The big tune

Posted on: 22 April 2020, by :

While we live with social distancing, when normal performances by orchestras, choirs, bands and other ensembles are not possible for several months at least, it’s worthwhile to remember the corporate music-making that is part of our culture and which, until recently, we took for granted. This is the first of some occasional posts on the theme of big tunes, big sounds.

Jean Sibelius’s Karelia Suite, composed in 1893, became a great favourite during the twentieth century, for concerts and radio broadcasts, because of its sheer exuberance (and perhaps because of its brevity, being shorter than most symphonies and concertos). This is music that tends to work every time, whether it is new to you or not, and whether you know much orchestral music or not, probably because the opening movement features a compelling tune that makes us want to hear it again and again.

As individuals we probably hear any instrumental music with different thoughts (and doubtless for different reasons) but in this case with something we share: it feels notably positive and uplifting. It doesn’t matter if you don’t know the first thing about Karelia or Sibelius or Finnish history and haven’t yet Googled: the music works anyway. It doesn’t matter if you don’t know what the music is about or if it had significant meanings in the 1890s: it works today anyway. This is big-tune music designed to sound big: the force of the orchestra carries us along. Watching the orchestra playing is part of the experience — it is strong visual spectacle — but, even as audio only, the music still works and fires the imagination. Those of us in the generation who grew up around the 1960s are likely to reminisce about radio-listening with programmes like Your Hundred Best Tunes and the concert-culture learned from our formative LP collections, but there’s much more to our reactions than nostalgia: the music works with renewed freshness today.

A live performance (early 2010s?) by the Radio Kamer Filharmonie (the Radio Chamber Orchestra of the Netherlands), conducted by Michael Sch√łnwandt, in the Royal Concertgebouw, Amsterdam. This fine orchestra had to disband in 2014 after its government funding was cut.

Sibelius was evidently well aware, even at an early stage in his career, of the compelling pull of the big tune and how to engineer it. The third movement, a march beginning at 11:55 minutes into this video, has two similarly uplifting big tunes of its own. The middle movement in the sandwich (from 4:00 minutes in), being slow, presents melodies in a different way. To make up the Karelia Suite, and to make it work well in a concert setting in Helsinki and for publication, Sibelius adapted what we might call ‘the best bits’ from some incidental music concerning Karelia that he had written earlier in 1893. This consists mostly of brief orchestral tableaux evoking scenes from Finnish history of the 14th-19th centuries, from which we may find clues, if we really want them, to the supposed meaning of each movement of the Suite. The main point is that Sibelius was happy, having married in the previous year and honeymooned in Karelia, and politically inspired: he filled his Karelia music with positive references that upheld the resurgence of Finnish national culture, then under growing threat from Russian control (Finland was until 1917 a principality within the Russian Empire). That hardly matters now, over 120 years later, since the Suite stands up well on its own terms, without explanations. Its exuberance continues to cut through history, geography and circumstance.