Max Derrickson

Writing Music Program Notes for Over 20 Years

Tag: Sibelius

Symphony No. 7 in C, Op. 105

When Sibelius began sketches for his Fifth and Sixth Symphonies in 1915, he had ideas too for his Seventh. It took nine more years to complete his Sixth, and all the while the Seventh continued to gestate as Sibelius re-imagined of the nature of a Symphony, its structure, its harmonic path, the essence of what a Symphony should or might be. In those nine long years he was trying to rethink the form, and he was also seeking music in the world around him, a sort of Music of the Spheres, that musica universalis, first described by Pythagoras (c. 570 – 495 BC). Sibelius wanted to capture what the Universe sounded like in its deep logic and structure. Likewise, in natural settings, Sibelius searched to hear its order as well as its sound, once mystifying a group of musicians from the University of Helsinki by describing the harmonics of a mountain meadow. … When his Sixth was completed in 1923, Sibelius was fired to return to his Seventh, which he completed almost immediately by 1924. It is the culmination of his symphonic career …

Symphony No. 6, Op. 104

While working on his titanic Fifth Symphony (1915 – 1920), Sibelius was also thinking about its twin symphony, his Sixth. Where his Fifth conquers, his Sixth reflects, and it is certainly more enigmatic. Often at some point, composers begin sorting out the big questions of existence in varied ways simultaneously (for example, Beethoven wrote his Fifth and Sixth Symphonies concurrently). Such was the case with Sibelius starting in 1914 and these existential questions would dog him the rest of his career. While working on both Symphonies, Sibelius’s diaries often referred to his “struggle with God,” his questioning of his place in the Universe, as well as his increasing spiritual enchantment with Nature.

Karelia Suite, Op. 11

In 1893, a lottery fundraiser was organized by the Vyborg Students’ Association to promote the education of the people of Vyborg Province (Karelia). Rising Nationalist composer, Jean Sibelius, was asked to compose the music to accompany its “pageant,” a theatrical genre in vogue at the time that depicted scenes (tableaus) of historical interest, acted and pantomimed by live actors, with musical accompaniment. … Sibelius wrote eight vignettes for the pageant, finishing up with the Finnish National Anthem, but it’s impossible to tell how successful they were – the event was so nationalistically charged that the audience’s rowdiness drowned out every note. Sibelius soon refashioned a suite…

En Saga, Op. 9

En Saga is a transition work of sorts. Sibelius had just premiered his gigantic “choral symphony” Kullervo in that same year, a piece that required so many musicians for performance that Sibelius only heard it five times in his life. After that gargantuan piece, Sibelius was just beginning to appreciate the beauties of brevity and economy as he launched into En Saga. He had also moved away from his earlier interest in Richard Wagner’s music and methods, finding the idea of Wagner’s “leit motifs” (those recurring themes that represent a character, or action, etc.) too obvious. With En Saga, Sibelius began instead to explore the genre of the tone-poem made popular by Liszt and began working out his unique method of thematic homogeneity – that is, the seamless transfiguration of musical motives and themes throughout a piece.