The 22nd Annual Bard Music Festival opens August 12th

Described by the Los Angeles Times as “uniquely stimulating,” the world-renowned Bard Music Festival returns for its 22nd annual season, filling the last two weekends of Bard SummerScape 2011 with a compelling and enlightening exploration of “Sibelius and His World.” Twelve concert programs over the two mid-August weekends, complemented by pre-concert lectures, panel discussions, expert commentary, a symposium, and a special film screening, make up Bard’s examination of Jean Sibelius, the composer once condescendingly dismissed as “easy listening” yet now embraced by audiences and critics alike as one of Beethoven’s great heirs. The twelve concerts present masterpieces from Sibelius’s orchestral and choral oeuvre, as well as many of his chamber, keyboard, and vocal works, alongside a wealth of music from almost 40 of his contemporaries. Weekend One –“Imagining Finland” (August 12–14) – explores Sibelius’s early years and the influence of those who sought to define Finnish and Scandinavian culture, while Weekend Two – “Sibelius: Conservative or Modernist?” (August 19–21) – confronts Sibelius’s reputation, reception, and influence in Europe and America after the First World War.

Portrait of Jean Sibelius
Portrait of Jean Sibelius
The Bard Music Festival has won international acclaim for its unrivaled, in-depth exploration of the life and works of a single composer and his contemporaries, offering, in the words of the New York Times, a “rich web of context” for a full appreciation of that composer’s inspirations and significance. Leon Botstein, co-artistic director of the festival and music director of the resident American Symphony Orchestra, will conduct the orchestral programs; these, like many of the other concerts and special events, will take place in the beautiful Frank Gehry-designed Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts on Bard’s glorious Hudson Valley campus. As in previous seasons, choral programs will feature the Bard Festival Chorale directed by James Bagwell, while this year’s impressive roster of performers includes the Daedalus Quartet, pianists Jeremy Denk, Anna Polonsky, Gilles Vonsattel, and Orion Weiss, cellist Edward Arron, soprano Christiane Libor, and mezzo-soprano Melis Jaatinen.

Through the prism of Sibelius’s life and career, the 2011 festival will explore the music of Scandinavia and examine the challenges faced by those who continued working within a tonal framework after the revolutions of musical modernism. Listeners will encounter music ranging from the Romanticism – both Austro-German and Russian – so prevalent in Sibelius’s youth to masterpieces of the 1930s from both sides of the Atlantic. Usually hailed as the sole and quintessential representative of Finnish music, here Sibelius will be delineated with greater accuracy as a complex, contradictory figure, whose first language was Swedish, not Finnish; who studied in Berlin and Vienna, not just Helsinki; and who wrote some of his most characteristically Nordic music while traveling in the southern warmth of Italy. He will be contextualized among his Finnish and Scandinavian contemporaries, from such well-known figures as Edvard Grieg and Carl Nielsen to less familiar ones like Toivo Kuula and Väinö Raitio. Difficult questions – concerning Sibelius’s politics, his stance toward the Nazi regime, and the mystery of why he all but gave up composing for the last three decades of his life – will be addressed.

Christopher H. Gibbs, one of the three Artistic Directors for the Bard Music Festival – along with Leon Botstein and Robert Martin – observes that “for a long time Sibelius was a victim of his own popularity. He was extraordinarily famous for a small number of overexposed, stylistically conservative compositions and popularly associated almost exclusively with Finland. The festival this summer aims to broaden our appreciation of the scope of Sibelius’s accomplishments and innovations as we unravel key enigmatic and paradoxical aspects of his life, music, and influence.”

