Jean Sibelius: Improvisation (Spring Song), Op. 16 (1894, original version)
‘Whatever Mr Sibelius may have imagined before about this musical creation... it now illustrates so perfectly those spring feelings and hopes that a better name than “Vårsång” [“Spring Song”] can hardly be given to this youthfully fair composition.’ (Nya Pressen, 18th April 1895)
For a concert in Vaasa on the west coast of Finland on 21st June 1894, Sibelius composed an Improvisation – a piece that is modest in scale but full of fresh, characterful melodies. As far as we know the piece has no literary programme. ‘The musical idea of the movement evolves to a gradually continuing crescendo, yet not dependent on the growing mass effect of tones, but on a wonderful inner heighten- ing’,wrote the reviewer of NyaPressenon 23rd June 1894. Nonetheless the work was overshadowed by another première: Korsholm, a grand, patriotic tone poem by Sibelius’s brother-in-law Armas Järnefelt.
The following year Sibelius reworked his piece and renamed it Vårsång (Spring Song), shortening it, simplifying it and restructuring its musical material. In its revised form it was played in Helsinki on 17th April 1895 and earned the description ‘the fairest flower among Sibelius’s orchestral pieces’ from the critic Oskar Merikanto. As Sibelius’s friend and patron Axel Carpelan later observed, the piece portrays ‘the slow, laborious arrival of the Nordic spring, and wistful melancholy’.
Some uncertainty surrounds the work’s history, in particular the number of versions. This confusion could probably have been avoided if the autograph score for the 1894 Improvisation had survived – but it is lost, although the orchestral parts have survived. The above- mentioned Nya Pressen review referred to ‘a conclusion in the rhythm of a Spanish dance with brisk flicks of tambourines’. Neither the Improvisation or the published Vårsång contains a tambourine part, however, and this has led commentators to assume that there must have been two revisions before publication. Research by Tuija Wicklund for the JSW critical edition has shown that the situation is far from clear-cut: the most likely scenario is that there was only one revision, and that the tambourine part has been mislaid.