Updated: Sep 17
My upcoming concert is already feeling like a tentative farewell. I am uncertain of what lies ahead, yet certain enough that my physical presence in Paris will be less predictable for future concert seasons. The program itself is imbued with a sense of finality. It features the Swan of Tuonela who, according to the legend, bears souls across the great waters from death to life. The concert concludes with the emotional whirlwind that
is Tchaikovsky's 4th Symphony.
But most importantly, it features the Violin Concerto by Sibelius, which is the sole focus of these program notes. Were I to choose a single work of music to convey the singularity of my life story, this would be the one. You might call it my musical avatar, or emblem.
I don’t consider it to be the greatest of works ever written. It’s just the one most
entangled with my own life (Gustav Malher's 5th Symphony a close second.)
As a young man, Jean (Christian) Sibelius the violinist came to the painful conclusion that his desired career as a concert violinist was doomed to fail because he got off to a late start and, growing up in far-off Finland, he did not have timely access to the best teachers. He auditioned for a position with the Vienna Philharmonic and was rejected.
I, too, got off to a late start with the violin and had to accept it as a lost cause.
There is a sadness here comparable to unrequited love: something that could have been but never was. Those times are long gone, and I now see failures as great inspirations when transmuted into something of greater worth. My life is a celebration of failure. Therein lies its success.
Lovers of classical music can all be grateful to Sibelius for his failure, thanks to which he became a great composer of symphonies, tone poems, and a violin concerto like none other. It was his poignant longing and profound violinistic sensitivity that gave birth to this singular composition, the only concerto he would ever write, dated 1904.
In a class of its own, it is a work that embodies simultaneously the apex of virtuosity, total mastery of composition, and a distinctly personal voice. Prior to Sibelius, composers would gratify the soloist by adding on a cadenza passage of dazzling virtuosity. In the Sibelius concerto, there is no add-on, show-off passage; the virtuosity is part and parcel of the essential musical form. Like Scandinavian furniture, its form is elegant without being encumbered by embellishments. Even so, it is one of the most virtuosic and expressive concertos ever written. "One of the most" is not enough. The Sibelius concerto reigns supreme in its boundless twilight beauty.
Maybe the music is inspired by the Finnish mindscape and landscape (as most tend to assert), but it so transcends any such origins that they tend to diminish more than enhance one's appreciation. For me, the feeling that pervades the concerto is that of a lone voice crying out in an immense wilderness, and at other times, crying out in the vast arena of an epic saga. That voice is powerful and piercing. This in itself demands astonishing virtuosity. Thanks to his intimate understanding of the violin's potential, Sibelius uses the simultaneous play on two strings to produce the powerful sound of two voices in one. You can imagine this sound traveling across a vast expanse, echoing, from mountain to mountain. The propagation of vibrations through the medium of air is but the first degree of sound.
There is another, more essential sound, heard by the heart across infinite space and eons of time.
Call it a sound beyond sound.
Sibelius, there are times when you cause me to hear such a sound, arising from some invisible string within me. Is it not the sound of my true self? Maybe the sound of your true self as well? The voice of a self, muted by expectations and conventions, now soaring above them all.
Let me tell you now about the epic journey of this music, as I hear it.
In the beginning (0:34-see recording below), there was a great veil of mist, an impenetrable mystery from which emerged the solitary voice. The violin takes flight and soars above a vast, enchanted wilderness. From its pure and placid origin, this simple song quickly unravels into the world of time, tension, and drama (2:08). It becomes fierce and exhilarating (15:00), while in other passages soaring with grandiose lyricism (4:18).
The second movement (16:34) is entirely a romance, boundless in its beauty yet tender. It is a love story, in and of itself. The movement ends with a heart-throbbing communion between the solo violin and the orchestra. This is how you make love when deprived of a body.
The intensely energetic and visceral third movement (25:32) pounces upon you like a wild beast. A warrior has set off galloping on an unbridled stallion. The violinist lets it rip. You can feel the folk origins of the mesmerizing dance rhythms.
A long-gone British music critic compared it to a polka for polar bears. He knew as little about polar bears as he did the violin. I would rather compare it to a death-defying high-wire dance. It is not music for timid souls who would know neither victory nor defeat.
The somewhat somber D-minor key that dominates the concerto searches ardently for a release that arrives in a final victorious flash, as if having just barely overcome the titans.
Come to a concert, so that I have not written in vain, and know that your contribution will restore the hope of many children. The concerts support several charitable causes. If you cannot come, listen below to the concerto played by the sensational Maxim Vengerov or the more austere and angelic Vicktoria Mullova. She is equally enthralling, even with no facial expression. Only the recording quality is inferior. The time annotations in the preceding paragraphs refer to the Vengerov video.
Let it be known, in the insanity of this age, that both of these violinists are Russian, and that Russia's contribution to the violin and to classical music will forever outweigh its military madness.
"People believe all sorts of things about what happens at death,
and some volunteer to die for such beliefs,
but music supersedes belief.
Its emotions cannot be countered.
Its bonds of brotherhood cannot be broken.
Against it there is no defense.
It transforms the world not by action upon visible matter,
but by invisible influence upon the heart."
- Excerpt from my book EXQUISITE: Facets of my France,
Chapter IX: Rhapsody and Rapture