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Classics on Sunday: Sibelius’s Karelia Suite

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I DON’T find all of Sibelius’s work very accessible, but his early Karelia Suite is a delight, particularly, in my opinion, the first and third movements.

Jean Sibelius (1865-1957) is widely recognised as Finland’s greatest composer and is often credited with helping his country to develop a national identity during its struggle for independence from Russia (which it achieved in 1917).

He started learning the piano at the age of seven with an aunt who rapped his knuckles when he played a wrong note. Later he turned to the violin (I’m not surprised!) and hoped to become a virtuoso. Although he reached concert standard, he ultimately conceded that he was not going to be good enough. When he was 27, in 1892, he wrote: ‘My tragedy was that I wanted to be a celebrated violinist at any price. Since the age of 15 I played my violin practically from morning to night. I hated pen and ink – unfortunately I preferred an elegant violin bow. My love for the violin lasted quite long and it was a very painful awakening when I had to admit that I had begun my training for the exacting career of a virtuoso too late.’

The same year he married Aino, the daughter of a state governor and an aristocrat. They spent their honeymoon in Karelia, an area of northern Europe which over the centuries has been the subject of many territorial disputes between Russia, Sweden and Finland. At that time it was part of Finland though now it is in the Russian Federation.

Sibelius had already started composing and now concentrated entirely on it. He had also become intensely patriotic. The year after his marriage he received one of his earliest commissions, for a collection of incidental music for a play put on by students in Karelia, depicting historical scenes from the area. The fee for the commission was 500 marks, which helped to pay the couple’s rent for six months.

The set of pieces, called Karelia Music, consists of an overture, eight tableaux, and two intermezzi.

Sibelius conducted the Karelia Music at its premiere on 13 November 1893 at the Imperial Alexander University in Helsinki. The audience was made up of students who were so excited and rowdy that many could not hear the music at all. Sibelius later wrote to his brother:  ‘You couldn’t hear a single note of the music – everyone was on their feet cheering and clapping.’

Finnish author Ernst Lampén, who was in the audience, recalled: ‘The noise in the hall was like an ocean in a storm. I was at the opposite end of the hall and could not distinguish a single note. The audience did not have the patience to listen and was hardly aware of the music. The orchestra was actually there, behind the pillars. I thrust my way through the crowd and managed to reach the orchestra after a good deal of effort. There were a few listeners. Just a handful. I arrived just when they were playing the march. What an extraordinarily charming and varied melody! What a springy rhythm!’

Ten days later, Sibelius conducted a popular concert that included the Overture, followed by the three movements that would become the Karelia Suite. He later substantially altered these three movements, completing the work in 1894.

Here is a performance by the Radio Kamer Filharmonie, or

Netherlands Radio Chamber Philharmonic, which sadly was disbanded in 2013 after the Dutch government announced a total cut in its funding.

Here is the score:

The first movement was used as the theme for the ITV current affairs programme This Week, which ran from 1956 to 1979, and from 1986 to 1992. Here is an opening from 1963, when it was produced by Associated-Rediffusion,

and here is one from 1974, by which time Associated-Rediffusion had become part of Thames TV.

In 1969 The Nice rock group recorded an arrangement of the first movement (Intermezzo) for their album Ars Longa Vita Brevis.

 and here is a live performance:

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Margaret Ashworth
Margaret Ashworth is a retired national newspaper journalist. She runs the Subbing Clinic in a hopeless attempt to keep up standards, and co-runs A & M Records where she indulges her passion for 60s pop.

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