"Kuolema" ("Death") is a drama by Arvid Järnefelt, first performed in 1903. He revised the work in 1911. The play is notable for its incidental music: a group of six compositions created by the author's brother-in-law, Jean Sibelius. The most famous selection is "Valse Triste" ("Sad Waltz"), which was later adapted into a separate concert piece.

The play

The play is in three acts. Act I features the boy Paavali and his mother, who is ill. When she is asleep, music is heard, and she has a dream of dancers, who start to fill the room. She then joins them in their dance, but becomes exhausted. As the dancers leave, she begins to dance again. However, Death knocks at the door three times, and the music stops. Death claims her, in the form of her late husband.

Act II features Paavali years later as a wandering young man. At one point, he comes across a cottage, where an 'old witch' lives. In the cottage, Paavali bakes bread and lights the fire for the witch. She gives him a ring that allows him to see his future bride. The scene changes at once to a forest in summer, where Elsa, a young woman, sings to herself, and Paavali meets her. After sleeping beside each other, Paavali wakes to resume his travels, but Elsa wants him to remain. A flock of cranes flies overhead at that point, one of which separates from the group, carrying an infant to them.

In Act III, Paavali and Elsa have since been married. He has used his funds to build a school. Later, Paavali's and Elsa's house catches fire. As the house burns, Paavali reflects on his past life, and sees the ghost of his mother, holding a scythe, in the flames. In parallel with the end of Act I, Paavali's mother has come for her son. Paavali dies as the house collapses. The last scene sees the villagers consoling Elsa and the children and recalling Paavali. Elsa says at the end that Paavali lives in the hearts of the people. [Eija Kurki, Liner notes for BIS recording by Osmo Vänskä and the Lahti Symphony Orchestra (BIS CD-915).]

The music

Initially, Sibelius wrote six numbers for the 1903 production:

# "Tempo di valse lente - Poco risoluto" (Act I)

# "Moderato" (Paavali's Song: 'Pakkanen puhurin poika', for solo baritone, Act II)

# "Moderato assai - Moderato" (Elsa's Song: 'Eilaa, eilaa', for solo soprano) - "Poco adagio" (Act II)

# "Andante" (The Cranes, Act II)

# "Moderato" (Act III)

# "Andante ma non tanto" (Act III)

The published concert suite by Sibelius features these movements:
* "Valse Triste", Op. 44 No. 1
* "Scene with Cranes" ("Szene mit Kranichen", "Scène avec grues"), Op. 44 No. 2
* "Canzonetta", Op. 62a
* "Valse romantique", Op. 62b

Most of this music remained unpublished until Breitkopf & Härtel, the music publishers, issued a revised version of the first music of the play as "Valse triste". It became an instant hit with the public, one of Sibelius's signature pieces. However, because of the publishing contract, Sibelius saw relatively little money in terms of royalties from the performances of "Valse Triste" [Erik Tawaststjerna (trans. Robert Layton), "Sibelius, Volume II: 1904-1914". Faber and Faber (London, 1986), pp. 45-46.] . In 1906, Sibelius combined two movements (Nos. 3 & 4) to produce the "Scene with Cranes", but it remained unpublished until 1973. In 1911, Sibelius composed two new salon-style numbers, "Canzonetta" and "Valse romantique", which he published immediately, hoping to repeat the success of "Valse triste", but that did not happen.

In other media

*The animated film "Allegro non troppo" used "Valse Triste" in "Feline Fantasies", a segment about the ghost of a cat roaming around the ruins of the house it once inhabited.
*Avant-garde filmmaker Bruce Conner directed an experimental film called "Valse Triste" (1977) using the Sibelius music.



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