SOUNDS OF SCANDINAVIA
Nielsen wrote the Helios Overture in 1903 while living in Greece; his wife Anne Marie — who was as famous a sculptor as he was a composer — had won a scholarship to study classical art there. Helios is the name of the sun god of ancient Greece. The Overture was inspired by a visit at sunrise to the magnificent Temple of Poseidon (god of the sea) at Cape Sounion, a dramatic promontory overlooking the sea a little south of Athens.
In a letter to a friend, Nielsen bluntly explained his ten-minute tone poem: “My Overture describes the movement of the sun through the heavens from morning to evening . . . and no explanation is necessary.” However, he did inscribe more poetic words in the score: “Silence and darkness/The sun rises with a joyous song of praise/It wanders on its golden way/ And sinks quietly into the sea.”
The Overture’s home key is C major, which seems to be the key of choice for musical tributes to the sun, for Haydn used it for his famous sunrise in The Creation and later Richard Strauss adopted it for the spectacular sunrise that opens his Also Sprach Zarathustra (also famous today as the theme music for 2001: A Space Odyssey). It is indeed an ideal key for the purpose because trumpets, the ideal instrument to represent sunlight, sound particularly brilliant in C major. However, the Overture opens on an especially dark C, intoned by the orchestra’s lowest instruments. The soft, magical calls of horns greet the first light on the horizon. A long crescendo builds majestically to the sun’s appearance, heralded by trumpets. A high-spirited fugato (short fugue) describes the sun’s life-giving radiance at noon. Then the whole musical process reverses as the sun sinks toward the horizon and disappears into the dark sustained C with which the Overture opened.
(Janet E. Bedell)
The great Norwegian dramatist Henrik Ibsen (1828–1906) accomplished the near impossible in his verse drama Peer Gynt (1867): he chose for his protagonist a man who was completely devoid of any positive qualities and made us care for that man deeply by the end of the play. Peer, a Norwegian peasant lad, is conceited beyond imagination, a notorious liar, swindler, and womanizer, who betrays the love of his life and all his friends, and doesn’t hesitate to send others to their deaths so that he may live. But Ibsen showed how earnestly this unsavory character had struggled all his life to make sense of human destiny, and made this quest the focus of his play. Like Goethe’s Faust, Peer goes from one plane of experience to the next: his path leads him, in turn, to the kingdom of the Trolls, to America, and the North African desert, before he finds his way back to the saintly Solveig, who has spent her entire life waiting for him patiently in the Norwegian mountains.
One of the things that make Peer Gynt unique is its mixture of Norwegian local color and universal philosophy. When Edvard Grieg was asked to write the incidental music for the play’s first production, he complained that it was “the most unmusical of subjects.” Evidently, he had some difficulty capturing the philosophical side of the drama. The folkloristic element, on the other hand, positively cried out for musical treatment, and here Grieg was in his element. The incidental music to Peer Gynt strengthened his reputation as the greatest composer in the country, and at the same time, it helped establish Ibsen’s masterpiece on the international stage.
Grieg extracted two suites from Peer Gynt. The first suite is originally in four movements, but we have added Solveig’s Cradle Song. The second suite consists of four movements including Solveig’s Song.
Sov, du dyreste Gutten min!
Jeg skal vugge dig, jeg skal våge.
Gutten har siddet på sin Moders Fang.
De to har leget hele Livsdagen lang.
Gutten har hvilet ved sin Moders Bryst
hele Livsdagen lang. Grud signe dig, min Lyst!
Gutten har ligget til mit Hjerte tæt
hele Livsdagen lang. Nu er han så træt.
Sov, du dyreste Gutten min!
Jeg skal vugge dig, jeg skal våge.
Solveig’s Cradle Song
Sleep, my treasure, my baby boy,
I will rock and watch over my darling,
Crooning lullabies with fondness rife,
May he recall them all the days of his life;
May Mother’s bosom ward off all annoy
All the days of his life. Ah Heaven, that were joy!
On mother’s bosom he shall safely rest
All the days of his life, so weary and distrest.
Sleep my treasure, my baby boy,
I will rock and watch over my darling.
