Valse triste : Work information

Jean (Julius Christian) Sibelius ( Music, Images,)
Performed by
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Ole Schmidt (Conductor)

This work

Work name
Valse triste
Work number
Op. 44 No. 1
1904-00-00 02:00:00

This recording

Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Oliver Davis
Dick Lewzey
Recording date

Track listing

  • 4:58 min


Valse triste was adapted from music Sibelius wrote for a play called Kuolema (Death) by his brother-in-law Arvid Jarnefelt. Written in 1903, this 'Sad Waltz' was re-orchestrated in 1904 and is the only portion of the incidental music to retain a firm place in the repertoire. Sibelius foolishly sold all the rights of Valse triste to the publishers Breitkopf & Hartel for a mere 300 marks; they made a fortune from the work while Sibelius struggled with debt.

The music accompanies a dream sequence in the play in which the prinicipal character's mother is on her death-bed. She falls asleep and dreams that her departed husband has returned. Still dreaming, she initiates a dance with a stranger, believing him to be her husband. The stranger is revealed as Death himself, come to take her away.

Starting with pizzicati bass notes, the haunting waltz tune is soon heard. Despite other cheerier waltz tunes appearing, this sad initial theme returns periodically, a wistful reminiscence of past life. The music builds to a whirling apotheosis and a climactic moment of silence, before the work fades away.

The Composers

Jean (Julius Christian) Sibelius

Sibelius (1865-1957) learned about and loved music and nature from an early age, and he grew to be an exceptional player of the violin he had been given on his fifteenth birthday.  His family didn't approve of his desire for a career in music and composition though, and enrolled him in Helsinki University to study law.  He also enrolled in the Helsinki Academy of Music, and with the later encouragement of an uncle moved over to it full time, composing a String Trio in A major and a String Quartet in A minor among others.  He went on to study in Berlin and Vienna, but on his return to Finland, the country's nationalism (prompted by fears of its Soviet-controlled future) sparked an urge in Sibelius to use his music to express Finnish identity. 

The Kaleva, a Finnish epic, inspired many of Sibelius' works.  The first to bring him fame was a five-movement symphonic poem Kullervo (1892), followed by En Saga, the Karelia Suite, and his most well-known work, Finlandia.  This last was banned by the Russian authorities because of its morale-boosting effect on the population.  His First Symphony in E minor is a romantic work (owing a lot to Tchaikovsky), but the Second Symphony in D minor is more characteristic of Sibelius' technique of constructing movements from small 'cells' which expand and transform.

The tone poem Tapiola marked the end of Sibelius' composing career in 1926, though he lived until 1957.  In his seven symphonies, orchestral, choral and chamber music, the Finnish country and native folk songs inspire a majestic and richly harmonic expression of proud national identity.  Some of Sibelius' works also seem to portray a feeling of animosity, directed at the Russian dominance and restriction of his country. 

Related composers: Tchaikovsky