Sibelius’ The Tempest

Program Notes

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Jean Sibelius

The Tempest, Op. 109

Work composed: 1925–26
First Oregon Symphony performance
Instrumentation: five solo singers, 6 actors, SATB chorus, 3 flutes (2 doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, 3 clarinets (1 doubling bass clarinet), 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, castanets, cymbals, glockenspiel, military drum, snare drum, tambourine, triangle, harmonium, harp, and strings
Estimated duration: 130 minutes

In 1901, Axel Carpelan wrote to his friend Jean Sibelius, “Now look here Mr. S., shouldn’t you someday direct your interest to the dramas of Shakespeare … The Tempest should be very appropriate for you: Prospero (magician), Miranda, spirits of the earth and air etc.” At the time, Sibelius was busy with other projects, but Carpelan’s suggestion lingered in the composer’s mind. In the spring of 1925, Sibelius’ Danish publisher Wilhelm Hansen inquired, “Have you written any music to The Tempest?” Hansen told Sibelius of the Royal Theatre of Copenhagen’s upcoming production of Shakespeare’s play, and mentioned that producer Johannes Poulsen, who was familiar with Sibelius’ theatre music, had requested a score from Finland’s greatest composer. Sibelius accepted and completed the commission; his Opus 109 contains 34 distinct sections of varying length, totaling just over an hour of music.

William Shakespeare wrote The Tempest just two years before his death in 1613. The Tempest, along with Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale, and Pericles, characterize a new type of Elizabethan play: the romance, or tragicomedy. Magic, romantic entanglements, fantastical journeys, jealousy, and loss drive the action of a typical tragicomedy. With The Tempest featuring such a wide array of creative story elements to work with, and the promise of a larger-than-usual orchestra and a resident chorus at the Royal Theatre, Sibelius had a wealth of resources from which to craft a musically rich narrative.

After The Tempest, Sibelius’ final theatrical score, he composed Tapiola, an orchestral tone poem that turned out to be his last completed work. After Tapiola’s premiere, in late December 1926, Sibelius largely retreated from public life. He continued writing music, but his age, failing health, alcoholism, and impossibly high standards of self-perfection prevented him from finishing anything. Aino, Sibelius’ wife, recalled, “In the 1940s there was a great auto-da-fé at Ainola [the Sibelius’ country home]. My husband collected a number of the manuscripts in a laundry basket and burned them on the open fire in the dining room … I did not have the strength to be present and left the room...” In this context, The Tempest is a valediction, a leave-taking, although neither its composer nor his audience knew it at the time. Sibelius hints at this musical subtext, particularly in the music he wrote for Prospero, which occasionally verges on the elegiac.

Sibelius’ opening Overture depicts a shipwreck in a maelstrom, “one of the most effective and terrifying ‘storms’ in all music,” according to biographer Robert Layton. “… Ralph Wood aptly called it ‘the most thoroughly onomatopoetic stretch of music ever written.’ This is no overstatement: the surging seas, strange distant lights and howling gusts of wind (percussion, horns) make an almost physical impact. It is a piece of the utmost virtuosity, and as sheer tone-painting is extraordinarily powerful.”

Several other distinct sections stand out. The Oak Tree presents an ethereal portrait of the spirit Ariel, who yearns to be released from servitude to the magician Prospero. A haunting solo flute meanders through a doleful melody accompanied by harp arpeggios, like a caged bird dreaming of freedom. The full orchestra introduces the “monster” Caliban, a hideous creature also forced to do Prospero’s bidding. Caliban’s music begins with a forceful and unpredictably lopsided string theme followed by an odd wind countermelody. Sibelius also signals Caliban’s “otherness” through the use of “exotic” percussion instruments: triangle, xylophone, cymbals, and bass drum. Miranda’s Interlude, a short lilting string melody, reveals a sheltered young woman, innocent to the workings of the world, who has grown up under her father’s close supervision. Prospero’s Interlude, a chorale for strings, has an air of nostalgia. Prospero promises to both relinquish his magic powers and set Ariel free, once Prospero, with Ariel’s help, has brought about the marriage of Miranda and young Ferdinand.

Ariel sings several songs (“Full Fathom Five,” “Come Unto These Yellow Sands,” “While You Here Do Snoring Lie,” “Before You Can Say ‘Come’ and ‘Go,’” and “Where the Bee Sucks”). In Sibelius’ music, the orchestral interludes introducing the main characters also have a song-like quality, with their clear thematic framework. In our production, the singer/actors will use English for their spoken dialogue and songs.

Poulsen’s and Sibelius’ The Tempest premiered on March 15, 1926, at the Royal Theatre in Copenhagen to warm reviews. Sibelius’ music earned particular notice and praise. One critic observed, “Shakespeare and Sibelius, those two geniuses, have found each other.”

Mary Birnbaum, who made her Oregon Symphony debut with her 2016 production of Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle, returns to direct The Tempest. “I was so excited to sink my teeth into the task of combining the dramaturgy of the Shakespeare with Sibelius’ music, which is only one hour,” Birnbaum said in a recent interview. “We’re doing all of Sibelius’ music, but I’ve reduced the number of characters; some very minor characters get cut. However, everybody will understand the story; we haven’t eliminated any of the story elements. It’s a streamlined production.”

Birnbaum noted that Sibelius’ Tempest music has action embedded within it. “All the music is character driven,” she explained. In some scenes, the music moves the narrative forward without dialogue. “For example, in most productions, the wedding procession with Juno and Ceres and Iris is usually staged as a big pageant. Ours will just feature the music, and some action happens through movement rather than words. It’s a spare production, but it will feel like a full-hall event, like we’re on the island with the characters. Because the piece is really about the reveal of Prospero’s art, i.e., that it’s all artifice, there will be wonderful visual moments.”

The Tempest is often staged as a post-colonial narrative, an interpretation Birnbaum will incorporate into her production. “We’re in a time of burgeoning ‘wokeness’ about immigration and indigenous land rights, and we’re starting to be more conscious of infringement [on others], past the boundaries of what we own. Those ideas are going to figure heavily in what we do.”


© 2019 Elizabeth Schwartz

Elizabeth Schwartz is a free-lance writer, musician, and music historian based in Portland. In addition to annotating programs for the Oregon Symphony, Chamber Music Northwest, and other arts organizations around country, she has contributed to the nationally syndicated radio program “Performance Today,” produced by American Public Media.