I posted the following tasty appetizer in someone's cartoon diary last year. One commenter said that it was the saddest piece of music she had ever heard.
Valse Triste by Jean Sibelius, a clip from the Bruno Bozetti's animated film, Allegro Non Troppo(1976)
Valse Triste (The Sad Waltz) comes from his music suite for the play Kuolema (Death). Sibelius later published it separately with a long program describing a dying woman dancing with ghosts. As the music ends, the ghosts disappear, and Death appears, standing on the threshold. (Personally, I prefer Bozetti's interpretation.)
Valse Triste is probably the piece that Finnish composer Jean Sibelius is most well known for outside the hardcore classical music circles. It's popular with Olympic ice skaters, who chop it up for their choreographies. It's typical of the dark Poe-ish romanticism that infuses much of Sibelius's music, including the Violin Concerto we will hear today.
Yet another version of Valse Triste that I couldn't resist cutting and uploading to Youtube just now. This is the waltz scene at the end of the 1934 film Death Takes a Holiday, starring Fredric March (Death) and Evelyn Venable.
There have been a host of crappy remakes of the film, but none of them have lived up to the 1934 version, even with better actors. The version with Brad Pitt and Anthony Hopkins, for example, was a three hour stalled bus.
Valse Triste is a wonderful example of Sibelius at his most romantic. Notice the amorphous and seamless switching back and forth between major and minor key. The simplicity of the musical lines. It's passionate music, more linear than vertical, melodic, and suffused with a sense of desolation.
This is a great model example of late romanticism. There are many examples of music contemporaneous with this that were just as romantic, but lacked the depth and sincerity that Sibelius mustered. You know when you hear this that it comes from some dark part of the composer's own soul.
I've wanted to cover something by Sibelius before, but I've put it off because he's so difficult to analyze and break down. Sibelius doesn't adhere very well to traditional classical forms. He does things his own way. It's even more of a problem because he doesn't just blow off tradition and do things his own way; he sort of does it traditionally but then mucks around with things so much that describing it usually makes it impossible for me to whip out my "handy dandy blue graphic" boilerplate. We're forced into the position of trying to describe his music this way: "It's kind of like a Ford Prius, except it's a submarine..."
For instance, the first movement of the Violin Concerto (and that's all I'll commit to analyzing, right now -- we'll see how time and space hold up) is sort of Sonata-Allegro form -- a complicated form that we've belabored to death in diary after diary to where we know it so well we hate hearing the words.
Sibelius progressively stripped away formal markers of sonata form in his work and, instead of contrasting multiple themes, he focused on the idea of continuously evolving cells and fragments culminating in a grand statement. His later works are remarkable for their sense of unbroken development, progressing by means of thematic permutations and derivations. The completeness and organic feel of this synthesis has prompted some to suggest that Sibelius began his works with a finished statement and worked backwards, although analyses showing these predominantly three- and four-note cells and melodic fragments as they are developed and expanded into the larger "themes" effectively prove the opposite.I describe Sibelius as a late Romantic, sometimes called Post-Romantic. His style, especially in his early works, has often been compared to Tchaikovsky and Wagner, both of whom he acknowledged as influences. Like some other notable late Romantics of the early twentieth century, he composed his music at a vulnerable point in the history of music when more avant-garde, less tonally solid styles of music were becoming the cutting edge. As Sibelius's style developed through the decades and as the trend in classical music became more dissonant and analytical, he remained a Romantic. His music became more daring and complex, but it was always "accessible," something that average people could listen to and identify as music with a coherent emotional message.
His violin concerto is like that. It's passionate and dark and very intense, almost too intense to listen to, at times. The second theme is one of the most beautiful melodies ever composed for violin, just heart-breaking.
Last week I included a short clip of Maxim Vengerov teaching a masterclass on the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto. Here's another clip, this time of him teaching the Sibelius to a young student, using the first theme.
"Different colors," he points out more than once. The first part of the theme is thin and angelic. As he gets to the middle part, where he says, "Different color," his whole face changes and the violin GROWLS. The transformation is from the angelic to the demonic in the same theme. At one point he cries out, "You can't escape from this!" as if there is something you would want to escape from.
The key motif of the concerto, which you can hear from the very first notes on the violin, looks (kind of) like this:
It shows up in many forms, in all three movements. Both the first theme and second theme are built from it.
I only promise to go through the first movement, but the whole concerto is on the clip. So enjoy!
The Sibelius Violin Concerto in D Minor (complete), performed by Itzhak Perlman, the Boston Symphony Orchestra conducted by Erich Leinsdorf
We hear A barely audible ostinato (repeating) rhythm in the violins atop a steady shimmering chord, setting an icy blue-gray tone.
