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Composed: 1903; rev. 1905

Length: c. 31 minutes

Orchestration: solo violin, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, and strings

First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: November 5, 1931, Artur Rodziński conducting, with Efrem Zimbalist, soloist

About this Piece

Sibelius aspired to become a violin virtuoso but fixed on that goal too late for it to be feasible. Still, he became accomplished enough to play in the Vienna Conservatory’s orchestra when he was a student there, in 1890–91, and he even unsuccessfully auditioned for a chair in the Vienna Philharmonic. 

He enriched his instrument’s repertoire by a quite a few works apart from his famous violin concerto. He worked on a second violin concerto in 1915 but abandoned it, recycling his sketches into his sixth symphony. He composed numerous works for violin and piano, including a sonata (1889) and a sonatina (1915), as well as many items grouped into collections of short movements. Apart from two short pieces for men’s choir and some revisions of earlier pieces, Sibelius composed not a single work after 1931—which is to say in the last 26 years of his life. Shortly before he gave up composing, he was engaged one last time with the violin, although a projected suite for violin and orchestra remained a fragmented draft. 

None of these works rivals the violin concerto in combining Sibelius’s unique musical language with the capabilities of the solo instrument. His characteristic sound—dark and sober—would not meld easily with the extroverted personality of most violin concertos of the 19th century. Still, a concerto needed to have a certain degree of flashiness or else a soloist could hardly be expected to perform it. Sibelius solved this problem by creating what some historians have viewed as “a deepening of the tradition.” The musicologist James Hepokoski finds in this work “a virtuoso concerto simultaneously affirmed and transcended by a thoroughgoing seriousness of purpose and ‘surplus’ density of compositional pondering.” 

The section of a traditional concerto most at odds with Sibelius’s predilection for profundity would be the first-movement cadenza, in which soloists are given the greatest opportunities to demonstrate their technical prowess. Sibelius meets the challenge head-on: he provides a solo cadenza but instead of presenting it as a sort of pendant to the proceedings he moves it to the middle of the movement and essentially makes it fill the role of a development section. Also nontraditional is the downplaying of the back-and-forth conversation between soloist and orchestra that we are accustomed to hearing in the concertos of, say, Mozart, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, and Brahms. 

The vast breadth of the opening movement is mirrored in the still beauty of the melancholy slow movement. Although this concerto is not a prime example of Sibelius’s occasional penchant for folk inspiration, the finale does seem to be a dance of some sort. The musical commentator Donald Francis Tovey called it “a polonaise for polar bears,” a description so perfect that few program annotators can resist quoting it. But one might consider what Tovey had to say apart from that: 

As with all Sibelius’s more important works, its outlines are huge and simple; and if a timely glance at an atlas had not reminded me that Finland is mostly flat and water-logged with lakes, I should doubtless have said that “his forms are hewn out of the rocks of his native and Nordic mountains.” The composer to whose style the word “lapidary” (lapidarisch) was first applied by the orthodoxy of the [eighteen] ’nineties is Bruckner; and if the best work of Sibelius suggests anything else in music, it suggests a Bruckner gifted with an easy mastery and the spirit of a Polar explorer. 

— James M. Keller  

James M. Keller, now in his 24th season as Program Annotator of the San Francisco Symphony, is the author of Chamber Music: A Listener’s Guide (Oxford University Press) and is writing a sequel volume about piano music.