Sibelius – the less well known works

Last meeting of the season focused on Sibelius

Just over a century ago, Finland declared its independence at the time of the Russian revolution in 1917. At the start of the second world war in 1940, they then had to fight a fierce war against Stalin’s Russia who invaded the country with overwhelming force. The Russian general assumed it would all be over in around 12 days but the Russian army, although vast, was poorly led – following Stalin’s murder of thousands of Red Army officers – poorly equipped and the Finns put up a fierce resistance. They were ultimately successful losing only a small piece of territory but, they maintained their independence.

There is something faintly familiar with that story in the current events in Ukraine. Russia invading a neighbouring country with overwhelming force with the hope of a quick victory, being resisted by a much smaller but better led army. So what has this to do with the Recorded Music Society you ask? Living through this period was Finland’s greatest composer, Jean (as he is known today) Sibelius. His music contributed to Finland’s sense of nationhood from the time of independence and subsequently the war against Russia. So in addition to writing brilliant music, he was important giving the Finns a sense of national identity and pride. These things are significant during a time when a country is under threat.

Many of Sibelius’s works are well known and receive a regular airing in concert halls around the world. But like many composers, there is the well known and there is the less familiar. At last nights meeting, we were delighted to welcome again, Simon Coombs, who presented a range of less well known works, combining them with the life of the composer through his nation’s sometimes troubled history.

Sibelius started by studying law but while doing so, joined the Helsinki Music Institute. He was a capable violinist but decided to concentrate on composition and to that end, studied in Berlin and Vienna where he met Bruckner. He returned to Helsinki to compose his first major piece Kullervo. Among the pieces selected by Simon was A Conferment Cantata, A Song for Lemminkäinen, Finlandia, and a number of examples of incidental music. Also an extract from Pelléas et Mélisande and incidental music the the Tempest.

Simon was helped in his presentation by discs produced by Bis Records who have produced recordings by all of Sibelius’s music. Simon ended with some fragments of the 8th Symphony: it is not clear if Sibelius ever finished the work and destroyed it. Members were delighted with the presentation and the curation of the pieces linking it to key events in the composer’s life.

Sibelius’s music was an element of Finland’s struggle to achieve statehood and independence from Russia. It is strange to note that Ukraine’s famous composers; Prokofiev and Szymanowski among others, have not played a similar role in Ukraine’s resistance. Tchaikovsky is of Ukrainian extraction – the family name was originally Chaiko before the move to Russia.

This was the last meeting of the current season and the programme for the autumn is in final stages of preparation.

Peter Curbishley