The Russian pianist, conductor and composer Alexander Siloti conducted the first performance of Night Ride and Sunrise in St Petersburg on 23rd January 1909, but the work was not especially well received – and indeed Siloti later admitted to having made cuts in the score. The piece had been composed the previous year in the aftermath of a series of painful operations to remove a tumour from Sibelius’s throat. On various occasions Sibelius hinted that the work might have been inspired by trips he had made in Finland, and he indicated to his biographer Karl Ekman that ‘the principal idea of Night Ride was conceived during the spring of 1901 in Italy, when I made a trip to Rome in April’. He told his English friend Rosa Newmarch that the music was ‘concerned… with the inner experiences of an average man riding solitary through the forest gloom; sometimes glad to be alone with Nature; occasionally awe-stricken by the stillness or the strange sounds which break it; but thankful and rejoicing in the daybreak’.
Night Ride and Sunrise falls into two clear sections. The ‘night ride’ is dominated by an unusually insistent trochaic rhythm, which is eventually combined with a plaintive theme introduced by the woodwind. A transition – in which the latter idea is played with great eloquence by the strings – then leads to the ‘sunrise’ section, one of Sibelius’s most overt portrayals of nature, in which obvious pictorial elements are combined with a calm grandeur that anticipates the Fifth and Seventh Symphonies.
© Andrew Barnett 2014