The twelve musical programs, built thematically and spaced over the two weekends, open with an orchestral tour-de-force. Program One, “Jean Sibelius: National Symbol, International Iconoclast,” features two symphonic milestones: the Symphony No. 3 in C, Op. 52 (1907), which eschews the grandiose Romanticism of its two predecessors for clean, clear development and an almost Classical economy of gesture, and the life-affirming Symphony No. 5 in E-flat, Op. 82 (1915-19), whose defiantly consonant sonorities and rousing themes have helped ensure its enduring popularity. Another great favorite is the youthful symphonic poem Finlandia, Op. 26 (1899-1900), which evokes the struggle of the Finnish people under Russian rule and resolves with a transcendent hymn of Sibelius’s own composition. His own violin-playing experiences perhaps help explain the phenomenal success of his Violin Concerto; instead of revisiting that all-too-frequently programmed work, Bard presents excerpts from the neglected but no less masterly Humoresques (Opp. 87 and 89) for violin and orchestra (1917). Completing the epic program is Luonnotar (Daughter of Nature), Op. 70 (1913) for soprano and orchestra. Based on text from the Kalevala, Finland’s national epic, this tone-poem represents some of Sibelius’s earliest settings of Finnish (rather than Swedish) text; decades later, he would reflect: “Luonnotar was one of my very best works.”

On a more intimate scale, Program Two, “Berlin and Vienna: The Artist as a Young Man,” reveals the young composer through two of his own earliest works: the Seven Songs, Op. 13 (1891-92) and the Piano Quintet in G minor (1890). The quintet’s formidable piano part was originally premiered by Italian composer Ferrucio Busoni, Sibelius’s lifelong friend and champion; Busoni’s piano arrangements of extracts from Bach’s Ten Chorale Preludes are also featured on Program Two. Rounding it out are chamber works by three of Sibelius’s teachers; he studied with Albert Becker at Berlin’s Academy of the Arts, and with the Hungarian-Jewish composer Karl Goldmark in Vienna, where – like Mahler, Wolf, and Zemlinsky – Sibelius was also among the many illustrious pupils of legendary pedagogue Robert Fuchs at the city’s conservatory.

Yet despite this impeccably Austro-Germanic training, Sibelius reached his most important stylistic breakthrough on reading the Kalevala and setting out to incorporate its distinctively Finnish rhythms into his music. A 19th-century compilation of Finland’s folklore and mythology, the Kalevala played a crucial role in the development of Finnish national identity, which led to the nation’s independence from Russia in 1917. The first composer to mine its musical potential was Robert Kajanus, the most prominent Finnish composer before Sibelius as well as an eminent conductor; the two were friends, colleagues, and sometimes rivals, and it was in the wake of Kajanus’s Kalevala-inspired symphonic poem Aino (1885) that Sibelius embarked on two treatments of his own: the monumental choral symphony Kullervo, Op. 7 (1891-92) and the Lemminkäinen Suite (Four Legends), Op. 22. Sibelius withdrew both the symphonic poem and the suite’s first movement – Lemminkäinen and the Maidens of the Island (1895; rev. 1897, 1939) – soon after they were premiered, and Kullervo was not performed again until after his death. These two works, together with Kajanus’s Aino, will be revived at the festival’s second orchestral concert: Program Three, “Kalevala: Myth and the Birth of a Nation.”

If Finns can take pride in their folk heritage, many are demoralized by their homeland’s white summer nights and dark winter mornings, caused by its proximity to the pole. Some have speculated that Sibelius – a heavy drinker and cigar smoker – may also have suffered from depression. Program Four, “White Nights—Dark Mornings: Creativity, Depression, and Addiction” delves into this darker side, by means of chamber works like the highly-charged Svartsjukans Nätter (Nights of Jealousy, 1888) and Valse triste (Sad Waltz), Op. 44/1 (1904), which, despite its morbid subject matter (a mother’s deathbed dance) became something of a signature piece. Completing the program are piano miniatures by Grieg and songs by composers such as Wilhelm Peterson-Berger, Frederick Delius, and Alma Mahler. Like Sibelius and his wife, Alma and Gustav Mahler endured the loss of a young daughter, and Alma’s subsequent depression mirrored Sibelius’s anguished drinking after the death of little Kirsti in 1900. The musical program will be complemented by a conversation between Leon Botstein and eminent psychologist Kay Redfield Jamison about addiction, depression and creativity.

