Sibelius's Violin Concerto and its origins

OPO's Nick Breckenfield explains the origins behind the masterpiece...

What's so different about the 1904 version of the Sibelius Violin Concerto? It was first performed in 1904 before revisions were made by the composer in 1905: this became the version that is commonly performed today. However, as noted by the publisher Robert Lienau Musikverlag, ‘the early version from 1904 did survive but previously could only be made public on rare occasions'.

The early version of the violin concerto is generally classified as more dramatic than the revised version

It exerts a peculiar charm and provides, together with the revised version of 1905, a unique insight into the workings of the composer. In order to meet the great interest of professionals surrounding this version, and to mark the composer’s 150th birthday, the heirs and publisher have now decided to release the early version of the concerto.

The original version of Sibelius’s Violin Concerto was composed in 1903

In November 1902, Sibelius went to Berlin to conduct his revised En Saga; he could have met there the renowned violinist (and one time leader of the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra), Willy Burmester, who was very keen to hear about the Concerto. Indeed, Burmester followed its progress closely, and Sibelius wanted him to accept the dedication of the work as well as giving its premiere (tentatively pencilled for March 1904). But, characteristically in Sibelius’s life, economics intervened. Sibelius needed to take evasive action because of his finances and arrange a fundraising concert before the scheduled premiere. To make an impact, he needed a new work, and so had to use the Violin Concerto.

Ironically the concerts were delayed until 8, 10 and 14 February 1904 – if only he could have waited a month, Burmester could have done the premiere. Instead, the honour fell to Viktor Nováček, teacher at the Helsinki Musical Academy, with Sibelius conducting. Unfortunately, Nováček was not up to the task and critical reaction was not good, especially from Karl Flodin, who wrote about the performance: ‘[Nováček’s] playing offered a mass of joyless things. From time to time there were terrible sounds and it was impossible to fathom the composer’s meaning, so great was the cacophony’; then about the work itself: ‘The concerto is, to be honest, boring – something which could not hitherto be said about a composition by Jean Sibelius’.

However, Burmester was still keen and urged Sibelius to reschedule performances that October, but Sibelius, always mindful of what Flodin had to say (he had already revised two movements of the Lemminkäinen Suite because they had not satisfied this particular critic), had already decided to withdraw the work for revision. In June 1904, he had written to Axel Carpelan: ‘I shall withdraw my Violin Concerto; it will not appear again for two years. That is my great secret sorrow at present. The first movement is to be formed completely anew, also the proportions of the Andante, and so on (although there is no Andante, and the slow movement Adagio is the least changed).

The concerto eventually saw the light of day again on 19 October 1905

Unfortunately Burmester was not the soloist – this time it was the Orchestra’s leader, Karl Halir – simply because by the time the premiere was settled upon (only four months earlier, which meant that Sibelius had to quickly finish his revisions), Burmester’s diary was already full. Perhaps not surprisingly, despite his initial support and enthusiasm, Burmester’s patience was vastly over-extended and he never performed the work.

The revised version of the concerto has become one of the twentieth-century’s most popular concertos, but only now – following the composer’s 150th anniversary year in 2015 – has the early version, newly edited from the manuscript in the Helsinki University Library and published by Robert Lienau Musikverlag, been released for regular performance (following a recording for a complete edition of Sibelius twenty-five years ago).

Taking Flodin’s criticisms to heart, particularly the swingeing statements about the virtuosity of the original version, Sibelius toned down much of this effect in the revision, taking out whole themes and altering others: a second cadenza in the first movement was dispensed with entirely and, in total, some five minutes’ worth of music was cut. Apart from the slow movement, where there is no change between versions in their number of bars (sixty-nine), the first version is longer: the opening movement in the original has 542 bars, compared to the revised version’s 499 (though that needs to take into account Sibelius’s removal of the first version’s sixty-four-bar second solo cadenza), while the final movement was originally 326 bars long, as opposed to the revision’s 268 bars.

For those that know the revised version, the opening and closing of the first movement will be familiar. A carpet of shimmering strings underpins the icy, soaring theme for the soloist to float into view. The first noticeable difference is the two abrupt chords followed by a dotted phrase which becomes more forceful, topped by two loud iterations of the two chords which send the soloist spiralling off under a menacing chugging accompaniment (a foretaste of the finale). You’ll recognise some of the ensuing accompaniment (here sombre bassoons and pizzicato cellos) but not the virtuosic musings from the soloist. A serener plateau is reached. Again a bassoon and violin passage offers an uneasy stalemate, from which the violin soars until we’re back into familiar territory as the orchestra purposefully breaks in, before dying away completely to allow the solo violin its first short cadenza, twice punctuated by thundering orchestral chords.

When the orchestra returns, the soloist continues in stately terms, commanding the other instruments. Back again comes the two chords and dotted motif, sometimes referred to as ‘Beethovenian’. Wind and solo violin (later underpinned by slow pizzicato) review the main theme. Timpani thunder effects, grumbling bassoons and pirouetting soloist carry the music uncertainly forward, with a little Bartókian ripple for clarinet, and then an extended, slowly climbing passage led by the oboe. This leads to the Bachian second cadenza (which Sibelius omitted in his revision), the soloist climbing higher still. The thrusting coda which ensues brings the movement to a recognisable close.

The ABA form of the B-flat slow movement Romanza is introduced by meandering wind, which eventually, on a stepped brass chord, ushers in the violin with the noble, long-breathed theme. Low strings, then blaring brass, build the tension in the chromatic minor middle section, over which the soloist seems at first to offer a calming influence. The solo violin is then is assimilated into the Elgarian grandeur of the music as it returns to the first theme, ending with sombre brass and timpani chords. The differences you’ll hear are a more virtuosic solo part and a short, flighty, final cadenza.

The famous comment about the D major final movement still stands the test of time and works for the original version, with the syncopated soloist constantly underpinned by the distinctive chugging accompaniment.

‘A polonaise for polar bears'  Donald Francis Tovey on the finale

But the passage Tovey refers to is much delayed in the original version, as the main theme is first followed by another Beethovenian melody before a reprise of the theme. Only then do we get the dance parody, over which the soloist flies freely. Brilliantly taxing for the soloist as it is exhilarating for the audience, this rondo, with all the expected returns of the main themes, has the soloist revelling in high harmonics, double- and treble-stopping and cross rhythms. The final climactic bars contrast the upward scales of the soloist with the forceful chords of the orchestra.

Maxim Vengerov performs the original 1904 version of the Sibelius Violin Concerto with the OPO: 5 June Sheldonian Theatre, 6 June Barbican


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