Valse triste originated as the ﬁrst of six numbers Sibelius composed as incidental music for the play Kuolema (Death) by his brother-in-law, Arvid Järnefelt. The plot revolves around a denial of death on the part of the protagonist, Paavali, whose dying mother tells him she has just dreamed of attending a ball. When the son falls asleep, Death enters and the mother dances with him, thinking it is her deceased husband. The son awakens to ﬁnd her dead.
As heard in the premiere, December 2, 1903, in Helsinki’s new Finnish National Theater, Kuolema’s six pieces were scored for strings, with bass drum added for the ﬁfth and church bells at the end of the sixth. In 1904, Sibelius revised Valse triste, adding a flute, two clarinets, two horns, and timpani to the orchestration. According to his biographer Harold Johnson, Sibelius then sold this orchestral version and a piano arrangement to his Finnish publisher, Fazer & Westerlund, for 200 marks. The following year, the publisher sold its Sibelius rights to Breitkopf & Härtel, who immediately issued Valse triste in all manner of arrangements, from military band to solo flute. Had the unwary composer retained royalty rights, his years of poverty and debt would have vanished forever.
Valse triste fascinates the listening ear by its many efforts to elude resolution. Though set in the key of G major, the creeping chromatic tune begins in F-sharp minor, then slips below the keynote through the ruse of an unsettled harmony. Though it momentarily cadences on G, it inches its way upward during its repetition to settle in the key of A-flat major. Delaying devices in the rhythm also blur the meter to produce the effect of a hesitation waltz.
Two subsidiary themes — a bouncingbow episode in the strings and a whirling woodwind melody — bring a false sense of gaiety, but they are both rounded off by fateful phrases from the opening waltz theme. The eerie waltz returns to gradually crowd out the other themes, leading to a dramatic climax of rolling Sibelian thunder in the timpani and lower strings, until the melody dies away in a ghostly G-minor cadence for solo string quartet.