Saturday, November 16, 2013

Sibelius and The Tempest

As noted in an earlier post, Shakespeare's plays seem to have had an endless capacity to inspire composers since their authorship.  Another well-known example of this relationship is Jean Sibelius' incidental music to The Tempest.  The Tempest is one of Shakespeare's last plays.  It is a tragicomedy (originally titled a comedy) set on a fantastical island where the magician Prospero, along with a loyal spirit, Ariel, and his daughter, Miranda, have been stranded by his brother Antonio.  Seeing that Antonio is near the island, Prospero summons a storm to wreck their ship against the island.  He then eventually brings all of the characters to his home on the island, forgives Antonio, frees Ariel, and buries his magical staff.  Somewhat like Hamlet, The Tempest frequently breaks the third wall as Prospero comments on how he uses illusion to control the other actors; Prospero's forsaking magic is often viewed as representing Shakespeare's retirement, since The Tempest is thought to be his last play.

Jean Sibelius (1865-1957) was a Finnish nationalist composer.  He is best known for his symphonic poem Finlandia.  He was initially strongly influenced by Wagnerian nationalism, but he eventually decided it was too brash and arrogant; his music tends toward the more emotional style of Tchaikovsky.  Like Rachmaninoff, he was often criticized for being too conservative in his compositional style, which remained firmly tonal and Romantic while his increasingly modernist peers were experimenting with atonality (writing in no particular key) and other avant-garde techniques.  He supposedly commented that while the Modernists were mixing elaborate cocktails, he served the public plain water.  His incidental music to The Tempest was written at the end of his career, in 1926, after which he effectively retired from composing except for some abortive attempts to write an eighth symphony.  Like Mendelssohn's Midsummer Night's Dream, it consists of a series of vocal pieces and long orchestral interludes:

I think that despite the radically different period and style, Sibelius' piece actually bears a lot of resemblance to Mendelssohn's.  Both chose a comedy set in a fantastic realm, although The Tempest is rather more ambiguous, complicated, and occasionally dark.  I think the biggest difference from the Mendelssohn, except for the instrumentation and other differences that inevitably occur in two pieces a century apart, is the tone of mystery and sometimes of weariness throughout the Sibelius--both pieces evoke energy and magic, but Sibelius's takes a darker turn.

No comments: