Jean Sibelius: Bagatelles (op. 97)

(i) Humoresque I
(ii) Song
(iii) Little Waltz
(iv) Humorous March
(v) Impromptu

“Never write an unnecessary note. Every note must live”.1
— Sibelius

The miniature is the perfect genre to master this philosophy. Sibelius wrote the Opus 97 Bagatelles in 1920, in between his Fifth and Sixth Symphonies. The quirky nature of these Bagatelles reveal certain aspects of Sibelius’ personality. Karl Flodin described him in 1919:

There was something peculiarly fascinating about his slender figure. It was as if his straightforward nature always wanted to meet one with open arms. But you were never sure whether there was not, after all, some mockery behind it. His speech overflowed with paradoxes and metaphors, without allowing you to realise what was serious and what only played on the surface like bubbles born of odd caprices in his quick brain.2

As for the “Little Waltz”, Anna Söderhjelm described an encounter with a 24 year old Sibelius:

As for dancing, he did not dance himself because he was a “sick patient,” so he played for others to waltz, only you couldn’t really dance to his music. It started in good time, but soon began to go into roulades and runs.3

The fifth Bagatelle though, is better represented by Sibelius’ comment in 1919 that:

If I could express the same thing with words as with music, I would, of course, use a verbal expression. Music is something autonomous and much richer. Music begins where the possibilities of language end. That is why I write music.4

(1) Radio interview with Kalevi Kilpi, 1948. Cited at: Jean Sibelius: In His Own Words., accessed 2 June 2016.

(2) Karl Flodin. Cited in Karl Ekman Jr, Jean Sibelius: His Life and Personality.Translated by Edward Birse. London: Alan Wilmer, 1936, p.39.  Glenda Dawn Goss. Sibelius: A Composer’s Life and the Awakening of Finland. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009.

(3) Glenda Dawn Goss. Sibelius, op. cit., p.93

(4) Interview with Berlingske Tidende, 10th June 1919. Cited at: Jean Sibelius: In His Own Words., accessed 2 June 2016.

© Greg Smith, 2012