Jean Sibelius: Scene with Cranes


Jean Sibelius was born on 8th December 1865 in Hämeenlinna Finland. When he was ten years old, Sibelius was given a violin by his musical uncle, who soon became his musical tutor. Before studying music at university, Sibelius studied at the Imperial Alexander University, Finland. He soon transferred to the Helsinki Music Institute (now aptly named the Sibelius Academy), where he studied composition between 1885-1889. Further to this, Sibelius also studied in Berlin (1889-1890) and in Vienna (18901891), with Albert Becker and Robert Fuchs respectively.

Throughout his compositional career, Sibelius largely focused on orchestral music. His main influences were Anton Bruckner, Richard Wagner and Ludwig van Beethoven. Perhaps most well-known for his symphonies and tone poems, Sibelius is recognised for his unwavering Nationalism, that often translates into his music. Finlandia, a tone poem, is a celebrated work of the composer, with other works such a Kullervo, En saga, Karelia Suite and Tapiola also being popular in concert halls. 

In his old age, Sibelius was a supporter of the new generation of composers, such as Einojuhani Rautavaara, Dmitri Shostakovich, Béla Bartók and Richard Strauss. Two days before his death, it has been recorded that Sibelius:

“Was returning from his customary morning walk. Exhilarated, he told his wife Aino that he had seen a flock of cranes approaching. ‘There they come, the birds of my youth’, he exclaimed. Suddenly, one of the birds broke away from the formation and circled once above Ainola. It then rejoined the flock to continue its journey.”


The Music

Kuolema (“Death”) is a set of six works which were used as incidental music for a play by the same name written by Arvid  Järnefelt. The first performance was at Helskini’s National Theatre in December, 1903. Although revised under two opus numbers after the premiere, the six original movements were as follows:


Tempo di valse lente – Poco risoluto (Act I)

Moderato (Paavali’s Song – Act II)

Moderator assai – Moderato (Elsa’s Song – Act II)

Andante (The Cranes – Act II)

Moderato (Act III)

Andante ma non tanto (Act III)


In 1904, Sibelius revised No. 1 as Valse Triste, which is now one of his most well-known works. This was premiered in Helsinki on 25th April, 1904. In 1906, Sibelius then revised No. 3 and 4, under the title Scene with Cranes. This was premiered on 14th December, 1906. Although the sister work to Valse Triste, Scene with Cranes has stayed on the outskirts of Sibelius’ repertory.

Scene with Cranes is scored for string orchestra, timpani and a pair of Bb clarinets. Beginning with the first violins, who along with the rest of the string section, are muted, play out a gentle melody. There is a feeling of staticism, which is also enhanced by the aimlessness manner of this melody. There is no centre, or solid origin of the melody, making it just appear like it is floating in thin air. The lower strings enter shortly after with soft accompaniment, and the strings work as a unit to create a very effective and dynamic unit. At times, the orchestra go down to pp in dynamic, making it atmospheric, mysterious and slightly unnerving in places.

The clarinets, who represent the cranes, are actually only heard in eight bars of this work, but these bars are prominent, and usually lead to the next section of the piece. A series of sforzandos are heard, which the clarinets react to with six calls, which represent the cranes calling out.

The second section of the work is started by a trill in the upper strings. This then, after a short pause, leads us back to the watery, atmospheric initial string motif from the beginning of the scene. The way this melody is revisited resets the tone, after the more aggressive call outs from the cranes. The lower strings then take a more prominent role, bringing the dynamic up, leading to a quieter section. 

Soloists can then be heard in the cellos, violas and violins, which develop the main melodic theme. There is some sense of relief here, which makes the resolution of this work even more breathtaking. Scene With Cranes finishes with the strings slowly dying away after the small exchanges of solo lines. At this point, the timpanist also enters, for the two bars they are in, with a very soft ppp roll.


Final Thoughts

Although they are silent for a large part of this work, the clarinets are there to represent the cranes – the main piece in this musical puzzle. In mythology cranes are seen as symbolising freedom and eternal youth. It could then in fact be reasonably suggested that the cranes in this work represent the freedom that death can offer. Sibelius uses the clarinets not only to line them up with mythology, but also to highlight the music moving onto new sections after they have played. Certainly some food for thought!


Ⓒ Alex Burns

Happy Reading!

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