Although a bereaved and grieving parent is depicted in Sibelius’s Six Part Songs, Op. 18 (1895-1904), Program Five – “Aurora Borealis: Nature and Music in Finland and Scandinavia” – is in general less concerned with domestic life or human tragedy. Beyond inspiring long and sleepless nights, Finland’s latitude is also what lies behind its unique natural beauty and exposure to the phenomenon of northern lights. The supernatural bugbears of Grieg’s Haugtussa, Op. 67 (1895), a setting of Norwegian Symbolist poetry, conjure the aurora’s uncanny quality, while chamber music by Grieg’s compatriots Johan Svendsen and Christian Sinding, Sweden’s Wilhelm Stenhammar, and Finland’s Toivo Kuula evoke different aspects of Scandinavia’s distinctive northern landscapes. Juxtaposing their works in this way offers a rare opportunity to compare and contrast them stylistically, both with each other and, collectively, with contemporary music of the European mainstream.

It was not only the music of Central Europe whose influence Sibelius had to tame if he was to achieve a recognizably Finnish compositional voice. Just as, until 1917, Finland struggled for independence from Russia, Sibelius battled to win his own independence from Russian music. The shadow of Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony, the Pathétique, loomed large over Sibelius’s First, and it was only with his more mature works that the Finnish composer managed to imbue the positive qualities he took from the great Russian Romantics – their powerful melodic writing and mastery of orchestral coloration – with something recognizably his own. Closing the opening weekend, Program Six – “To the Finland Station: Sibelius and Russia” – explores the music of Finland’s huge and dominant neighbor through chamber works by Tchaikovsky, Glazunov, Rachmaninov, and Rimsky-Korsakov alongside several by Sibelius, including the Canzonetta, Op. 62a (1911, arr. Stravinsky, 1963). Originally scored for strings, this was later arranged for eight instruments (four horns, two clarinets, harp, and double bass) by Stravinsky, as an act of homage after winning the Wihuri-Sibelius Prize.

As postwar society is only too conscious, behind celebrations of national pride lurks the threat of racism and hate. In an age of comparative innocence, before the last world war this threat was far less apparent. Like many educated Finns, in his support for Finland’s political and linguistic independence, Sibelius was sometimes drawn to ideologically suspect movements, attracted by their patriotism and – after Finland’s Civil War of 1918, when the prospect of Soviet occupation loomed large – anti-Communist rhetoric. When such movements stooped to violent force, he abandoned them. Yet it has been argued that the composer was not just an innocent bystander in the process by which the ‘purity of the northern race’ experienced its triumphant march in Nazi Germany. When Finland allied herself with Germany against the Soviets, Sibelius – championed as a Nordic “Aryan” – became a favorite composer of the Nazi regime, his works receiving numerous performances. While harboring private doubts about the Nazis’ racial laws and policies, he took no public stand.

Opening the festival’s second weekend, Program Seven – “Nordic Purity, Aryan Fantasies, and Music” – probes a spectrum of musical responses to these issues. The original melodrama version of Sibelius’s symphonic poem The Wood Nymph (1895) takes as its inspiration the type of erotically-charged Norse myth so favored by Wagner. American composer Howard Hanson, born to Swedish immigrants, was also intrigued by his Scandinavian heritage, naming his First Symphony “Nordic” in 1923. For Sweden’s Kurt Atterberg and America’s Amy Beach, folk songs proved a rich source of inspiration, adding depth and color to their music. Beach collected examples from the ethnically diverse groups who made up her fellow Americans, her piano suite Eskimos, Op. 64 (1907) being one of several works inspired by Native-American themes. None of these works is overtly political. By contrast, Sibelius’s Song of the Athenians, Op. 31/3 (1899), while ostensibly about Athenians and Persians, was a thinly veiled anthem for the Finnish nationalist movement; Finnish audiences instantly identified with the civilized Athenians, casting their Russians oppressors as the supposedly barbaric Persians. In their turn, the Nazis naturally found this attack on their Russian enemies appealing. Bruckner’s Third Symphony, the first movement heard in this concert as arranged for piano duet by the young Gustav Mahler, had an enormous impact on Bruckner early in his career. Bruckner was himself no stranger to religious or Wagnerian anti-Semitism, and his music was enthusiastically espoused by the Nazis as the archetype of Austro-Germanic Romanticism. The Finnish composer Yrjö Kilpinen was directly implicated with German fascism. Considered Finland’s leading composer after Sibelius in the 1930s and ‘40s, his Lieder attracting special notice, he was denounced when his friendships with Nazi leaders became known after the war.

