‘A polonaise for polar bears’

Anyone who recognizes the title of today’s post will know in an instant the subject of my choice.

If you had to push me on my favourite violin concerto, the answer would be Beethoven’s one day – and Sibelius’s another. As the temperature drops, my thoughts turn to northern Europe and so to the music of Jean Sibelius (1865-1957). ‘A polonaise for polar bears’ is how the legendary music writer Sir Donald Tovey (1875-1940) described the final movement of Sibelius’s only concerto for solo instrument and orchestra.

Sibelius had himself always aspired to becoming a virtuoso violinist, but it just never happened that way, probably because he wasn’t fortunate enough to have access to good enough teachers in the countryside (an excuse my children will doubtless lay at my door one day). Nowadays, Sibelius is best known for works such as ‘Finlandia’ and the Karelia Suite’, the former virtually becoming a national emblem for that country, as well as his seven symphonies, the fifth of which is highly popular; but all of them are characterised by broad sweeping themes, often beginning with a brief melody and building into fabulous final moments (listen to the closing movements of the 2nd and 5th if you can).

The temperature may be dropping here, but apparently the average temperature in Finland at the time Sibelius was born was just 4C, and -17C on the day of his birth in December. The countryside was a fairly bleak place in which to live, and it can’t have been easy for the young boy, who was brought up by an early-widowed mother, her mother, and two aunts. Throw in the enormous political difficulties with Russia at that time, and you have a dire context for survival.

To cap it all, his marriage later produced five daughters, all delightful I’m sure, but there is a conspicuous lack of male company here, which may account for his partiality to cigars and vodka for much of his life. There is definitely a cold darkness to be found in some of his music, especially his 4th symphony, which is plain grim in its mood for specific reasons, but the opposite is generally more true; and Sibelius was enormously popular in England and the US, reaping the financial benefits of the recent invention of recording.

This concerto did not have an auspicious debut: Sibelius had to revise it, because it was just far too difficult, and it was much better received when Richard Strauss conducted the revision in 1905. That it remains difficult is not hard to see, especially in this final movement, where the soloist is kept busy the whole way through. The score is marked ‘Allegro, ma non tanto’, which means ‘quick, but not too much’; so interpretations tend to vary enormously.

The nickname which Tovey ascribed is perfect: right from its opening seconds there is a menacing beat, while the solo violin dances relentlessly above the orchestra (building to an exquisite moment at about 2:08, which is later repeated, so stay with it). Interestingly, the word ‘allegro’ has a more general meaning in English, closer to good-humoured or high spirits, and most soloists have a tendency to attack this passage too heavily. The result can be harsh, even brash, and worst of all the dancing and melody are sacrificed.

Maybe it takes the female touch to get the balance right, which is what American born Rachel Barton Pine achieves here: it is pure and tender, merry and high-spirited, whilst not lacking in tension. The closing bars are wonderful – listen out for how Sibelius has the violin soaring up, while bringing the orchestra crashing down. It is an exuberant account.

p.s. Although Sibelius had numerous operations to clear up a throat tumour, cigars and vodka obviously didn’t harm him too much in the long term. At the time of his birth, the life expectancy in that cruel climate was barely 36…Sibelius died at 91.






A final, brief, reflection. Ivor Gurney.

I have found myself more moved by this year’s Remembrance than previous occasions. Perhaps the two anniversaries of the 11th coming on a Friday and my late father’s birthday tomorrow have combined to make it a whole weekend of loss and pride. In any case, I  have caught myself reflecting even more deeply on the horrors of war.

One thing which stands out to me above all is the dreadful ignorance of what awaited those who served at the Somme in 1916. There is footage aplenty of young men marching with enthusiasm and smiling faces, believing, as they did, that they would be hastening the end of the war. And although we know now only too well of the atrocities which they faced, and the conditions in which they lived and died are documented and photographed, I wonder how much we reflect on how quickly their earlier expectations must have been reversed – and how the prospect of glory would have been replaced, after over 57,000 casualties on the first day of the battle, by the most incomprehensible fear.  This is what has preoccupied me so much. The sheer terror of living through it every minute of every day, as friends or comrades fall beside you, wondering when your time will come.

It is a fear which must have run through every conflict since: that contrast of peace, beauty and optimism our servicemen and women leave behind with the quite unimaginable reality check of a face with death.

I have referred before (‘In Memoriam’, August) to the British composers who fought in the First World War; in doing so, celebrating the pastoral qualities of the music of George Butterworth, who did not survive the battle of the Somme. Another, less well-known contemporary, Ivor Gurney (1890-1930 ), also went to the Front. Although wounded, he returned, was then gassed at Passhendale, and survived the war. He had shown signs of a mental disorder in violent moodswings from his teenage years (his teacher, Stanford, while acknowledging him to be among his very best pupils, also declared him “unteachable”), and he was diagnosed as insane in 1922.

Gurney was a gifted poet and musician, his poetry often conveying precisely the contrast I have dwelt on, and a writer of over 300 songs. One of these, a love song, ‘Down by the Salley Gardens’, set to the words of the Irish poet, W.B.Yeats, captures this beautifully.

It is just a couple of minutes, but an enchanting melody with melancholy at its very core, Gurney skillfully bringing out the sorrow metaphor of the willow (salley). It is tenderly and sensitively sung by one of our great tenors, Anthony Rolfe Johnson, whose own death in 2010 saddened so many, only adding to the poignancy of this account. I know that Elgar’s ‘Nimrod’ is almost synonymous with loss and nostalgia; but this innocent song is a fitting summation of a great deal more.