Jean Sibelius ‘Kuolema (Death) No. 2 ‘Scene with Cranes”: Flying towards Freedom

Welcome to Day ‘S’ of my blogging alphabet challenge! For today’s instalment I shall be delving into the exciting world of Jean Sibelius. Instead of picking one of his more well-known works, I have decided to choose my personal favourite work by Sibelius, which is the second movement from the Kuolema suite ‘Scene with Cranes’ – enjoy!

Jean Sibelius was born on 8th December 1865 in Hämeenlinna Finland. When he was ten years old, Sibelius was given a violin by his musical uncle Pehr, who soon became his musical tutor. A few years before, Sibelius took up piano lessons, but whilst learning his teacher (who was also his aunt), rapped his knuckles when he played an incorrect note, so he preferred learning the violin. Before studying music at university, Sibelius began to study la at the Imperial Alexander University, Finland. He soon transferred to the Helsinki Music Institute (now aptly named the Sibelius Academy), where he studied composition between 1885-1889. Further to this, Sibelius also studied in Berlin (1889-1890) and in Vienna (18901891), with Albert Becker and Robert Fuchs respectively.

Throughout his compositional career, Sibelius largely focused on orchestral music. His main influences were Anton Bruckner (whom he claimed was the ‘greatest living composing’), Richard Wagner and Ludwig van Beethoven. Perhaps most well-known for his symphonies and tone poems, Sibelius is recognised for his unwavering Nationalism, that often translates into his music. Finlandia, a tone poem, is a celebrated work of the composer, with other works such a Kullervo, En saga, Karelia Suite and Tapiola also being popular in concert halls. As aforementioned, Sibelius drew his influences from different composers, each for different genres (e.g. Richard Wagner for his operas). Above all, however, Sibelius took great inspiration from Lizst. Sibelius’ symphonic style stood in contrast to his main symphonic rival, Gustav Mahler, with both composers exploring different variations, structures and genres.

Remaining one of the leading Finnish composers to ever emerge from the country, Sibelius’ life and works still influence ensembles and composers today. English composers such as Ralph Vaughan Williams and Arnold Bax, both dedicated their Fifth Symphonies to Sibelius. Although largely very popular, Sibelius has also come under much criticism from people such as Theodor Adorno and Virgil Thomson. It is seen that criticism for Sibelius stems from his unique approach to form and tonality, where he would take one path, his contemporaries would take another. Criticism did not get in the way of Sibelius, however, with him famously saying that:

“Pay no attention to what critics say. No statue has ever been put up to a critic.”

In his old age, Sibelius was a supporter of the new generation of composers, such as Einojuhani Rautavaara, Dmitri Shostakovich, Béla Bartók and Richard Strauss. Two days before his death, it has been recorded that Sibelius:

“Was returning from his customary morning walk. Exhilarated, he told his wife Aino that he had seen a flock of cranes approaching. ‘There they come, the birds of my youth’, he exclaimed. Suddenly, one of the birds broke away from the formation and circled once above Ainola. It then rejoined the flock to continue its journey.”

This anecdote is important to remember, when we start delving into the chosen piece for this blog. Sibelius died on 20th September 1957, after suffering a brain haemorrhage, aged 91. Sibelius was survived by his wife, Aino, who lived for a further eight years before her death. She is buried next to her husband.

Kuolema (“Death”) is a set of six works which were used as incidental music for a play by the same name written by Arvid  Järnefelt. The first performance was at Helskini’s National Theatre in December, 1903. Although revised under two opus numbers after the premiere, the six original movements were as follows:

I. Tempo di valse lente – Poco risoluto (Act I)

II. Moderato (Paavali’s Song – Act II)

III. Moderator assai – Moderato (Elsa’s Song – Act II)

IV. Andante (The Cranes – Act II)

V. Moderato (Act III)

VI. Andante ma non tanto (Act III)

In 1904, Sibelius revised No. 1 as Valse Triste, which is now one of his most well-known works. This was premiered in Helsinki on 25th April, 1904. In 1906, Sibelius then revised No. 3 and 4, under the title Scene with Cranes. This was premiered on 14th December, 1906. Although the sister work to Valse Triste, Scene with Cranes has stayed on the outskirts of Sibelius’ repertory.

Scene with Cranes is scored for string orchestra, plus timpani and a pair of Bb clarinets. The work lasts for around four minutes and is 59 bars in length. Beginning with the first violins, who along with the rest of the string section, are muted, play out a beautiful melody. There is a feeling of being static in places, like one is floating, which is also enhanced by the aimlessness manner of this melody. There is no centre, or solid origin of the melody, making it just appear like it is floating in thin air. The lower strings enter shortly after with soft accompaniment, and the strings work as a unit to create a very effective and dynamic unit. At times, the orchestra go down to pp in dynamic, making it atmospheric, mysterious and slightly unnerving in places.

The clarinets, who represent the cranes, are actually only heard in eight bars of this work, but these bars are prominent, and usually lead to the next section of the piece. A series of sforzandos are heard, which the clarinets react to with six calls, which represent the cranes calling out (perhaps to death?). The second section of the work is started by a trill in the upper strings. This then, after a short pause, leads us back to the watery, atmospheric initial string motif from the beginning of the scene. The way this melody is revisited resets the tone, after the more aggressive call outs from the cranes. The lower strings then take a more prominent role, bringing the dynamic up, leading to a quieter section. Soloists can then be heard in the cellos, violas and violins, which develop the main melodic theme. There is some sense of relief here also, which makes the resolution of this work even more breathtaking. Scene With Cranes finishes with the stings slowly dying away after the small exchanges of solo lines. At this point, the timpanist also enters, for the two bars they are in, with a very soft ppp roll (although sometimes this may be hard to hear over the string soloist).

Earlier, I mentioned about a famous anecdote that was published soon before Sibelius’ death, where he returned from a walk and was met by cranes. Kuolema translates into ‘Death’, and it could be suggested that the cranes represent the freedom that death can offer. In mythology, cranes are seen as symbolising freedom and eternal youth. Therefore, that anecdote could be a nod to Scene With Cranes, with the knowledge that Sibelius wrote it with this in mind. What I believe as one of Sibelius’ more underrated works, I find Scene With Cranes outstanding in the handling of melody, tonality and structure (or lack thereof). A wonderful way to celebrate such a fine composer and a fine alphabet challenge! I do hope you have enjoyed this blog as much as I have writing it, be sure to join me very soon for Day T in my alphabet challenge!

Happy Reading!

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