Saturday, 19 September 2015

Tom Hammond on Sibelius and The Tempest

Conductor Tom Hammond writes about his performance with the Hertford Symphony Orchestra next May. They will perform Sibelius’s little-known music for Shakespeare’s The Tempest.

In 1925, following the composition of his monumental Symphony No.7 and at around the same period as Tapiola, the soon to be sixty year old Jean Sibelius was asked to compose incidental music for a production of Shakespeare's The Tempest, to be produced in Copenhagen. These works would prove to be his final major utterances before his compositional voice fell silent, until his death some thirty years later.

The Tempest is not well known, even amongst Sibelius lovers. Why? Well, nobody puts large orchestras in theatres any more, sadly. Also, the vocal music in his Tempest was in Danish, with a Finnish translation done soon afterwards; hardly helpful for the European / American audience, then or now.

Two orchestral Suites were produced by Sibelius soon afterwards, and occasionally these are heard in concert halls. In the UK, however, we have only heard the original incidental music twice before; once at the Proms in 2007 once with the Ulster Orchestra in 2014.

Next May, I will have the privilege of conducting some of this music with the Hertford Symphony Orchestra, with extracts of the Shakespearean text to be given by renowned actor Peter Hamilton Dyer. More details can be found HERE.

I find this music utterly stunning. It somehow captures the very essence of the play: not only the onomatopoeia of the opening storm sequence, but the other-worldly music for Ariel, Prospero, Miranda and Caliban.

For lovers of Sibelius, the great surprise may be that - with the exception of the storm - the music is incredibly 'simple': rhythms are straightforward, phrase-lengths symmetrical, harmonies often Classical. Melodies abound and stay with you - I can't get this music out of my head! Considering the musical complexity and psychological depth of Symphony 7 and Tapiola, for me it only adds to Sibelius' unique genius that he could conceive of something so uncomplicated, yet so effective.

If I can draw on just one movement to exemplify, it would be The Oak Tree: Ariel plays the flute. Scored in the original theatre score for just violins, harmonium, harp and solo flute, the music uses simple harmonies repeated under the solo flute, brilliantly capturing the image of Ariel being locked by Prospero into an oak tree for twelve years. The strings and harmonium seem to breathe in and out, whilst the flute intones a lonely, ancient lament. I can also 'hear' the weather on the island, wind and rain....

It's high-time we heard this wonderful score more often which is such immediate music that will strike the listener, whether a Sibelius nut like me, or if you've never heard a note of his in your life.

Visit Tom's new website HERE

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