Sibelius’s Kullervo

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Sibelius’s Kullervo is an undoubted masterpiece… but boy, is it a quirky one.  By all conventional rules of classical musicdom, it simply should not be.  Consider:

  • It was the first significant orchestral work Sibelius ever wrote.
  • It came from Finland, which at the time was distant corner of the Russian Empire that did not have a particularly strong or well-developed classical musical infrastructure.
  • It featured singers singing in Finnish—a language that was looked down upon as being low-brow at the time.
  • It chronicled the adventures of a decidedly unconventional hero from Finnish mythology.
  • It was only performed five times before Sibelius withdrew it and banned all future performances of the work; it was only after his death that his heirs authorized the work to be performed again.

In short, Kullervo is an oddity, an enigma… much like the legendary figure upon which it is based.

But make no mistake, it is a masterpiece that is as startling today as it was at its premiere in 1892. It is the work that created Sibelius’s reputation. And it is a work I love to distraction. Continue reading

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My Sibelius List

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Hyvää Syntymäpäivää! Happy birthday to Jean Sibelius, on this the 150th anniversary of his birth!

I’ve pointed out before here on my blog that Sibelius has long been one of my favorite composers. Maybe it’s my Finnish heritage (my maternal family emigrated from Finland), but the musical and emotional language of Sibelius’s music has always spoken to me in a direct, personal way. Plus, I’ve long been fascinated by the Kalevala—Finland’s weirdly wonderful collection of epic poetry—which provided an endless source of inspiration for Sibelius’s music.

To celebrate Sibelius’s birthday, let me share my five favorite works by the Finnish master. To be clear, I’m making no attempt to assemble some “objective” list of his greatest works, let alone provide a comprehensive list of his music (click here for a wonderful segment on all seven of Sibelius’ symphonies from NPR, with commentary by the late Michael Steinberg). The selections below do, I think, present a great starting list of exploring Sibelius’s music… but in the end this is just a completely subjective, no-other-reason-than-I-love-them list of favorite works I can’t imagine living without. By all means, if you have your own favorites, let me know.

Kippis! Continue reading

150 Sibelius Jubilee: The Six Humoresques

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It’s a jubilee!  2015 marks the 150th anniversary of Sibelius’s birth.  As part of the festivities, the Minnesota Orchestra is presenting 150 Sibelius, which honors the composer with Sibelius performances throughout the season. Not one to miss a party, I wanted to share some of my thoughts about the masterworks being performed over the course of these concerts.  Enjoy!

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Sibelius’s Six Humoresques for Violin and Orchestra are quite likely the most magical work you’ve never heard.  Nearly everyone who has ever heard them falls completely under their spell; alas, these miniature masterpieces have been unjustly neglected in both the concert hall and the recording studio.

This is unfortunate, as they are not just fantastic in and of themselves, but they reveal an entirely different side of Sibelius’s genius. Continue reading