Saturday 16 February 2019

George Hamilton: Jean Sibelius' music is at the heart of Finnish identity

ClassicTalk with George Hamilton

Finland's greatest composer, Jean Sibelius
Finland's greatest composer, Jean Sibelius
Close to home: Sibelius's Karelia Suite is named after a Finnish region

George Hamilton

There's a rustle of strings. Then four horns sound a fanfare. The counterpoint continues for just over a minute until the strings can contain themselves no longer. Up they swirl, and reach a summit, the platform for those horns to take off with the main melody.

You've just enjoyed the opening bars of the Karelia Suite by Finland's greatest composer, Jean Sibelius.

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Three movements: an opening intermezzo; a slow ballad; and then a conclusion that has the designation of a march but has more of the characteristics of a victory dance.

You're sure to know the beginning and the end - they get played a lot, two persistent presences in classical radio stations' Top 100s.

How the Karelia Suite came to be is a tale of a commercial investment that didn't have the smoothest of rides for the promoters but worked out perfectly for the composer.

Karelia is an ancient region that straddles south-eastern Finland and a vast swathe of territory north of St Petersburg across the Russian border.

Despite the realities of geopolitics over the millennia, it represents the heartland of Finnish identity.

Sibelius was drawn to the place. It was to Karelia that he took his bride, Aino Járnefelt, on honeymoon after their marriage in 1892.

And it was from Karelia the following year that Sibelius got a very welcome commission that would earn him 500 Finnish marks, enough to pay the couple's rent for six months.

Welcome it may have been, but it did pose a dilemma for the artist, who confided that he felt he'd been brought down really low by having to compose to order for money.

But the cause was good. There was going to be an evening's entertainment centred on a lottery, set up by the students' association in the Karelian town of Vyborg.

Though it's now Russian territory, Vyborg was then the capital of a pretty, rural Finnish province and the lottery was intended to raise funds to promote the education of the people there. There was to be a pageant, celebrating the history of Karelia. Eight tableaux - scenes from the region's past. Sibelius himself would conduct the orchestra.

But this was no ordinary concert. That lottery, with some impressive prizes - from works of art to suites of furniture - helped ensure an excitable audience that wasn't there just for the music.

"The noise in the hall was like an ocean in a storm," recalled an author friend of the composer. Ernst Lampén reckoned the audience was hardly aware of the music.

Sibelius, on the podium with his back to the din, had a rather different take. "You couldn't hear a single note of the music," he wrote in a letter to his brother. "Everyone was on their feet cheering and clapping."

That was the somewhat unorthodox first outing of what would evolve into the orchestral suite we know today.

Sibelius played around with various combinations of the music for the pageant. Six years later, he settled on three sections that make up the Karelia Suite.

You won't often hear it in its entirety - the central, slow Ballade may be a little too downbeat for some tastes - but the majestic opening Intermezzo and the exuberant third movement Alla Marcia belong among the all-time favourites.

No dazzling artistic invention - just two great tunes based on folk themes found in a favourite place.

George Hamilton presents 'The Hamilton Scores' on RTÉ lyric fm from 10am each Saturday and Sunday

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