Sibelius on the Piano

The piano seems like such an integral part of every classical composer’s output, if not as a vehicle for masterworks, then as a platform for experimentation.  And we may take it for granted sometimes, but it is truly the ultimate musical tool.  Not only can it sound multiple, simultaneous pitches (something that is difficult or even impossible on other instruments), it also provides a very natural interface for its operator. Forget embouchures or slide or bowing positions; as a pianist, you sit before a neatly arranged array of keys, each corresponding to one of the eighty-eight pitches you care most about.

Jean Sibelius
This photo of Sibelius makes me happy

But not everyone particularly cared for the piano, it seems.  Despite having written a few character pieces for it, Jean Sibelius will go on record as one of those composers who may have employed it entirely out of convenience.

I dislike the piano: it is an unsatisfactory, ungrateful instrument, an instrument for which only one composer, Chopin, has succeeded in writing perfectly, and of which only two others, Debussy and Schumann, have had an intimate understanding.

I always feel that statements as pointed and cold as this need to be taken with a grain of salt; could someone really harbor so much resentment about one of the most versatile musical instruments of them all?  In fact, maybe so.  The man is remembered for his accomplishments in genres without piano.  Seven grand symphonies.  Fervently nationalistic tone poems.  A violin concerto with one of the most haunting opening melodies I’ve ever heard.

At least we get a sense from this statement that Sibelius believed the piano to have merits within reach of the talents of other composers.  I think most people would cite Chopin as the composer who excelled most in the domain of the 88; it’s comforting to know that Sibelius, a man who didn’t even like the instrument, was sympathetic to this belief as well.

Source: Goulding, Phil. Classical Music: The 50 Greatest Composers and Their 1000 Greatest Works. Random House.

8 thoughts on “Sibelius on the Piano”

  1. err i take that back…i wonder if he would like that many of his pieces are sometimes played ON the piano — double :P

  2. gee, i want to delete the above comments, and write instead: gee, i just realized that Sibelius was probably more in tune with himself and HONEST perhaps. Perhaps he realized that no one is REALLY a jack of all trades and that the capacity to be a paragon of something is more viable—because everyone has a particular magnetism to something. I wish I could find that clarity in myself so that I could still compose/write/create something and know that I was using my energies appropriately…sigh.

  3. He had already done brilliantly without loving the piano, I can’t begin to fathom what more memorable pieces he’d leave us if he had felt otherwise. I just listened to his 6th symphony again earlier, pure and simple, a carriage ride through the Scandinavian forest feels fitting…

  4. @Pika: I hate how these are things we’ll never know. But it’s possible he just flat out didn’t like the piano. For whatever reason, I’m partial to the idea that composers of that generation weren’t consciously thinking about mastering any particular genre; rather than think about their strengths, they would just do, and their strengths would be self-evident.

    Let me know if you find that clarity. :)

    @dearestjean: It’s true; let us be thankful he invested as much time in symphonic forms as he did.

  5. hehe, when I first read this entry, I was actually thinking of Sibelius’ impromptu and valse triste, and whatnot, but then i had this flashback of being in highschool and sitting in on an orchestra rehearsal of the sibelius second symphony (I took lessons from the cellist in the orchestra)
    and fell in love with the piece. (The conductor was drunk i think hehe)
    anyhow, so i did a youtube search and found this:
    but the final is parsed into 3.
    so beautiful…

  6. Despite Finlandia, I never fully comprehended Sibelius’s nationalism until I heard the finale of that symphony. In a review of it in 1940, Virgil Thomson wrote that it was “vulgar, self-indulgent and provincial beyond description.” Words, words.

    Hah, a drunk conductor. That could either turn out really well or really, really badly.

  7. i dunno if the concert itself went badly, but at least, the “bubbly” made for a great rehearsal–hehe

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