The Piano Music of Jean Sibelius

Until fairly recently, the critical reception for the piano music of Jean Sibelius (1865 – 1957) has largely been dismissive and scornful. Tim Page writing in the New York Times in 1987 summed up the feelings of many when he described the music as “…for the most part, shockingly bad. And not the sort of ‘so-bad-it’s-great’ that brings us pleasure … uninteresting, conventional, late romantic intermezzo pieces without character or individuality”.  More recently, the biographer Guy Rickards said of the non-orchestral works that Sibelius was the perpetrator of “light-music potboilers of embarrassing vacuity”.

Sibelius himself seemed to confirm the reservations about his piano works. On one occasion he told the influential music producer Walter Legge “I do not care for the piano ­ – it is an unsatisfying, ungrateful instrument, which only one composer, Chopin has fully succeeded in mastering and two others, Debussy and Schumann, have come on intimate terms”. To a friend he said “… as a matter of fact the piano does not interest me; it cannot sing”.

But are the piano pieces as bad as the critics would have you believe, after all there are rather a lot of them – around 200 pieces if you include those with violin and/or cello?  Or is it simply (as Max Beerbohm once quipped) that “For people who like that kind of thing, that is the kind of thing that they like”?

Sibelius’s towering reputation rests with his undoubted mastery of orchestral forms. Lionised by audiences, particularly in England and the US, he broke new ground with his often austere, brooding and intense seven symphonies. His tone poems, many based on Finnish legends, proved equally popular, from the Lemminkäinen Suite of 1896 (with its haunting The Swan of Tuonela), the patriotic Finlandia (1899), The Oceanides (1913 – 1914) to his last major orchestral work, Tapiola (1926). The lyrical Karelia Suite (1893) and the short Valse Triste (1903) are among his most popular earlier pieces and the gripping Violin Concerto (1903) has become a regular feature on concert programmes, in spite of the lukewarm reception at its premiere.

Sibelius wrote piano music throughout his career, as he put it “I write piano pieces in my free moments”, presumably when not writing larger-scale orchestral works. To his daughter he said that he wrote piano music so that she might have “butter on her bread too”. This admission irked many critics – that the great Sibelius should write music to make money and, worse still, cash in on the popularity of shorter piano pieces for home consumption. Heaven forbid!

The Six Impromptus op. 5 from 1893 were written around the same time as his Karelia Suite. These charming pieces were inspired by melodies and dances from Eastern Finland played on the harppu or kantele, a traditional Finnish zither. Particularly effective is the shimmering fifth impromptu, at times reminiscent of Liszt. The critics were however unimpressed, dismissing the pieces as ‘unpianistic’.

Sibelius’s only piano sonata, the Piano Sonata in F major, op 12 (1893) was written off by critics as being a mere piano transcription of an orchestral work but pianists thought otherwise, Glenn Gould being a noted advocate for this exuberant work.

Among his most popular piano pieces, the 10 Pieces for Piano op. 24 (1894 – 1903) show Sibelius at his most defiant and unashamedly romantic. The famous Romance in D-flat is beloved of amateur pianists, although it has a tricky Lisztian cadenza which is difficult to execute convincingly (if at all!).

It was during the construction of his home Ainola (where he would spend the rest of his long life) that Sibelius wrote the three lyrical pieces Kyllikki op. 41 (1904). After his earlier piano sonata, it’s his final attempt at writing large scale piano music. This demanding work has an epic quality reminiscent of his other works inspired by the Kalevala (a poem based on Finnish legends) and for once the critics recognised its merits.

Sibelius is at his most innovative and reflective in the Ten Pieces for Piano, op. 58 (1909). In spite of their romantic flourishes, these experimental pieces with their often sparse textures and polyphonic writing, can hardly be classified as traditional salon music and are among his most satisfying works for piano. Seemingly written for domestic consumption, the ‘unworthy’ Bagatelles op. 34 (1913-16) and Pensées lyriques op. 40 (1912-16) find Sibelius writing a sort of ‘Jugend Album’ for students, full of witty and imaginative pieces.

