Violin Concerto

Programme note

Jean Sibelius (1865-1957)
Violin Concerto (1903)

Allegro Moderato
Adagio di molto
Allegro, ma non tanto

How many pieces did Sibelius write for solo violin? One, many would think. The better-informed might put it at around ten. In fact the total is over sixty! Salon miniatures at first (up to about 1894) then, from 1914, a glorious ‘late’ flowering of miniature masterpieces for violin and orchestra. Bang in the middle between those two periods, lies this concerto. Written between 1902-1905, it is a great peak of a piece; moreover, it is his only concerto. Might all this go some way to explaining its unusual combination of caution and mastery?

In its general shape and character, Sibelius modeled his concerto after the 19th century masters. Its three movements, each shorter than the one before, fall in a familiar pattern. The Allegro Moderato offers the most thoroughgoing musical argument while the Allegro ma non tanto closes the piece with a dance and flourish. Between those extremes lies the spiritual and lyrical heart of the piece, the Adagio.  Change the movement titles and that description could apply equally well to Brahms’s or Beethoven’s violin concertos. But while Sibelius is content to follow his musical ancestors thus far, he shows a highly personal mastery of all other aspects of the concerto. His affinity with the violin is no surprise - after all he had played it from an early age. Even so, the dialogue between solo and orchestra is handled with rare and idiosyncratic skill. His concerto also shares those marvelous qualities of just proportion and deep musical thought with the great orchestral works that had already made his name: his first three symphonies, Kullervo, En Saga, the Lemminkaïnen Legends.

The truth is that those qualities were hard won. Sibelius did not strike gold first time, but withdrew his first version of the concerto immediately after its premiere in 1903. He declared that it needed two years of revision. He put it away for the first year, then subjected it to a radical re-write, editing out around 10% of its original material. Having streamlined it, and toned down the showiness of the solo part (deleting one whole cadenza) he revealed the piece anew to an expectant musical world. In the audience was the man who had inspired Brahms’s concerto: Joseph Joachim. His verdict was damning – and shared by others: ‘boring.’  This time, however, Sibelius himself had no doubts.  He knew that he had expressed exactly what he wanted in the Concerto and he stood by it. It took some time, decades in fact, but slowly the rest of the world came to share his high opinion of it.

© Svend Brown