As it’s winter and there are a lot of things happening in the world right now, I decided I wanted to talk about a happy little tune, “Praeludium” by Finnish composer Armas Järnefelt (1869-1958). Järnefelt had a long career as a conductor and composer. He lived in Sweden for about twenty-five years, serving as music director for the Royal Theatre.
He bounced back and forth from Sweden to Finland, eventually having a “home base” in Stockholm but leading the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra (HPO) during World War II. The Soviet Union had declared war on Finland in 1939, resulting in the then-current conductor of the HPO fleeing the country and man who originally would have been successor refusing to come back from the United States. Järnefelt lead the orchestra in forty concerts, including one to celebrate the cease fire.
“Praeludium” was originally composed for small orchestra in 1895 and is one of his best-known pieces. A lot of people have never heard of Järnefelt, however, partly thanks to his sister marrying a big-name Finnish composer of the time and friend of Järnefelt– Jean Sibelius.
We begin with a bouncy, pizzicato string accompaniment that sets the cheerful mood of “Praeludium.” The oboe enters with the melody (Theme A), echoed soon after by the first clarinet at 0:08. The bassoon, second clarinet, and flute have staggered entrances after that. Notice how the melody is fugue-ish — it flits about throughout different instruments, overlapping each other, with some variance here and there as it fits with the other lines. Another interesting tidbit is his overall instrumentation for the woodwinds; full orchestras typically have pairs of woodwinds (two each of flutes, oboes, clarinets, and bassoons). In this piece, the only woodwind to have its usual pair is the clarinet; the others are singles.
As the woodwinds flitter along merrily and the strings keep plucking away, Järnefelt decides to add even more layers of melody via the brass starting around 0:23 (two horns and two trumpets pitched in F instead of their usual Bb). There’s a lot going on here! It’s worth listening to this entire opening section a few times to challenge your ear in picking out all the different lines that are happening at once. Some percussion even join in here (triangle, then cymbal).
Despite the euphonic chaos, everyone comes together to close out this section of the piece. The strings are on autopilot and seem like they’ll just take us around to start it all over again, but the woodwinds take over the plucking and change gears (0:42). I love the modulation that happens so quickly there.
The violins bring us a new theme (B), one that’s smoother without as much happening along with it (0:44). There are some held chords, with the clarinets and horns providing a long—short-short rhythm in the accompaniment. The second violins provide harmony to the moving melodic line. It’s a short theme, though, and some bounciness bubbles up in 0:48 in the melody, echoed by the clarinets, then echoed again by the violins. Other instruments join in a run up to a restatement of Theme B, which turns the melody over to the woodwinds and the moving accompaniment back to the strings. This time, when we get to the bounciness, we only hear the statement by the woodwinds and one echo in the strings before the woodwinds take off into another run that leads to a big, long (for this piece) chord at 1:02. There’s brief cutoff before what sounds like it could be a final cadence, except the strings go right back to their plucky accompaniment that we heard at the beginning. They’re quite determined!
We don’t quite go back to the beginning, though. At 1:08, we hear Theme A, but this time it’s played by several instruments together (instead of fugue-ishly), and most other instruments are doing either the plucky accompaniment or the long—short-short version. The theme ends, exposing a single held note on the horn– a big shift from everything we’ve heard so far. We get a quiet callback to our plucky accompaniment from the strings (1:17). Realizing that the horn is resolute in holding that note, the strings slow down their plucking and lead us into the next section.
Here we experience a big change in mood. We’ve been very cheerful and lively throughout the piece so far; the violin solo that begins at 1:36 is quite different (Theme C). Melancholy. Wistful, perhaps? Beautiful, no matter what other adjectives you use. The accompaniment still has a long—short-short feel to it, but it’s subdued. The horn answers the violin with its own countermelodic line at 1:31; it culminates in a beautiful chord progression from the horn and accompaniment and an emotive octave jump in the solo violin around 1:34.
The oboe takes over Theme C at 1:37. The accompaniment changes to focus on held chords with the second violins and violas singing an upward-moving line. The violin restates the horn’s line we heard a little while ago and extends it down farther. The oboe and horn answer at 1:50, slowing down just a bit before the rest of the strings take over, determined to get us back to our Happy Place (1:56).... before the rest of the strings take over, determined to get us back to our Happy Place Click To Tweet
While the pluckiness and peppy tempo have returned, it takes several seconds for the strings to modulate back into F Major. They do, however, and we find ourselves back to the beginning of the piece, the oboe starting Theme A (2:03) and the layering process all over again. If you hadn’t listened to the opening a few times earlier, here’s another chance to catch some of the melodic lines you may have missed before.
We get Theme A in its entirety. When the melodic lines take a short break, the strings keep plucking away, although this time it’s toward the end of the piece. We get a few measures more of just the accompaniment, which then gives way to a line that walks up through the string section (2:40) and the final, two-note cadence from the entire ensemble.
I hope that “Praeludium” has provided a bit of sunshine to a winter day, and that you’ll join me next time on Tonal Diversions. Thanks for reading!
(Shameless plug: This is another piece I’ve transcribed for clarinet choir. Check it out at this link and support the blog with your purchases at Sheet Music Plus.)
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