Winter Landscape - Akseli Gallen-Kallela
Winter Landscape - A. Gallen-Kallela
Next December 8th marks 150 years of the birth of Jean Sibelius and that's why the classical music world is celebrating, in 2015, the Year of Sibelius. This kind of commemorations are mainly to promote the work of the honoree, but in this occasion, I’ll also take full advantage of the celebration of the Finnish composer, at least with regard to his songs. I wonder why I don't usually listen to this composer’s songs whose symphonic music I like so much. I suppose that, as in other cases, it's due to the language barrier. Not because I don't know any single word in Swedish (I use translations, as with so many languages) but because it's a minority language that few singers are able to speak (and therefore to sing). I think I've never heard a song by Sibelius in a recital and as for recordings, there aren't that many either. This year, fortunately, things are changing a little thanks to his 150th anniversary.

The truth is that Sibelius has a considerable number of songs, about 110, written over thirty years, from the beginning of his career (his first published work, in 1888, was a song) until the end of the WW1, which nearly coincided with the Finnish Declaration of Independence and the war that followed. Difficult times in Europe. After that period, he wrote few songs; In fact, after 1926 and until his death, he hardly composed any work, there were thirty years of silence. Most of his songs are published in eight collections, and only very few were published in isolation. However, as it also happens with other composers, we can not talk about cycles, except for the last, opus 88, known as "Flowers songs". Sibelius wrote most of the songs for voice and piano; some orchestral songs and some orchestrated songs but, in fact, other composers arrange many of the latter in recordings.

The most popular Sibelius songs belong to his Romantic period, roughly between 1898 and 1906; To set ourselves in this period, we should mention three well-known works from the same years: the first two symphonies and the violin concerto. We talked about Late Romanticism, of course; we shouldn’t forget that Richard Strauss and Sibelius were fully contemporary: the former lived between 1864 and 1949 and the latter, between 1865 and 1957. Strauss composed all his life, his last works are dated in 1848, and Sibelius, as I mentioned, gave up much earlier.

I chose a song from that time to share with you, Marssnön (March Snow), composed in 1900, the fifth of the six songs published as Opus 36. I already said that I don't know a word of Swedish, and not of Finnish (which I can't speak either) because around 90 songs by Sibelius are written from Swedish poems; Swedish was his mother tongue and that of most Finnish Romantic poets, among them Josef Julius Wecksell, the author of Marssnön's poem. Wecksell lived between 1838 and 1907 but unfortunately, he was able to publish just one book of poems because when he was twenty-seven, he was committed to an asylum due to a mental illness; he stayed there for forty-two years until his death. A terrible story which possibly has to do with syphilis, an illness that we find too often.

We can find in the short poem two recurrent themes during the Romanticism: nature and death. Sibelius writes a song with the two stanzas well differentiate: the first one, coinciding with the description of the snowfall, is calmer, with long notes at the piano that makes us feel the voice is alone. The singer groups the four verses in two long phrases that are almost identical. The second stanza, where the verses speak of death, is more intense, at both the voice and the accompaniment. The two first verses lead to the final climax with a crescendo to the long high note at the word "rikare" (richer). It's beautiful song, I hope that after listening to it you’ll feel like listening to more Sibelius' songs. The performers are the Finnish baritone Tom Krause and pianist Irwin Gage.

I would like to dedicate this post to two people: to Marja, a Finnish friend who was as kind as to translate the Swedish poem into Spanish, and Isabel Villagar, who from her webpage La brújula del canto nominated me to The Infinity Dreams Awards; I'm very grateful for her courtesy. Hopefully she won't take offence if I don't follow the initiative for the time being, maybe later!

Den svala snön därute faller
Och täcker marken mer och mer,
De lägga sig de vita stjärnor
I varv på varv längs jorden ner.

Håll slutet än, o vår! ditt öga,
Sov gott i blid och vänlig snö—
Dess mäktigare skall du blomma,
Dess rikare skall sen du dö.

If you need an English translation please follow this link
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