On 20th September 2007 (yes, the 50th anniversary itself!) the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra under Sakari Oramo, with Martti Rousi, cello, are giving the UK première of what they call Three Symphonic Pieces for cello and orchestra by Sibelius.
I don't know what these cello pieces are - but it is 100% certain that they are transcriptions, as the only original works are the two Op. 77 pieces and they have definitely been played in the UK before. I have a nasty suspicion that one of them is Malinconia, which doesn't strike me as remotely suitable for orchestral treatment.
But Sibelius could indeed have written a fantastic cello concerto - and almost did. Admittedly the plans date from rather early in his life and we'll never know how good a cellist Christian was (quite passable, I expect). Folke Gräsbeck has even speculated that three pieces - all in B minor - might be fragments of this lost 'concerto' - and although there isn't any hard evidence for this, one (exceedingly beautiful) theme does occur in two of them. Below is an extract from an article he wrote last year:
A Lost Cello Concerto’s Cantilena
Jean Sibelius wrote to his uncle Pehr on 31st March 1888: ‘Yesterday I finished the first movement of a cello concerto for Kitti (à mon frère). Kitti seems to think there are too few technical bravura passages and difficulties, but in my opinion they sound abominable on the cello whose strong point is precisely its cantilena. By the way, it will be in the [Charles de] Bériot manér’. Kitti was the composer’s cello-playing brother Christian Sibelius (1869-1922).
In 1982 the Sibelius family donated a surprisingly extensive manuscript collection to Helsinki University, including a large amount of material from the composer’s early period – roughly 1881-1891. Admittedly no piece was found with the title ‘cello concerto’, but might parts of it nevertheless have survived? At any rate we have three fragments in B minor for cello and piano. Having found that the [Andantino in B minor], JS 92 (1888-89) and the Andante molto in B minor (1888-89) share a common cantabile major-key melody, I would venture to suggest that all three of these fragments in B minor might have originally been parts of the same work, a lost cello concerto.
The [Andante] in B minor, JS 91 (1888), may be the earliest of these three fragments, an idea supported by the paper type, handwriting and musical style. [Work names in square brackets are my own ‘working titles’ in accordance with the character of the music and with the composer’s own practice in pieces of a similar nature.] The cello part is preserved in its entirety, but the first part of the piano part is lost. In the version played in today’s concert, however, nothing has been added. The piano’s rapid triplet chords have correspondences in two works from the summer of 1888: the Piano Trio in C major, ‘Lovisa’, JS 208 and the Suite in E major for violin and piano, JS 188. In the ‘Lovisa’ Trio, Sibelius followed the models of sonata and rondo form strictly, but the Suite in E major is a more freely laid out four-movement violin fantasy, perhaps partly in the style of Bériot.
The fragmentary [Andantino] in B minor, JS 92 (1888-89), has lyrical, songful melodies that might bring to mind similar writing in Schumann’s Cello Concerto, although the character of the Andantino has an almost Schubertian warmth. Did Sibelius have the sequence of chords in the first bars in mind when he wrote something similar in the movement Ylistyshymni (Hymn) that he added to his Masonic Ritual Music? Veljesvirsi (Ode to Fraternity), Op. 113 No. 8, and Ylistyshymni, Op. 113 No. 9 (1946) are, according to current estimation, Sibelius’s very last original compositions.
Unfortunately the Andante molto in B minor (1888-89) breaks off in medias res. Does this indicate that Sibelius paid heed to Christian’s opinion that the work contained too few technical bravura passages and difficulties? In this third fragment the quick triplets in the cello part are in no small measure suggestive of a projected concerto. As early as 1884, in the Piano Trio in A minor, JS 206, Sibelius wrote extensive triplet passages, and the composer used this device liberally throughout almost all of his œuvre. In 1885 Sibelius was still diligently practising the violin, playing for example the études by Jacques-Féréol Mazas, many of which are based wholly on triplets. The rhythmic and intervallic structure of one of the themes in the Andante molto is reminiscent of See, the conqu’ring hero comes from Handel’s oratorio Judas Maccabaeus, and it is conceivable that this is a consciously humorous gesture: cellists like to play Beethoven’s Variations in G major on ‘See, the conqu’ring hero comes’, WoO 45, which is of course based on this theme; it is very likely that Christian had practised Beethoven’s piece.
The previous year Christian had received a very difficult piece from his brother, the [Theme and Variations] in D minor for solo cello, JS 196 (1887) [title supplied by Kari Kilpeläinen and Fabian Dahlström], probably the first piece for solo cello in the history of Finnish music. Admittedly the B minor fragments do not reach the same creative level in terms of cello style. Christian was thus aware that his brother was indeed fully capable of writing in the bravura style when necessary.
How good a cellist was Christian Sibelius? We have frustratingly little information about his cello studies, especially about their early stages. Nonetheless, by 1884 at the latest he must have been a reasonably accomplished player, as the Sibelius wrote to his uncle Pehr on 24th February of that year: ‘Kitti is playing diligently and has made good progress’. Especially the years 1885-89 seem to have been very active in terms of chamber music playing within the family circle. With friends and sometimes with their sister Linda as pianist, the two brothers played a wide range of chamber music – piano trios and piano quartets – and selected works were performed at student concerts at the Helsinki Music Institute (now the Sibelius Academy). With hindsight, the relationship between the brothers seems to have been astonishingly, even improbably positive. Could it really have been so flawless? We can only imagine Janne’s reaction when Christian passed away in 1922. Let us consult Sibelius’s recently published diaries, and read the entry from 3rd May 1922: ‘Kitti’s doctor told me today that his – Kitti’s – illness is incurable… It is impossible to say what this will mean for me. Again I stand on the threshold of an unavoidable fate.’ On 12th November 1922 he wrote: ‘I am mourning Kitti and am finding it hard to compose, i.e. hard to concentrate’.