I’m not a big fan of Jean Sibelius. In fact, he is just the kind of Romantic composer that I’m thinking of when I say that I don’t like Romantic music. But that isn’t to say that he wasn’t a great composer. And he certainly didn’t commit any of the truly vile sins of the period like mindless chromaticism. And there are some times when you really want Romantic music. It is still very much alive in many film scores.
Not surprisingly, Sibelius wrote a lot of incidental music for the theater of his time. One such piece is Valse Triste — the sad waltz. It was part of the incidental music for the play Kuolema (“Death”), written by Arvid Järnefelt, who was apparently Sibelius’ brother-in-law. It sounds like a very expressionistic affair. It starts with the protagonist as a young man and Death comes for his mother. And it ends with him a man with his own family. Their home is burned down and Death comes for him in the form of his mother. You know the Finns: they know how to have a good time!
I thought the burned down house was interesting, because that is the centerpiece of the animation created by Bruno Bozzetto for the song in his film, Allegro Non Troppo. In this short film, we see a cat wandering around a burned house. It gets lost in its pleasant memories of the past. The implication is that all the humans have perished. The cat’s memories are brutally destroyed by the intrusion of the current reality. This is a rather negative take on the theme of Kuolema, which is about the way that the past is kept alive in our memories. Bozzetto seems to be saying that maybe that isn’t such a great thing.
This is a beautiful fusion of sound and image. I’ve introduced it to many people over the years. They never forget it. Nor do many of them ever forgive me. It is, as a commenter on the video put it, “heart-rending.”