Program Eight – “From the Nordic Folk” –investigates aspects of the use of folksong in 20th-century composition, particularly as composers followed the influential example of Edvard Grieg. Australian composer Percy Grainger collected folk tunes from around the world, incorporating them into his music. His love of Scandinavia took him on a visit to Grieg in Norway and to Denmark on a folk-music collecting trip, and is reflected in La Scandinavie (Scandinavian Suite, 1902). The other composers represented in this program, Sibelius among them, were content to harness their own cultural heritage. From Bartók in Hungary to Ravel in France, all found inspiration in the folk music of their forebears.

Sibelius is so often referenced as if he were the sole representative of his nation’s music that Program Nine – “Finnish Modern,” which contextualizes him among the most important of his Finnish contemporaries – comes as something of a surprise. Erkki Melartin was always overshadowed by Sibelius without actually being influenced by him. Instead his work bears the imprint of Mahler and Nielsen, although, like Sibelius and Kajanus before him, he also found inspiration in the Kalevala. Leevi Madetoja studied with Sibelius and Fuchs, producing national Romantic music that draws on both Ostrobothnian folksong and contemporary French music. One of the pioneers of Finnish Modernism, Aarre Merikanto combined the influence of Scryabin with elements of Impressionism and Expressionism, resulting in an original style that bordered on atonal. Programmed alongside examples of these composers’ works are several of Sibelius’s songs and his String Quartet in D minor, Op. 56 (1909). This brooding work, subtitled “Voces intimae,” dates from the period between the Third and Fourth Symphonies and is not only his only mature string quartet, but the only substantial chamber work he produced after the turn of the century.

The Symphony No. 4 in A minor, Op. 63 is as bleak as No. 5 is uplifting. Written between 1910 and 1911, its introspective tone is reminiscent of the expressionist works Sibelius had recently encountered. A dark, emotionally intense work, the Fourth Symphony perhaps reflects his state of mind after having a malignant tumor removed from his throat in 1908, which not only forced him to confront his own mortality but left him unable to take solace in cigars or alcohol. Later, when asked about the symphony, he would quote Strindberg’s claim that “being human is misery.” The Third Symphony (“Sinfonia Espansiva”) of Denmark’s great Carl Nielsen is its exact contemporary, also dating from 1910-11. Both symphonies feature in Program Ten – “The Heritage of Symbolism” – alongside shorter orchestral works by Sibelius and Väinö Raitio, whose Joutsenet (The Swans), Op. 15 (1919) was based on a poem by Finnish Symbolist poet Otto Manninen. Sibelius’s tone poem The Oceanides, Op. 73 (1914) portrays mythological sea nymphs and contains one of his finest musical depictions of a storm. Complementing the earlier program 3, we hear two further movements from the Lemminkäinen Suite, Op. 22. Both The Swan of Tuonela and Lemminkäinen’s Return were originally conceived as part of Sibelius’s ultimately unrealized opera, The Building of the Boat. Inspired by Berlioz’s programmatic Symphonie fantastique and Wagner’s essay Oper und Drama, musically they nonetheless come closest to Debussy.

The penultimate concert addresses those who rejected the modernist challenge. The musical language of Richard Strauss, whose opera Die Liebe der Danae forms one of the highlights of SummerScape 2011, remained unapologetically Romantic, harking back to the extended tonality of Mahler even in so late a work as the Sonatina No. 1 “Aus der Werkstatt eines Invaliden” (1943) for wind ensemble. Program Eleven – “Nostalgia and the Challenge of Modernity” – presents the sonatina alongside the lush Romantic harmonies of Il Tramonto (The Sunset, 1914) by Ottorino Respighi, as well as three of Sibelius’s works, including the Five Esquisses, Op. 114 (1929) – a very late keyboard piece and one of the last he would write.

A fourth and final orchestral concert – Program Twelve: “Silence and Influence” – closes the festival. Sibelius’s final published symphony was his No. 7 in C, Op. 105. Completed in 1924, the Seventh is notable for being composed in a single movement, owing to the concentration of its material. It is a commanding work, powerful in both form and instrumental color. Although Sibelius apparently worked on an eighth symphony in the three subsequent decades, no manuscript survives, and it was with this spiritually-questing work that he chose to close his symphonic cycle. He would still write, however, one final orchestral masterpiece, his last tone poem, Tapiola, Op. 112 (1926), which – although composed in Italy – portrays the terrifying spirit (Tapio) lying behind the stark Finnish pine-forests that enveloped his isolated home.

