Today, the term Nationalism
is almost a dirty word, implying fanaticism and a patriotic excuse for violence. At the turn of the twentieth century, however, Nationalism was a heroic movement, the speaking up of little cultures against repression.
When Jean Sibelius was born, Finland was under the control of Russia. Its people were expected to speak Swedish and the Finnish language and culture was for peasants only.
Jean Sibelius was sent to a Finnish-speaking school at the impressionable age of 11, and became aware of his country's rich literary tradition, especially the epic Finnish poetry known as Kalevala
Later in life his patriotic feelings were fueled by his objection to the "Russianization" of his country. In 1899 he wrote music to accompany a poem full of patriotic fervour called The Melting of the Ice on the Ulea River
from which he later extracted 4 episodes and reworked them into a tone poem. At first, under strict censorship, he called this tone poem Impromptu
but it later became known as Finlandia
and has since become Sibelius' best-known work and Finland's unofficial national anthem.
is a rousingly patriotic work, at first quiet, unsure, almost threatening, a depiction of the czarist darkness engulfing Finland. Later it progresses through hope, indignation and jubilation, and culminates in the well-known, much-loved hymn-like theme that bring tears to Finns eyes. Like Gustav Holst's Jupiter
from The Planets Suite
, this is one of classical music's great melodies, stirring and elevating even for non-Finns.
Sibelius' Second Symphony
is a later and much more substantial work, and established Sibelius as the great Northern symphonist. Simple folk-like melodies continue the nationalist mood of Finlandia
. Firmly rooted in Romantic soil, the Second Symphony
shows hints of Sibelius' later style. Short fragments of music coalesce into large themes, early conflict and angst later resolve into a triumphant finale. And most of all, music saturated in Sibelius' unique color scheme, a Northern pallette of harmonies and emotions.
The first movement starts out pastoral but quickly becomes dark and ominous. The bassoons in the second movement bring to mind a funeral march, intense and tragic at the same time. The pace quickens with the last two movements, the Scherzo
rushing headlong into the heroic Finale
, the final minutes of which will take your breath away.
and the Second Symphony
are among Sibelius' best-known works, and there is no better introduction to his music. They evoke struggle, and heroism, the Northern winter ice, and the warmth of spring.
And here lies a problem. Can one play Sibelius without having experienced the long dark nights, seeing the iced lakes and forests, understood the Finnish mentality? In short, can non-Finns play Sibelius? Joel Levi and the Cleveland Orchestra are technically perfect, the recording razor-sharp, but there seems to be something missing; maybe a bleakness or depth of feeling. While excellent, I get the feeling of this recording being not quite authentic. And at under 50 minutes, its not great value for a full price CD.
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Finlandia and Symphony no.2
The Cleveland Orchestra
Symphony no.2 in D, Opus 43
- I. Allegretto
- II. Tempo Andante, Ma Rubato
- III. Vivacissimo IV. Finale
- Finlandia opus 26