Monday, November 26, 2012

Coldness and Darkness

I'd like to introduce you to the Sibelius Piano Sonata. It's not that often played and I haven't noticed any good performances of it on the web, so if you've not heard of it get in line. Once again, for any locals who were at my concert last year in which I played the Alkan Grand Sonata, also a very rarely played piece, I don't have any t-shirts for you saying you've heard it. But the Sibelius is its own reward.

It's also not all that time-consuming for a piano sonata. I'm only going to play the first movement today. Since this is the first time I've played a piece called "sonata" on this blog, I'm going to conveniently side-step all the fun intricacies of what that means and simply make a couple of suggestions. The first is that you listen broadly.

Jean Sibelius: Piano Sonata in F, first movement: molto allegro (very fast)

Sibelius' piece starts off with a jubilant, dance-like tune, which kicks off a whole series of little musical ideas that might sound like birds, or bells, or more dancing, and which build to two rapturous climaxes--climaxi? climae? Anyhow, the second one is bigger than the first, and when we come down off that mountain we hear three sets of chords repeated three times--thrice three. Section one takes just under two minutes.

Section two is much more melancholy and/or passionate than the first. It goes into several minor keys, and gets more subdued as it goes along. Near the end, you are hearing the two ends of the piano with nothing in between--a very lonely, thin sound. But it is actually a hint of the opening tune coming back, and after a rush of scales, the opening dance returns (4:34), and the third section of the piece is largely a repeat of the opening section, although it is a little richer and more complicated than it was the first time, possibly for having had the experience of passing through the second section. It ends exuberantly.

Now at this point most musical commentary would suggest that you listen for this theme or that theme and how the composer cleverly turns it upside down in the second part of the development--which we can try another time, but for today all I'm really interested in is having you notice how the piece slowly makes its way from light to darkness to light. This isn't at all how a textbook would suggest that a composer put together a sonata and it is really Sibelius' unique personal contribution. It's also rather appropriate for the last week in November.

Here in the northern hemisphere the earth is getting colder, and darkness is settling in at about 4:30 in the afternoon here in Illinois. It seems as though we are very much in the middle section of this piano sonata.

Further, if you use your imagination you might hear, in addition to possible bird calls or tolling bells or rhythmic tunes that make you want to dance as I mentioned above, rushing scales that sound like a fierce north wind or crashing waves or other elements of the natural world.

While I'm sidestepping major musical issues I should mention that the idea that you should listen for things like wind and waves in a piece of music is kind of on the outs with the musical establishment; it is considered pretty superficial listening, and composers aren't supposed to engage in that sort of thing either. But more about that another time. Meanwhile, I think we can justify that sort of listening partly because Sibelius tended to think that way while many other composers did not, and because while you are listening for local phenomenon like birds and bells you are also listening to the long-term unfolding of the piece, which takes more sophisticated listening, so I ought to be able to keep my license with the musical establishment on that basis--we'll see.

I first heard this piece on a record one day at the school library when I randomly pulled it off a shelf and made a discovery. It made enough of an impression that I wanted to listen to it a second time. Which is all you can really ask of a new piece of music, that it intrigue you enough that you want to allow it time to grow on you, and to really start to figure out what it is about, because with most composers of merit it is going to take several listens to really get into the heart of the music anyhow. The question is are you game for another listen?

Jean Sibelius: Piano Sonata in F, first movement: molto allegro (very fast)

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