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Composed: 1903; rev. 1905

Length: c. 31 minutes

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

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

About this Piece

Allegro moderato
Adagio di molto
Allegro, ma non tanto

Sibelius’ position as the musical spokesman for his country remains unchallenged. Not only does he represent Finland to the outside world, but, significantly, to his own people: To an extent possibly unparalleled in the musical arts, a composer has become a national shrine. Adding to the uniqueness of the Sibelius-Finland mystique is the fact that, for nearly the last 30 years of his life the composer was creatively silent. That did not matter. With a raft of works based upon the Kalevala, the epic poetry of his country, Sibelius had penetrated to the source of the Finnish spirit.

That Sibelius was able to reveal the Finnish soul to itself is the more impressive when we realize that he never used identifiable folk music. The composer was adamant on this point, as he was in denial that he wrote Finnish symphonic music. “My symphonies are conceived and worked out in terms of music and with no literary basis,” he said. “A scene can be expressed in painting, a drama in words; a symphony should be first and last music.

“Of course,” he continued, “it has happened that, quite unbidden, some mental image has established itself in my mind in connection with a movement I have been writing, but the germ and the fertilization of my symphonies have been solidly musical.”

Because his Violin Concerto maintains as singular an image as any of his symphonies, the same disclaimer can be applied to it as to the symphonic works. The work is the only piece in concerto form he ever wrote; the first version dates from 1903, an extensive revision from 1905. A violinist himself (earlier in his life, he had seriously entertained the idea of becoming a performing artist), Sibelius required no Joachim (mentor to Brahms, Bruch, and Dvořák) to guide him into safety in the dangerous area of fiddle technique. Nor did he turn to 19th-century models to arrive at what is clearly a virtuoso showpiece, for the Concerto’s flexible design evolves as an original but natural consequence of the unique materials.

The Sibelian austerity is immediately apparent as the violin enters, on an off-beat and in dissonance to the harmony of the persistent string tremolos. This main theme, with its many descending fifths and augmented fourths, appearing as distinctive elements throughout the movement, is an expansive melody despite the succinct motifs and the many long-held notes. After embellishing this material, the solo instrument engages in misterioso scales with only the timpani in attendance, and then has a brief cadenza before it becomes silent. The orchestra presents two new thematic ideas, the second of which, an aspiring melody, the violin quickly appropriates, giving it poetic, urgent breadth. When its energy is spent, the orchestra enters for an extended section in which still more new material is presented. This is built to a climax, recedes, and then the violin enters with a brilliant and organically evolved cadenza built on the first theme. The remainder of the movement deals with varied repetitions of the now familiar materials, and the coda pits a furious and forceful solo against an ultimately submissive orchestra.

The slow movement presents Sibelius at his tenderest—at the end of the first theme, the solo’s hushed ascending figure ending with a two-note sigh, is poignantly lovely—and at his most volatile; this initial mood is contrasted with urgent dramatics.

The final movement is at first demonic in temperament and in rhythmic intensity. There is much dark-hued exuberance and virtuosic energy until the last measures, which exult in great solo strides and sweeping scales in D major. Enigmatically, Sibelius ends with the solo and the orchestration on unison Ds, as if not willing to admit either to major or minor tonality—to triumph or defeat. —Orrin Howard