“Incidental music,” by which we mean music written to accompany the action of spoken drama in the theater, was the precursor to today’s film scores. Some of the most beloved classics in the orchestral repertoire originated as music written for plays: Grieg’s Peer Gynt, for example, or Bizet’s L’Arlesiènne. By the end of the nineteenth century, many theaters had regular orchestras of substantial size. They played overtures and interludes, accompanied the songs and dances written into the plot, and also provided underscoring to spoken dialogue (known as “melodrama,” which means literally “music with speech”). Composers, never ones to waste good tunes, would rescue the best bits of a score from the often lousy plays that the music originally accompanied and fashion suites for concert performance.
Of all the composers who specialized in writing this kind of music, none wrote so much, of such high quality, as Jean Sibelius. Some of his most famous pieces, including the Valse triste and Finlandia, originated in theatrical music. The Valse triste comes from a play aptly entitled Death (Kuolema in Finnish), for which Sibelius provided several other numbers as well, including the lovely “Scene with Cranes.” Finlandia, in its original version, formed the finale of “Press Celebrations Music,” a political and cultural event celebrating Finnish history that culminated in a tribute to industrialization and the opening of the first Finnish railroad. Sibelius salvaged much of the remaining music written for the occasion in the form of the Scènes historiques Suite No. 1.
But, for a composer as popular as Sibelius, a great deal of his theatrical music is hardly known today, and certainly very seldom played on concert programs. There are many reasons for this: the expectation that orchestras will focus on big, serious pieces like symphonies and concertos and save lighter fare for “pops” concerts, and also the fact that many of these works are scored for unusual or reduced forces by modern standards. What this means is that some of his best and most appealing music seems to be at risk of dropping out of the repertoire at a time when the musical world just celebrated, in 2007, the fiftieth anniversary of Sibelius’s death.
Fortunately, most of this music still enjoys a good measure of popularity on recordings. Volume 5 of BIS Records’ Sibelius Complete Edition offers all of his theatrical music in one convenient box, both in the more familiar suites and in its original format. For most listeners, the suites certainly remain the best way to get to know the music. Sibelius was extremely adept at finding the best bits and arranging them in an effective order. Additionally, many of the suites include orchestral transcriptions of songs and other vocal pieces that, unless you want to hear singing in Swedish or Finnish, probably won’t hold a great deal of immediate appeal to English-speaking listeners.
On the other hand, there are some scores that work very well in their original form, particularly Sibelius’ last, largest and greatest theatrical piece, his music for Shakespeare’s The Tempest, written for a production in Copenhagen in 1926. This was arranged brilliantly into two suites, the first for large orchestra, the second for smaller orchestra, and the overture can also be played independently. But there’s a lot to be said for hearing all of the music in its original order. It’s so rich in color and invention that even the tiniest fragments have something to offer, and if you really like the piece it’s great fun to compare the two versions in terms of how Sibelius arranges the various songs for orchestra alone.
In all of Sibelius’ works there’s really only one theatrical piece that is relatively disappointing: his dance-pantomime Scaramouche. When Sibelius agreed to write it, he had no idea what he was getting into, and soon found himself committed to composing about seventy minutes of music for small ensemble (piano, strings, a small group of winds and percussion) to a scenario that made little sense in the 1920s and makes even less now: it features a group of bored aristocrats, an ugly but oddly hypnotic viola-playing hunchbacked dwarf (Scaramouche), and a desperately repressed heroine who dumps her husband to run off with him and, after he supposedly “has his way” with her, murders him. Then she drops dead and her husband goes mad, for no particular reason.
There are some good stretches of dance music here, and the piece was quite successful at its premiere, but the fact that Sibelius never bothered to make a suite out of it basically tells us all we need to know. So let’s spend a few minutes discussing some of Sibelius’s other great theatrical scores, the really good stuff that ought to be played in concert a lot more frequently, but which you can, happily, enjoy at home.