Sibelius and Mendelssohn

Alexandra Conunova, violin
David Danzmayr, conductor


ProMusica opens the year with yet another nod to Schubert, a set of charming German Dances, originally conceived as piano miniatures but brilliantly arranged for orchestra by one of the 20th century’s most avant guard composers, Anton Webern. Though Sibelius’ passionate and breathtaking Violin Concerto had a rocky start, it has since become a favorite of audiences and violinists alike. Grieg’s bittersweet work for strings, “The Last Spring,” looks to the close of life through rebirth. And we close with Mendelssohn’s Reformation Symphony, a work inspired by a religious event but which speaks to us all in tones both moving and thrilling.

Franz Schubert: Six German Dances, D. 820, arranged by Anton Webern
Scored for string and pairs of winds and horns.
In 1918, the progressive composer and teacher Arnold Schoenberg founded the Society for Private Musical Performance in Vienna, a weekly performance venue for modern music. The self-governing organization saw that music was rehearsed and performed responsibly (and often repeated on the same program), performed for a genuinely interested audience and remained free of external criticism (indeed, a sign on the door refused entry to professional critics). Its programs not only incorporated works of Schoenberg and his circle, including Anton Webern, but also music of composers like Stravinsky, Debussy and Richard Strauss. Curiously, the Society also incorporated a number of Viennese “classics” arranged for the house ensemble—Strauss Waltzes, Bruckner’s Seventh and Mahler’s Fourth Symphonies (the latter arrangement performed by ProMusica in 2003), and these German Dances of Franz Schubert, as arranged by Webern.

Schubert’s originally composed this set of six dances for a piano student, the Countess Caroline Esterházy. These are delicate pieces; as such, Webern sought to extract all the charm and sensitivity of Schubert’s keyboard originals, scoring them for a Schubert-sized orchestra (pairs of winds and horns with strings) and exploiting their color potential. The arrangement proved a curious experiment for the avant-garde composer who was driven by the search for ultimate expression through melodic color, or klangfarbenmelodie (tone-color-melody).

Webern’s arrangements are indeed very faithful to Schubert’s approach to instrumentation. Violins carry the bulk of the melodic weight and winds are added for color. But as was also Schubert’s tendency, the winds also get their moments to shine, as they do, for example, at the start of Nos. 2 and 6. The 3rd dance, on the other hand, provides a splendid example of Klangfarbenmelodie—listen how the theme is broken up and distributed among the various players rather than carried by a single instrument. All of the dances are, by the way, in triple meter (one writer depicted them as containing the DNA for the future Viennese waltz), although the metrical stresses found at the start of No. 4 displace the beat and may leave you thinking the music is in two!

So convincing are Webern’s arrangements that one senses these dances were originally orchestral works, composed with great care. Indeed, Webern knew he had hit his mark, as he opined to fellow composer Alban Berg upon their completion:

It resembles a classical score but still more like one by me—everything is unified and yet broken into a truly great variety…Now one sees just how distinctly these six dances, seemingly written so quickly, were produced in a single cast. Lovely, tender, beautiful ideas!


Edward Grieg: The Last Spring, Op. 34, No. 2
Scored for string orchestra. Duration is 5 minutes.
Like Sibelius to follow, Grieg’s scores often exhibit strong nationalistic tendencies and his sound indelibly linked to his homeland of Norway. Concert audiences are most familiar with two of the composer’s works, his piano concerto and music from Peer Gynt. Yet Grieg was extremely prolific—his violin and cello sonatas are beloved staples of the chamber music repertoire and he composed some 170 songs as well (many inspired by his wife, a singer). The latter genre includes the song “Våren, “Spring,” also known as The Last Spring, on account of its subject matter. The poem is told from the perspective of an old man whose life is coming to a close—this spring will likely be the speaker’s last. Rather than focus on death, the poem looks to life’s fullness, the beauty of the coming spring with its budding trees, the thawing of the ice, the return of birdsong. These beautiful images are faithfully communicated by Grieg’s impassioned score, which, in turn, is typical of his lyrical approach—the music is lovingly direct and exhibits a distinct sense of longing, yet is neither sentimental nor maudlin. Composed in 1881, the composer immediately saw the possibilities for another version and set it for string orchestra. It was subsequently published as the second of Two Elegiac Melodies.


Jean Sibelius: Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in D minor, Op .47
Scored for pairs of flutes, oboes, clarinets and bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, timpani and strings. Duration is 31 minutes.
Among the great musical currents during the late 19th century was that of “nationalism,” a movement that mined the essence of one’s homeland in sound (a concept also very much a part of Vaughan Williams’s musical vernacular, as discussed this past December). And there was arguably no greater proponent of nationalistic trends than Finland’s Jean Sibelius, whose scores breathe the icy warmth of his native climate. Though born to a Swedish family in Hämeenlinna, in the south of south of Finland, Jean, or “Janne,” as he was called, was early on sent to a Finnish language school, a consequence of the rise of Romantic nationalism (Latin was then being replaced by native languages) and perhaps this factor played as important a role as any in his music becoming indelibly linked to the spirit of Finland. In fact, Sibelius became such a cultural icon at home that his image graced the Finnish 100 mark note until 2002, when the Euro was adopted.

Yet early on, the young Sibelius had set his sights on becoming a concert violinist. His musical studies eventually led him to Vienna, where it sadly became apparent to the aspiring virtuoso that such a career was not to be:

My tragedy was that I wanted to be a celebrated violinist at any price. Since the age of 15 I played my violin practically from morning to night. I hated pen and ink—unfortunately I preferred an elegant violin bow. My love for the violin lasted quite long and it was a very painful awakening when I had to admit that I had begun my training for the exacting career of a virtuoso too late.

His time in Vienna was hardly a total loss, however, for here Sibelius found his way to two master composers, Robert Fuchs and Karl Goldmark. Whether or not the budding composer truly hated pen and ink, his love for the violin eventually led to one of western music’s most impressive concertos (and the only concerto Sibelius would compose for any instrument). Actually, the concerto got off to a less-than-encouraging start. Its looming deadline, a soloist with too little ability and all but unplayable violin writing all contributed to a near-disastrous 1904 premiere. But to his great credit, Sibelius regrouped and re-crafted, and ultimately molded his D minor concerto into a first-rate masterpiece.

While traditional in its fast-slow-fast outlines, the score actually shares little in common with the classical model. For starters, there’s the very opening—rather than opening with the expected orchestral introduction, the violin enters nearly immediately, with a heartbreakingly haunting tune, over a gently rocking accompaniment (clearly looking back to Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto, among those works Sibelius studied as a budding violinist). Background interjections by the clarinet and bassoon convey the icy images often ascribed to Sibelius’ music but the focus remains at the front of the stage. Warming to its task, the violin’s impassioned phrases soon give way to a spellbinding mini-cadenza, only then are we treated to a vintage Sibelius orchestral melody, one exuding both warmth and intensity. There is little actual dialogue between the soloist and the orchestra, another aspect that distances this concerto from other classical and romantic models. Indeed, an extended orchestral interlude soon gives way to yet another, far grander cadenza, displaying both Sibelian warmth and Pagannini-esque virtuosity, while imaginatively serving as the crux of the movement as a whole. After both soloist and orchestra recap the earlier material, the coda rushes breathlessly and fiendishly to its final bars.

If the two movements that follow lack the structural inventiveness of the opening, neither do they lack the power to impress. The Adagio is without a doubt among the most emotionally stirring products ever to flow from Sibelius’ pen. Following its expressive opening material, matters build to a tremendous climax before giving way to the rhapsodic warmth that arouses such love for Sibelius’ music. This is in many ways a love song, one as much for the composer’s homeland as for the violin itself. The restless finale, by contrast, is driven ever forward by its opening orchestral rhythms and, again, dazzling writing for the violin. After the soloist’s opening statement, the orchestra spins out the rugged dance-like melody—what the esteemed conductor and musicologist famously described as “a polonaise for bears”—that serves as the movement’s focus. Again, we can plainly grasp Sibelius’ intent: the orchestra, for all its spirit, remains largely a backdrop (albeit a highly effective one) for the soloist, whose nearly relentless work—massive chords and jagged rhythms coupled with melodic warmth—completely captivates. By the time we reach the violinist’s haunting octaves signaling the coda, we can all but envision the brilliant Finnish sunlight and see our own breath for the frigid temperatures. Then, having exhausted the soloist’s entire range and technique, Sibelius drives his beloved concerto to a blistering conclusion.


