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About this Piece

Composed: 1925-26, rev. 1927

Length: 15 minutes

Orchestration: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets (2nd = bass clarinet), 2 bassoons, 4 horns, timpani, triangle, bass drum, harp, and strings

First Los Angeles Philharmonic performances

Although Sibelius was frustrated by his early experiences attempting to compose opera, he was able to sublimate this desire with stunning success into other genres. His dramatically compelling tone poems and incidental music for stage plays stand alongside the masterful symphonies as Sibelius' most impressive achievements.

The once-popular genre of stage music is often compared to "film scoring," but the analogy is misleading. Sibelius had more creative freedom to pursue musical tangents fired up by the accompanying dramaturgy than would be typical for a film composer, given all the compromises involved in production. His first major hit was a number (Valse triste) written for a deathbed scene to a play by his brother-in-law - one of almost a dozen theater works that Sibelius set to music throughout his career.

Perhaps the most intriguing of these is his incidental music to The Tempest. Sibelius originally wrote over an hour of music (for large orchestra, together with chorus and solo voices) to accompany a 1926 production at the Royal Theater in Copenhagen. It's an extraordinarily rich, stylistically varied score that Alex Ross has rightly called "a shadow opera…perhaps the greatest Shakespeare opera never written." Sibelius revised the music and extracted pieces for two separate, purely instrumental suites. The first suite employs a larger ensemble and includes a variant of the fearsomely dissonant storm music (considered so compelling that the Copenhagen stage director replaced Shakespeare's opening shipwreck scene with Sibelius' musical portrayal). The Suite No. 2 is geared to a more chamber-like orchestra and similarly offers selective vignettes of the whole, independent of the original order in which these pieces appeared.

Chorus of the Winds evokes the marvelously Sibelian sense of vast space with its open fifths and mysterious echoes. The graceful moodiness of the Intermezzo suggests the inner landscape which interests the composer just as much as the natural ones called for. Sibelius' stylistic range in this set embraces neoclassicism in the waltzing Dance of the Nymphs, while Prospero's brief but weighty portrait from the string ensemble has been compared to Purcell or Handel in its baroque majesty. Ariel appears not only in the two lilting numbered songs but in The Naiads, a version of the sprite's first song to Ferdinand that pivots with Sibelian lyricism.

Next to the imposing portrait of her father, Sibelius suggests the character of Miranda with repetitions, delicately festooned, of a sweetly melancholy melody. He caps the suite with another gesture of marvelous economy. Dance Episode begins innocently but then speeds up with a darkly brooding theme in counterpoint to the obsessively dancing strings as the composer depicts Antonio, whose betrayal of his brother Prospero is the backstory to The Tempest. A series of chords adds a surprise twist of an ending.

- Thomas May is senior music editor at and author of Decoding Wagner as well as the forthcoming John Adams Reader.