Exposition First Theme (0:08)
The violin enters. The mood is subdued, and angelic, but with a controlled tension coming from the shimmering backdrop of the strings. The theme is first angelic, but then demonic.
At 1:00, a new turbulence enters the music. Tension rises. The lower strings rumble and the bassoon enters on a dissonant note that throws things off. The violin scrambles from one extreme to another (trying to "escape," perhaps, to use Vengerov's word?)
DA DUM! (1:36) The timpani (drums) make an aggressive entrance. The tension ratchets up as the violin ascends through a series of fast virtuoso figures, establishing the new key of B flat.
Exposition Second Theme (2:25)
The violin gives way, and there's a seam in the form of the music here as it gives way to the orchestra alone. It's a bit vague and coarse, dark with trembling heavy strings, but they are playing the second theme which the violin will take up in due course and make beautiful...
As the orchestra fades, the violin reenters at 3:25. And at 3:35, OHHH! There it is. Worth the wait, isn't it? Again, we have the same wavering between major and minor we hear in Valse Triste, fucking with us by switching back and forth from B flat major to B flat minor in midstream.
At 4:31, it settles on B flat major, a brief moment of peace. A new, gentler, less aggressive theme arises, built from the same motif illustrated above. It's only brief though, rising to a tense, unresolved climax that creates the next seam in the music.
I'm calling this the exposition section because it has the feeling that this is where the exposition section (the part where the first and second theme duel it out) would be. But it's not that clear cut here. We are just in a new section.
The violin vanishes and the full orchestra with angry brass and drums again asserts control. They play a new theme based on a part of the previous theme just heard, (which was based on the main motif, so this is too). At 5:40, it reaches an orchestral climax, one which I'll describe, again, as... angry. At 5:50, it relents, and the orchestra begins to subside as if from a storm, helping to set up another separating seam in the dramatic flow of the movement.
At 6:29, the orchestra having mostly faded, the violin returns. NOW we have something more like a real development section as the violin begins to search through a series of different keys. The most dramatic moment of the movement. And a tough one for the violinist, we can guess, just listening to it wail.
Recapitulation First Theme (8:52)
At 8:52, the orchestra finally rejoins the violin, setting up another seam in the music.
We could call this the Recapitulation except it's in the wrong key for that, G minor, not D minor. No slave of tradition, Sibelius, eh? Actually, that might not mean much to you listening, nor would it have to me, before analyzing this with a guitar in my lap, because one key sounds like another for most people. But the movement HAS to end in D minor or you can't call it a D minor concerto! The return to the home key is often the most dramatic moment in a symphony or concerto, often with a big build-up. So we're not really home yet.
We can identify the first theme though, first showing up subtly in the bassoons and lower strings, then picked up by the violin. It is changed only from its first appearance because that initial shimmering angelic touch is gone. It's sullen, being played on the lower strings of the violin, not the higher strings we heard the first time around.
At 10:20, as at 1:00, the musical tension ratchets up leading to a seam in the music at 10:38. The violin again fades out and the full orchestra takes control.
Bridge Passage to the Second Theme (10:38)
The bridge passage, this time, is almost a second development section, as it claws its way upward from G major to B minor. No, B minor is not the home key, either, but let's not sweat geeky details just yet. Let's oooh and aaahh over the way those strings come SWEEPING in at 11:09, and the note of soaring hope in what has been a very tense and dark concerto. It climaxes out around 11:35.
Recapitulation Second Theme (11:50)
Ah, we're back to the beautiful second theme, first lightly in the orchestra, in B major.
And then the violin belts it out. And FINALLY, WE ARE BACK IN D MAJOR. And, really, even without a sherpa guide, you can probably feel the extra OOMPH the change brings. Really, you can. Play it back and see.
And things lighten up.
The main problems of the first movement are solved, and all that's left is the dramatic race to the finish line.
-- End of the First Movement --
And that's all I'm going to try to do today. I've been reviewing my other diaries, and I think I try to pack in too much stuff, creating a MEGO situation. I think this is enough. The rest of the concerto is in the clip, and it's easier music, so enjoy it. For kicks, See if you can identify the main motif from the first movement (my illustration) in the rhythmic figure that dominates the finale (23:25).
We have a guest-host next week! On 4/12, Ramara is going to host a diary about the Beethoven Violin Concerto, a work that I love but didn't want to write myself because my Beethoven arm is all cramped. As a violinist himself, he will probably have some interesting insights to bring to it. I'll be back Thursday 4/19 with another violin concerto.