Felix Mendelssohn: Symphony No. 5 in D major “Reformation”
Scored for pairs of flutes, oboes, clarinets and bassoons and contrabassoon, two horns, two trumpets, three trombones and timpani. Duration is 30 minutes.
Few composers have enjoyed the cultural and material privileges afforded the Mendelssohn children. Their father, Abraham, was a banker, their grandfather, the great Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn, and their mother’s family had been patrons and acquaintances of Mozart. At home, the children’s formidable artistic gifts were strongly fostered. By the age of 18, Felix could compose as well or better than most composers twice his age. His sister, Fanny, was also a precocious musical talent, and their brother Paul a cellist. There was art (Felix was as well a highly skilled painter and drawer), theater (the children wrote and put on plays constantly) and tremendous intellectual life in general. Guests to their home included mathematicians, scientists, philosophers—“Europe,” it has been said, “came to their living room.”

Yet for all their connections, or perhaps because of them, Felix’s parents decided to break with their Jewish ancestry. The entire family was baptized and the children were raised without a religious education. Felix remained consciously aware and proud of both his Jewish background and famous grandfather, yet was a member of the Reformed church. It was this factor that eventually led him to accept a commission to compose a “Symphony to Celebrate the Church Revolution.” The occasion was the 300th anniversary of Martin Luther’s famous Augsburg Confession, to be feted in June of 1830. Mendelssohn struggled to meet the deadline, working through the winter and fighting a severe case of measles. But in the end, with rising political tensions in Europe, the celebration was cancelled, as was a Paris premiere two years later, the players rejecting Mendelssohn’s score. The composer, among Europe’s elite conductors, would end up directing the first performance himself, in Berlin.

The symphony opens with a stately, solemn introduction featuring a clarion call and, twice towards its conclusion, a cadential formula known as the “Dresden Amen,” a series of six rising notes associated with Dresden (Catholic!) church services (those familiar with the operas of Richard Wagner will recognize this gesture in Parsifal). The Allegro proper is dark and unsettling, almost Beethovenian in temperament, on account of its minor mode and agitated sixteenth-note passagework, dispatched relentlessly by the violins. The movement draws increasingly on the clarion call from the introduction, audible in the pick-up notes to the main ideas, as well as the Dresden Amen, which keeps the increasing unrest in check. The two movements that follow are far less serious in intent. A jaunty scherzo follows first (as opposed to its more usual placement after the slow movement), providing a welcome foil to the seriousness that preceded it. The pastoral section at its center adds further buoyancy, with its absolutely charming wind-dominated writing. In sum, the movement is vintage Mendelssohn. An all-too-brief Andante follows. Constructed in A-B-A song form, it is indeed an arioso in all but words, its languishing, searching melody sung by the violins. The benedictory mood at its close gives way to a flute solo, Martin Luther’s universally known chorale Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott (“A Mighty Fortress is our God”). Note how exquisitely Mendelssohn varies the chorale repetition—such moments make it clear why his scores remain models for orchestration classes to this day.

The finale is a tour de force of formal mastery. Pay close attention to how Mendelssohn twice bumps up the tempo, initially re-inventing the chorale (still more miraculously orchestrated) and then, faster yet, introducing a rocketing arpeggio figure. More impressive work follows, as Mendelssohn deftly weaves the chorale in and out of the texture. Listen for the cello and clarinet reinventions of the chorale, followed closely by an extended passage of “learned” counterpoint (voices operating relatively independent of one another, a technique common to Bach and the Baroque yet which rose the hackles of the Parisian orchestra), extremely intricate part writing that will soon become the accompaniment of the chorale. As a Protestant, the composer would have been sensitive to “defending,” or at the very least championing the faith and this fact he transmitted in sound—the “learned” contrapuntal style, drawing on the old fashioned Catholic music of Palestrina, is subsumed by the Lutheran chorale, in essence, celebrating the triumph of Protestantism.

Whatever the message, Mendelssohn was actually far from satisfied with the final results. He not only withdrew the work from publication but requested that the music be burned (which it thankfully was not). It was finally published posthumously in 1868, as his 5th Symphony, despite it being the second composed. We can perhaps appreciate the composer’s dissatisfaction with his score, given its lack of cohesion and imbalance, particularly when one compares the religious/serious content of the outer movements to the spirited scherzo and gracious, if compact, Andante at its center. Still, for all its unusual qualities, the symphony remains an exquisitely crafted work containing moments of genuine inspiration—the final three minutes alone are among the most thrilling in the repertoire. In the end, the Reformation remains a glorious experience and regardless of one’s religious beliefs, Mendelssohn’s achievement reaffirms our own faith in the power of music.

(c) Marc Moskovitz