him to abandon that dream. The richly varied personality he gives the instrument here seems to sublimate some of that ambition – as if Sibelius were imagining a super-violinist alter ego. In the first movement in particular – longer than the other two combined – he tends to set this deeply felt, dramatic writing for the soloist in relief against the orchestra, rather than to suggest a polite concordance of voices. And in place of chatty conversation and repartee, his musical thought unfurls as a continual development of motivic ideas: one of the ways in which Sibelius revitalizes the conventional concerto format of a hefty opening movement, slow, lyrical middle, and energetic, earthy finale.
In one of the most memorable openings of the repertory, the ensemble of muted violins tremble in soft clouds of D minor, against which the soloist comes into focus, elaborating the opening theme (its first three notes have a germinal significance). Already the violin is determined to follow its own path and soon launches a smallish cadenza. The orchestra presses on with a second theme whose brooding emotions the soloist voluptuously intensifies. A briefer third theme yields to the instrument’s enormous cadenza – positioned in lieu of a traditional development, although Sibelius uses this and the recapitulation into which it spins to give us new perspectives on the earlier material. The coda adds a thrilling sense of urgency to the movement’s fatalism.
Following the expansiveness of the first movement, the Adagio’s intimacy is especially moving. Sibelius uses different areas of the violin’s registration to exquisite effect. Tension intrudes in the middle, only to heighten the serenity of the opening melody’s intricately ornamented reprise. The finale, mingling aspects of rondo and sonata, pulses with aggressive and exciting rhythmic patterns. The solo writing makes the Concerto’s most outrageous technical demands while zestfully exploring the musical material: a happy union of the composer with his fantasizing inner violinist.
Thomas May writes and lectures about music and theater and is a frequent contributor to Los Angeles Philharmonic programs.