Kanske vil der gå både Vinter og Vår,
og næste Sommer med, og det hele År,
men engang vil du komme, det ved jeg vist,
og jeg skal nok vente, for det lovte jeg sidst.
Gud styrke dig, hvor du i Verden går,
Gud glæde dig, hvis du for hans Fodskammel står.
Her skal jeg vente til du kommer igjen;
og venter du hist oppe, vi træffes der, min Ven!
Perhaps there will go both winter and spring,
And next summer also and the whole year,
But onetime you will come, I know this for sure,
And I shall surely wait for I promised that last.
God strengthen you where you go in the world,
God give you joy if you before his footstool stand,
Here shall I wait until you come again,
And if you wait above, we'll meet there again, my friend!
In March 1900, a couple of months before the first European concert tour of the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra, Sibelius received a letter signed by “X.” X inquired whether Sibelius had considered writing an overture for the concert at the World’s Fair in Paris. He reminded Sibelius of Anton Rubinstein’s fantasy Rossija (Russia) written for the 1889 World’s Fair and declared: “The name of your overture should be Finlandia – shouldn’t it?” It was Mr. X, alias Baron Axel Carpelan, who invented the name of one of Sibelius’ most well-known compositions.
Later the same year Sibelius received another letter: “You have been sitting at home for quite a while, Mr. Sibelius, it is high time for you to travel. You will spend the late autumn and the winter in Italy, a country where one learns cantabile, balance and harmony, plasticity and symmetry of lines, a country where everything is beautiful – even the ugly. You remember what Italy meant for Tchaikovsky’s development and for Richard Strauss.”
Unfortunately, Baron Carpelan was penniless. He had connections, though, and he managed to find a patron who consented to supply funds for Sibelius’ stay in Italy. Sibelius with family left home in October 1900, stayed first for two months in Berlin and continued from there to Italy at the end of January 1901. He hired a mountain villa near Rapallo. Sitting there in his study a literary remembrance suddenly came to his mind: “Jean Paul says somewhere in Flegeljahre that the midday moment has something ominous to it … a kind of muteness, as if nature itself is breathlessly listening to the stealthy footsteps of something supernatural, and at that very moment one feels a greater need for company than ever.”
This image continued to haunt him and he wrote on a sheet of paper the following vision: “Don Juan. Sitting in the twilight in my castle, a guest enters. I ask many times who he is. – No answer. I make an effort to entertain him. He remains mute. Eventually he starts singing. At this time, Don Juan notices who he is – Death.” On the reverse side of the sheet he noted the date 2/19/01 and sketched the melody that became the D-minor bassoon theme of the Tempo andante, ma rubato second movement of the Second Symphony. Two months later, in Florence, he drafted a C-major theme above which he wrote the word ‘Christus.’ This theme became the second theme, in F-sharp major, of the same movement. The former may well stand for death and defeat and the latter for life and resurrection.
There is no evidence of eventual programmatic ideas related to the other movements of the Second Symphony. But immediately after its premiere on March 8, 1902, the Symphony was appropriated as an emblem of national liberation. The hard times the Grand Duchy of Finland was going through during the ‘russification program’ of Tsar Nikolai II in the years 1899-1905 spontaneously invited such an interpretation. But it was Robert Kajanus, founder and conductor of the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra, who put it in words: “The Andante strikes one as the most broken-hearted protest against all the injustice that threatens at the present time to deprive the sun of its light and our flowers of their scent. … The scherzo gives a picture of frenetic preparation. Everyone piles his straw on the haystack, all fibers are strained and every second seems to last an hour. One senses in the contrasting trio section with its oboe motive in G-flat major what is at stake. The finale develops towards a triumphant conclusion intended to rouse in the listener a picture of lighter and confident prospects for the future.”
Sibelius categorically denied any such programmatic readings, claiming that his symphonies are pure absolute music. Nevertheless, there are scholars who firmly believe in the Symphony’s political connotations. The controversy, however, is not very productive, since it cannot be solved; and even if there was a secret program in the composer’s mind at the time he composed the Symphony, the reception of it as a work of art does not require any knowledge of it.