Sibelius' Violin Concerto: Unique Convention


It's been a while since I've written a post dedicated to just one specific piece, and even longer since I've mentioned a concerto! As I've said before, concerti can often be simply technically showy, but there are a few, especially later ones, that celebrate the instrument they are written for in more depth. Somehow, Sibelius' Violin Concerto in D minor manages to do both.

Jean Sibelius to me has always existed on a fine line between conventional and unconventional. He was writing at a time when music was changing dramatically, yet he conventionally stayed to forms such as the symphony. At the same time, his music always feels unique - it somehow feels a lot less dense than it actually is, and is almost visual in its representation of form and shape. His music can sometimes feel like it has a stop-start nature about it, as ideas are presented without much transition. He certainly doesn't mince his words, and phrases, ideas and even whole pieces can end very suddenly. Sibelius isn't dramatic himself, but the music creates its own, non-forced drama.

In the violin concerto - the only concerto for anything that Sibelius ever wrote - this is very evident. The first movement combines beautiful orchestral lines with simple, lyrical violin music initially. This celebrates what the violin can do, and not necessarily the player. However, instead of a typical 'development' section, there is simply an extended violin cadenza, giving the soloist chance to shine. Through weaving together these simple melodies with more complex, technical work which comments on the simpler material, Sibelius' complexity is masked in a veil of effortlessness. The first movement is also demonstrably symphonic in style, with huge sounds coming from the orchestra, and the orchestral and solo voices interacting with almost equal gravitas. 

The second movement is a traditional lyrical, slow movement. The use of suspended chords is similar to what appears in Elgar's Cello Concerto and makes it so popular, but pre-dates it by 16 years. The third movement is well known for its technical difficulty and has a lot of fun with everyone involved. There is a substantial amount of off-set rhythmic material and playful melodies which eventually develop into some of the most challenging violin repertoire out there. For Sibelius, this movement is one of his most explosive pieces of writing. 

The piece itself combines traditional concerto tropes, cadenzas and more lyrical passages with an expansive, fresh feel. It explores the violin in unique ways and is exciting and virtuosic whilst also remaining meaningful and avoiding the melodramatic. It really is one of a kind.