Between 1911 – 1922, Sibelius wrote a considerable amount of piano music which many critics have dismissed as minor or uninteresting. There are however a number of gems here, such the Four Lyric Pieces op. 74 and the popular Five Pieces for Piano (‘Trees’) op. 75 from 1914. In the latter, Sibelius evokes the spirit of the different trees at his home in Ainola: rowan blossom, pine, aspen, birch and spruce.

Sibelius’s last works for piano, the Five Characteristic Impressions op. 103 (1923 – 1924) and the Five Esquisses op. 114 (1929) show his mature piano style. The op. 113 set features sonorities reminiscent of his Seventh Symphony (which was written at this time); a musicologist detected in the Esquisses  Sibelius as “a figure resembling Scriabin and Bartók”.

While some of the criticisms levelled at Sibelius’s piano do hit home, many seem ungenerous or plainly condescending . Here (and in no particular order) are some of the more egregious examples.

His piano music was written purely for financial gain.  This is a little unfair as without a separate income, private wealth or a generous benefactor, even the most respected composers need to make money from their music to survive (Richard Strauss was particularly adept at extracting royalties!). In any case, the music should be judged on the end result, not on the circumstances of its composition. Of course, there are many stories of composers taking on commissions which they later regretted. Tchaikovsky wrote of his Six Morceaux op. 51 for piano “It is a pity too that for the sake of some money I accepted an order … to compose six piano pieces. This gets in the way of my inspiration. I have to force music out of my head … as a result of this perpetual effort I sleep badly”. In spite of his grumbling, the pieces went straight into the repertoire.

His piano music is mere salon music. Chopin is widely regarded as the composer of salon music par excellence but the term ‘salon music’ has never been used to disparage his work. However the term has since been used to cover a wide range of music – light, small-scale, popular, even kitsch – written primarily for entertainment or amusement value. For the critics the point is how could the great symphonist Sibelius stoop to write such trivia? This attitude however confuses the musical value of a piece with its genre. Lennox Berkeley summed it up thus when writing about the famous teacher Nadia Boulanger “…[Boulanger] loves passionately all good music, whether it be light or heavy, simple or complicated. A good waltz has just as much value to her as a good fugue, and this is because she judges a work solely on its aesthetic content”.

His piano music is unpianistic. This is a problematic assertion as so much music written for piano is technically demanding (Alkan, Rachmaninov, Scriabin, Liszt …) or can be  uncomfortable to play (Bach, Schubert, Brahms, Schoenberg …). It is true that Sibelius’s piano music lacks the refined pianism of a Chopin or Moszkowski but this does not diminish the quality of the music per se.

His piano music sounds like arrangements of orchestral music. Is this such a bad thing? One of the marvels of Liszt’s piano music is how orchestral much of it sounds (a good example being the so-called ‘Dante sonata’) and conversely how natural so many of his transcriptions seem (such as his transcriptions of the Beethoven Symphonies). The fact that a piece might sound like a transcription does not in itself devalue the music. Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition is a case in point – it sounds like a piano transcription and is ‘unpianistic’.  But it is nevertheless a masterpiece.


Most critics have approached Sibelius’s piano music with a sense of bewilderment, looking for the very same qualities that are found in his symphonies, a tall order for any composer. The pieces may be a mixed bag but they are not like the fabled curate’s egg (a rotten egg that was ‘good in parts’). Glenn Gould said of Sibelius’s piano music “…everything works, everything sounds – but on its own terms, not in lieu of other presumably more sumptuous musical experiences”. The critical tide is however finally turning and there is renewed interest in these neglected, often compelling works.

“Never pay any attention to what critics say”, Sibelius once said, “Remember, a statue has never been set up in honour of a critic!” Sound advice from this frequently misunderstood composer.


Kevin Painting

Published 21 February 2016  on primephonic