“I’ve got some lovely themes for a violin concerto,” Sibelius wrote to his wife, Aino, in September 1902. The Finnish composer, at 37 already a national figure and the recipient of an annual pension from the Finnish government, had been asked by the celebrated German violinist Willy Burmester to write a violin concerto. Despite the “lovely themes” Sibelius had devised, however, the concerto wasn’t coming along as expected. The difficulties had to do with the composer’s alcoholism that around this time began to alarm his family and which seemed to stem from a deep sense of inner insecurity. It was a year before Sibelius sent the piano score to Burmester, who responded enthusiastically:
I can only say one thing: wonderful! Masterly! Only once before have I spoken in such terms of a composer, and that was when Tchaikovsky showed me his concerto.
What happened after this is rather hard to explain. Burmester was expecting to play the world premiere of the new work in the spring of 1904, but Sibelius, for financial reasons, pushed for an earlier date even though Burmester wasn’t available sooner and the orchestration of the concerto wasn’t finished. Sibelius completed the concerto sometime before the end of 1903, and gave it to a local violin teacher, Viktor Nováček. Accounts agree that Nováček was hardly more than a mediocre player. Leading Sibelius biographer Erik Tawaststjerna writes that at the Helsinki premiere, in February 1904, “a red-faced and perspiring Nováček fought a losing battle with a solo part that bristled with even greater difficulties in this first version than it does in the definitive score.”
Sibelius had been trying to pacify Burmester by saying that “Helsinki doesn’t mean a thing,” and still promised him performances in Berlin and elsewhere. But after the Helsinki premiere, he was dissatisfied with the work and decided to revise it entirely. After the definitive version was completed, he sent it off to his German publisher who suggested Karl Halíř as the soloist. Sibelius acquiesced, passing Burmester over for the second time. Greatly offended, Burmester never played the work whose composition he had initiated.
Halíř, the concertmaster of the Berlin Court Opera and a professor at the Conservatory, was a fine violinist but not a virtuoso of the highest caliber. It fell to an exceptionally gifted 17-year-old Hungarian named Ferenc (Franz von) Vecsey to become the work’s first international champion; it is to him that the printed score is dedicated.
Ultimately, as Tawaststjerna noted, Sibelius wrote his concerto for neither Burmester nor anyone else but himself. As a young man, Sibelius had hoped to become a concert violinist, and gave up his dreams of a virtuoso career only with great reluctance. At any rate, his primary instrument was the violin; unlike Brahms who consulted Joseph Joachim when he was writing his violin concerto, Sibelius did not need to ask others for advice on technical matters. Tawaststjerna writes, “Naturally in his imagination he identifies himself with the soloist in the Violin Concerto and this may well explain something of its nostalgia and romantic intensity.”
“Nostalgia and romantic intensity”—these are indeed key words if one wishes to describe the Sibelius Violin Concerto. Written in the first years of the 20th century, it looks back to the great Romantic concertos of the 19th. The beginning, with the D-minor tremolos of the muted first and second violins over which the soloist plays a wistful melody, is unabashedly old-fashioned. The only unconventional features are the repeated augmented fourth leaps (from D to G-sharp or G to C-sharp), which create harsher sonorities, and the irregular phrase structure of the theme, which makes it impossible to predict how the melody is going to evolve.
Simple and song-like at first, the violin part gradually becomes more and more agitated, erupting in a first virtuoso cadenza. As the meter changes from 4/4 to 6/4 time, the orchestra introduces a second idea, which the violin soon takes over; when that happens, however, the tempo suddenly slows down and the character of the theme changes from dramatic to lyrical. This is followed by a third, purely orchestral section, in a fast 2/2 time; lively and energetic, it ends in pianissimo with the cellos and basses repeating a single note (B-flat). The three sections roughly outline the exposition of a sonata form, although the meter changes and the succession of characters is unusual; also, the key of B-flat minor, which is eventually reached, is a highly unusual tonal direction for a concerto movement in D minor. Its many flats contribute to a certain dark, “Nordic” flavor in the concerto, reinforced by the frequent use of the violin’s low register. The brass parts also abound in “glacial” low notes, harmonized with austere-sounding chordal passages.
There is no real development section; its place is taken by the solo cadenza, which occurs in the middle of the movement rather than at the end as usual. The cadenza is followed by a free recapitulation in which the first melody returns, almost literally. The second theme (especially in its orchestral rendition) is substantially modified. The melody of the third section is now given to the violas while the soloist adds virtuoso passages, turning the ending of the movement into a kind of grandiose Gypsy fantasy.
The second movement Adagio di molto is based on the combination of two themes, one played by the two clarinets at the beginning, the other by the solo violin a few measures later. The violin melody is, according to the composer’s own written instruction, “sonorous and expressive”; the clarinet theme later grows into an impassioned middle section whose dynamism carries over into the recapitulation of the violin melody (part of it is now given to the woodwinds). Only at the very end does the melody rediscover its initial peace and tranquility.
Speaking about the Finale, it is impossible to resist quoting Donald Francis Tovey’s characterization of its main theme as a “polonaise for polar bears.” Tovey’s words capture the singular combination of dance rhythms and a certain heavy-footedness felt at least at the beginning of this movement. Again, there are two themes, one in a polonaise rhythm and one based on the alternation of 6/8 and 3/4 time (the first is subdivided into 3 + 3 eighth-notes, the second into 2 + 2 + 2). “With this,” Tovey concluded his analysis, “we can safely leave the finale to dance the listener into Finland, or whatever Fairyland Sibelius will have us attain.”