Jean Sibelius: Andante Festivo
Originally scored for string quartet in 1922, Sibelius’ poignant work Andante Festivo is also known for its re-orchestration for string orchestra and timpani. For the purposes of references in this blog, I will be referring to the original string quartet version. Although now fondly remembered and respected for his orchestral music, Sibelius also composed many works for chamber groups, especially in his youth. The ideals and artistry of chamber music was often frowned upon by his tutor Martin Wegelius, and so Sibelius ended up keeping a lot of this music secret. Although Sibelius was very keen on chamber music in his youth, after around 1891, he began to completely neglect the genre, and only made some exceptions (for example his String Quartet in D minor ‘Voces intimae’ – composed in 1909).
During the run up to Christmas 1922, Walter Parvianien commissioned Sibelius to compose a festive cantata for the 25 year celebration of the Säynästsalo sawmills. Instead of the larger scale work that was requested, Sibelius decided to work with a small ensemble, and soon settled with a string quartet. It has been suggested that the sketches that Andante Festivo is based on came from some very early sketches for an oratorio.
Although the original string quartet version exhibits some unparalleled beauty in Sibelius’ writing, the composer was not satisfied enough with the outcome. He wanted more richness and majesty to seep through the glorious melodies in the work. In 1929, the composer’s niece, Riittaa Sibelius, got married, and requested Andante Festivo to be performed at the ceremony. Sibelius chose to use two string quartets combined to add some extra layers into the work. It was from here that the composer began taking the steps to produce a new version of the work. By the mid-1930s Sibelius had re-orchestrated the work for a full string orchestra and timpani.
In 1939, Sibelius conducted his new version of the work for a full string orchestra and timpani, which became the only recording of Sibelius as a conductor. The work stayed to close to the composer’s heart, and was played, in its original form, at his funeral in 1957.
Beginning with the upper strings playing the first, very delicate, theme the cello enters in its upper register, which creates a glorious atmosphere from the start. Whilst the upper strings are in unison in terms of their movement, the cello offers an answer to the melody, creating a very intimate line of communication between the instruments.
There is an emphasis on long chords here, with the slow melodic movement eventually ending up on a long held chord played by everyone. The idea that each instrument moves in the hopes of uniting again creates even more of a heart-wrenching atmosphere when they finally do come together. The nuanced chromatic shifts also support this idea, with the resolutions portraying a sense of relief for the instruments.
After a small silent pause, the opening is repeated once more to reinstate the chief melodic material. The music then starts to be developed, with the upper strings moving up even higher in their register, and the cello starting to play some of its lower notes. This is then developed over the work.
The dynamic contrasts Sibelius has written throughout this work is a large reason as to why it is so effective. Just as the instruments start to grow in dynamic, when it then repeats a statement it is a lot quieter, highlighting the shift in atmosphere between sections. These shifts of dynamics get more intense each time, with the final climax coming near the end of the work where the ensemble hit a very controlled forte, and then repeat the melody at a quaint piano.
The music begins to wrap up at the end of Andante Festivo, offering a snapshot of the melody, which remains largely unchanged throughout the whole work. The chain of suspensions that Sibelius uses here creates a rich texture and hones in on the idea of bringing all of the instruments together for a majestic end to this incredibly moving work. The top violin pushes the final resolution through and the lower instruments then end the work with a poignant ‘amen’ chord.
Now known for his large symphonic works such as Finlandia and his symphonies, it’s pertinent to highlight some of his smaller works, which show that some of his biggest and most incredible musical ideas had the smallest of beginnings.
Both versions of Andante Festivo are brilliant at conveying the atmosphere that Sibelius was heading for at this time. It’s slow tempo, changes in dynamics and constant reassurance of the melody makes this one of his most memorable works.