Sibelius’s impact is recognized as far-reaching and profound. Avant-garde composers from Morton Feldman to George Benjamin regularly cite him as a major influence. Yet even while Sibelius’s music was most directly under attack, in 1938 when Theodor Adorno notoriously charged that “if Sibelius is good, this invalidates the standards of musical quality that have persisted from Bach to Schoenberg,” already he was inspiring great new music from leading composers of the day. American Samuel Barber’s Symphony No. 1, Op. 9 (1936) is a condensed one-movement version of a classical four-movement symphony, and is modeled after Sibelius’s Seventh. Similarly, the great English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872–1958) dedicated his Symphony No. 5 in D (1938–43, rev. 1951) to Sibelius. The two admired each other’s work; Sibelius responded to the dedication with the comment that “Dr. Williams has no idea what pleasure he has given me,” and Vaughan Williams referred to the “pure water of Sibelius’s art.” Hearing this art alongside two of the first important works it helped engender makes a thrilling and fitting end to the Bard Music Festival’s 22nd season.

Program Eight, “From the Nordic Folk,” will be accompanied by a commentary from Daniel M. Grimley, author of Grieg: Music, Landscape, and Norwegian Identity (2006) and the scholar-in-residence for this year’s Bard Music Festival Two free panel discussions, entitled “Why Did He Fall Silent?: The Public and Private Sibelius” and “Sibelius and the 20th Century,” a free symposium moderated by Nina Stritzler-Levine on “Architecture, Design, and Finnish Identity,” and a special free screening of Finnish Short Films, including the American premiere of Luonnotar, will be supplemented by informative pre-concert talks before each performance that illuminate the concert’s themes and are free to ticket holders. As has become traditional, the first of these pre-concert talks will be given by Maestro Botstein himself, with further ones by Christopher Hailey, Glenda Dawn Goss, Jeffrey Kallberg, Marina Kostalevsky, Byron Adams, Veijo Murtomäki, Anne-Marie Reynolds, Richard Wilson, and Christopher H. Gibbs.

Since the founding of the Bard Music Festival with “Brahms and His World” in 1990, each year Princeton University Press has published a companion volume of new scholarship and interpretation, with essays, translations, and correspondence relating to the featured composer and his world. Daniel M. Grimley, professor of music at Oxford University, is editor of the 2011 volume, Jean Sibelius and His World.

The Wall Street Journal has observed that the Bard Music Festival “has long been one of the most intellectually stimulating of all American summer festivals and frequently is one of the most musically satisfying.” Reviewing a previous season of the festival, a critic for the New York Times reported, “As impressive as many of the festival performances were, they were matched by the audience’s engagement: strangers met and conversed, analyzing the music they’d heard with sophistication, and a Sunday-morning panel discussion of gender issues in 19th-century culture drew a nearly full house. All told, it was a model for an enlightened society.”

Special coach transportation: Round-trip coach transportation from Columbus Circle in New York City to Bard’s Fisher Center will be provided for Program Three on Saturday, August 13 and Program Ten on Saturday, August 20. To make a reservation on the round-trip coach provided exclusively to ticket holders for specific performances indicated by an asterisk in the calendar of events that follows, call the box office at 845-758-7900. The fare is $25 round-trip, and reservations are required. The coach departs from Columbus Circle four hours before scheduled curtain time to allow for dining in the Spiegeltent or a pre-performance visit to Bard’s Hessel Museum.

Bard’s delightful destination spot, the Spiegeltent, will be open for lunch and dinner throughout “Sibelius and His World,” and there will be special opening and closing parties in the tent on August 12 and 21 respectively.

Bard SummerScape Ticket Information

The Bard SummerScape Festival is made possible through the generous support of the Advisory Boards of the Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts and the Bard Music Festival, and the Friends of the Fisher Center.

Tickets for all Bard SummerScape events are now on sale.

For tickets and further information on all SummerScape events, call the Fisher Center box office at 845-758-7900 or visit

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