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Jean Sibelius (1865-1957)
Finlandia
Composed in 1899

Occasionally in life, one can come across a secret so good that you want to hide it from the rest of the world for fear it may go away. Fearing censorship from the Russian Empire, Finlandia premiered in a hidden manner and continued to be played under alternative titles for many years after. Two of the most famous alternative titles were Happy Feelings at the awakening of Finnish Spring and A Scandinavian Choral March. At the time the empire was in a state of decline and did not look favorably on music, literature, or art that honored or immortalized only one section of their vast empire.

The tone poem (or musical picture) was the last of seven pieces woven together to aurally depict tableaus of Finnish history. This piece, more than any of the others, portrays the national struggle of the Finnish people concluding with the beautiful Finlandia Hymn. The hymn is calm and singular in its purpose compared to the rest of the piece. It is not, however, a borrowed traditional melody, like a Shaker Melody/Simple Gifts, rather Sibelius penned it himself.

The piece opens with eerie calls from the brass section intermeshed with loud and fast timpani rolls. This gives way for a softer, renewed spirit section, ultimately depicting how Finnish culture and pride had to go “underground” during the empire’s rule. As the piece progresses it depicts ground swells of people fighting back from oppression to return to an autonomous state. According to the Finnish ministry of arts and culture, Finlandia is the definitive heartbeat of the country.

Edvard Grieg (1843-1907)
Piano Concerto in A Minor
Composed in 1868

What is a concerto? Concerto writing can be more difficult than writing for the symphony. This is because the two “instruments” – the soloist and the orchestra “as one” – must create a dialogue that harmonically intertwines. Edvard Grieg completed one concerto and it has become one of his most popular works. If you remember from the 1970’s and 1980’s the game show, “Name that Tune,” Grieg’s piano concerto would be an easy selection to recognize within the first three measures of music. Those three measures of music have become some of the most recognized opening bars of a concerto.

Born in Norway into a musically inclined family, Grieg studied music at one of the noted conservatories in Leipzig, Germany. During his time there he gained a vast knowledge of musical styles. He was particularly influenced by those of Robert Schumann, famous for his lyrical piano music that was influenced by folk music and literature. Grieg’s style of composition was criticized for being simplistic. He is quoted as saying “Artists like Bach and Beethoven erected churches and temples on ethereal heights…I want to build homes for people in which they can be happy and contented.”

Despite this criticism, his love of a more unassuming style of music was key to Grieg’s writing style. He went on to write his biggest work Piano Concerto in A Minor in a grander style. Grieg creates an unforgettable opening for his concerto that has been used in many movies and cartoons. Following a calling timpani roll, the piano sets the mood for a succession of lyrical, reflective, and expressive themes throughout the piece. In the third movement, listeners will hear the color and movement of a Norwegian folk dance. Following Grieg’s death in 1907 his piano concerto found a place in the record books as the first piano concerto ever recorded.

Arvo Pärt (B. 1935)
Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten
Composed in 1977

Simplicity in style was a hallmark of Mr. Pärt. He describes his style as “tintinnabular,” meaning similar to the sound of ringing bells. His music includes simple harmonies with unadorned notes and simple three-note chords. As an avid student of plainsong and Gregorian chant, Pärt was fascinated with how simple, yet engaging musical lines could intertwine and create a musical experience that transcends into other areas of life.

Written as a short canon, i.e. Pachelbel’s, Pärt began composing this work as an elegy to the recently passed English composer Benjamin Britten in December 1976 and finished in 1977. Always holding Mr. Britten to high esteem, he recognized him as a kindred spirit, a man with “unusual purity.” He begins his work with a solemn chime ringing three times in memory of Mr. Britten. It progresses into a series of scales and chords all going up and down building to a very loud fotississimo (fff on the sheet music). This suddenly fades away with a pianississimo ringing of the chime, leaving nothing but grand overtones.

Reflecting on the work, Pärt stated,“Why did the date of Benjamin Britten’s Death-December 4th, 1976- touch such a chord in me? During this time, I was obviously at the point where I could recognize the magnitude of such a loss. Inexplicable feelings of guilt, more than that even, arose in me. I had just discovered Britten for myself. Just before his death, I began to appreciate the unusual purity of his music…for a long time I had wanted to meet Britten personally – and now it would not come to that.” (attributed 1988)

Jean Sibelius (1865-1957)
Symphony No. 7
Composed in 1924

Noted for being a one-movement symphony, Sibelius’s Symphony No. 7 is entirely original in form and audiences will delight in knowing exactly when to clap. Noted as the most remarkable compositional achievement during his lifetime, it showed great organic growth in his writing. Movements in a symphony had changed very little from the time of Joseph Haydn, usually consisting of a steady tempo with varying themes in different keys. Sibelius instead unified the work in the key of C, somewhat taboo for the day, and created intrigue through changing tempos, modes, and musical texture.

Although written in the 20th century, Sibelius scored his work for a chamber orchestra. It is hard to notice that key difference, considering the sheer force of sound and prominent trombone lines throughout the piece. Many regard the work a fantastical journey since it was initially entitled Fantasia Sinfonica, but Sibelius, in his trailblazing way, decided to simply title it as his seventh symphony. Reviews were very positive, but Sibelius thought the work demanded even higher praise. He is quoted saying, “How little they realize what I have put into my new work.”

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