Today, Jean Sibelius (1865-1957) is known primarily for his symphonies and tone poems, but he also composed a significant number of smaller-scale pieces, including 100 songs for solo voice and piano. His songs span his entire compositional career - the "Serenade" (1888) was his first published composition, and his final song, "Narcissus," appeared in 1925, just before the completion of his last major orchestral work (the tone poem Tapiola) and four years before his complete retirement from composing.
The seven songs of his Op. 13 were Sibelius' first published collection of art songs; his earlier Op. 1 collection had been comprised of Christmas songs. "Våren flyktar hastigt" (Spring flies fast; 1891) stands out among the set, its psychological insight into the text offering an enticing taste of things to come in later songs.
The songs of Op. 17 signaled a new maturity for Sibelius as a song composer. "Illalle" (To Evening; 1898) is a radiant song of farewell, with Forsman's Finnish text calling to mind the autumnal mood of the Eichendorff and Hesse poems Richard Strauss set in his Four Last Songs (which Karita Mattila will sing March 6, 7, and 9 with Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Los Angeles Philharmonic). Sibelius' shimmering piano accompaniment mirrors the "starlit splendor" of the "gentle evening," and the soprano's unremitting repetition of the song's short melody lends a sense of expectation to her longing for death. The highly individual "En slända" (A dragonfly; 1904) gives the soloist an almost a cappella part, with the pianist sketching in the sparsest of accompaniments. Here, Sibelius avoids a "Flight of the Bumblebee"-style depiction of the dragonfly and instead offers up an exquisite portrait of melancholy.
Sibelius composed his Op. 37 songs for Ida Ekman, his favorite interpreter of his songs. The cycle comes from the period around the turn of the 20th century, Sibelius' most fertile when it came to composing songs (the collections of Op. 36 and 38 also date from this time). "Flickan kom ifrån sin älsklings möte" (A girl came home from a lovers' tryst; 1900) testifies to Ekman's gifts as a narrator, which must have been remarkable, and "Var det en dröm?" (Did I just dream?; 1902), one of Sibelius' most popular songs, reveals the ecstatic side of its interpreter's voice.
"Norden" (The north; 1917) was the first item in Sibelius' last published collection of songs. It was written for Ekman, who had entered the twilight of her career and was giving her final concerts. The unsettling accompaniment, really just a naked, dissonant pulse, throws the plaintive vocal line into sharp relief. Runeberg's modernist text, with its longing for the north, presents the region as the southerner's vision of heaven, a vision reinforced by the song's radiant close, all major-key consonance.
-- John Mangum is the Los Angeles Philharmonic's Program Designer/Annotator.