“I realized that my job is to awaken possibility in others.”


Sibelius: Valse Triste

Interpretation Class
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John Stapleton (marimba), Rainice Lai (vibraphone)

“This is a piece that was written for a play called Death, so it’s not cheerful music. I’m very clear about that. But, still, it’s a waltz, and actually, in a way, it makes it sadder.”

— Benjamin Zander

Video Transcript

Ben Zander:

Beautiful. Bravo. Amazing, amazing, really. Beautiful. Wow. Fantastic.

That was a new experience for everybody in the room. It was really great. Beautiful arrangement. Now, one thing I have to say to you, it’s perfect. It’s great exactly the way it is. Nothing needs to change. That’s the first thing. The second thing I have to say is there are several stages here. There’s the Viennese waltz that comes from Vienna, and then it goes to Finland, and then it comes to Boston and goes through John Stapleton, though there are three stages.

You’re a composer of this piece and Sibelius is a composer. So the question is, how much of its origin should we try and keep? Now, it’s a long way from Vienna to Finland, and Sibelius certainly put a different slant on the Viennese waltz, no question about it. But it’s still a Viennese waltz. What I miss in your performance is the feeling that every bar is a beat you. It’s too much one, two, three.

And I love to dance the waltz, but I couldn’t imagine dancing the waltz because it’s so slow at the beginning and it’s a feeling of one, two, three. Now, you may be right about it. Maybe that’s the way he conceived it, but I’d love to look at what would happen if we really played it in one. I have the original score here and he says, “Lento,” at the beginning, so it’s a slow waltz, but it’s still a waltz. And then he says the tempo here, but you do it much faster here. And this presumably is the tempo of that.

John Stapleton:

Beginning, yeah.

Ben Zander:

Right. So I think we have to pay attention to that and see what happened. Of course, this you do at a completely different tempo. This was beautiful. This was true Should we just try that? Do from E. Right, right.

Right. So that’s the perfect Viennese waltz tempo, and that definitely can be faster than the opening because he says lento, but it’s still a waltz, so let’s try and see if we can do the opening in a waltz tempo.

Now, it comes a very interesting thing. That’s correct. In the Viennese waltz, the second came a little bit early. Now, I don’t know when Sibelius was up there in Finland in that freezing cold, whether he still had that in his ear, but I suspect he did just a little bit. Okay? This is a piece that was written for a play called Death, so it’s not cheerful music. I’m very clear about that. But, still, it’s a waltz, and actually, in a way, it makes it sadder.

Good. And I’ve got to get your name, so that it-



Ben Zander:

Renice. Renice, your job is to feel one beat for four bars. That’s one phrase. And now a new phrase. So, not every bar not

So let’s see if we can do that, and that means you have to dance too. Should we start right on your phrase? Three, four and

There it is.

Ah, isn’t that beautiful? And now why that’s beautiful is because instead of feeling one, two, three, one, two, three, we’re feeling two, three, four. And if you do every bar individually, you don’t get that.

John Stapleton:


Ben Zander:

Right? So the slowness has to be only so slow that you can feel four bars in one gesture.

John Stapleton:


Ben Zander:

All right, got it? And you can make a wonderful feeling with color. So the first note he writes is on the first note. Crescendo. (singing).

That warmth on that first note, should we try that? Three, four. And you notice I’m counting three, four, and it’s a waltz?

John Stapleton:

Right, yeah.

Ben Zander:

All right, because I’m not counting beats, I’m counting bars. Three, four.

Yes. Beautiful. Oh, it’d so beautiful.

Long phrase. Now its same tempo. Good. Great, great, great. That was beautiful. And that had a feeling of a dance. You could dance to that. Now this is very interesting because it’s marked Pianissimo, and later on it’s Pew Pianissimo. So let’s see how soft you can play, and he marks it at the point of the bow for the strings. Try that. One and two.

I would suggest you do it even softer than that and make the second bar an upbeat to the third bar. So we got and then one beat over. Three, four and then it goes there. And now And then it goes there.

Too loud.

I just want to say one thing to everybody in the room. Take time when something in the music calls for it. If there’s a harmony or something surprising or dynamic, which is surprising, take a little time. So this was such a beautiful moment. Those harmonies are so gorgeous. Take a little time. How soft can a marimba play? Can we find out at letter D? Three-

John Stapleton:

We don’t have?

Ben Zander:

Oh, our tempo.

John Stapleton:

The second one?

Ben Zander:

Three and four. And I think they can play even softer. Three, four. You’ve forgotten that the second bar’s an upbeat. Great dynamic. Even softer. Three, four.

Finish. Finish.

I don’t know if you noticed that, but he writes the word bright there, meaning broad, when you get to the climax. That’s great. Could you pretend that you are dancing? I know you can’t actually dance while you are playing, but if you could give the feeling while you are playing that the music is infusing your body with the feeling of the dance. Because the trouble is, you are doing this.

This guy over there is a surgeon. He has to cut people’s bodies open and make sure that all the bones. He’s doing like this. But you are not a surgeon. You look a little bit like a surgeon. You do too. Hands here. But you’re a dancer, right? See, that was fantastic, that Pianissimo. So would you do C again? That’s the first one. The first one. And play as softly as you can. And then the next passage, you’re going to do softer. Everybody says, “Oh my God, it’s soft.” And then suddenly it’s much softer, right? Here we go. Three and four.

Yeah, can you have Three and

Can I ask you not to?


Not really a staccato.

Ben Zander:

What’s that? Staccato, but feeling a long line. And it would help if you conducted yourself, because again It would be easier. Three and four, and then it goes there.

There we go. Now, how soft can a marimba play? How soft? Dancing.

Now we build. One, two. Soft. Now back to tempo, dancing.

Now, faster.

Wow. Bravo. Beautiful. Bravo. Great. Beautiful. It brings up a very interesting question. Who do we follow? Who do we treat as the gospel? Well, you’re the gospel because you put this piece together. It’s your piece. And you don’t have to do what the composer said if you don’t want to, but it probably wouldn’t be the best way of going. That’s true of every performer.

I remember I performed a piece by Du Tu Yu with Rostropovich, who was the cellist, and Du Tu Yu was a famous composer. And he was sitting in the audience. Rostropovich was playing and the composer came up and said, “It’s a little too slow.” And Rostropovich said, “No, no, no, it’s just right.”

So how much leeway do we performers have? I say, not much. I say we go back as far as we can. It wouldn’t be enough to go to Sibelius. You have to go to Vienna as well. What you just did was a beautiful rendition of a Viennese waltz seen through the eyes of a tragic Finnish character. And it’s beautiful. And it’s actually more moving than the other way, isn’t it? Because it has a truth to it because you’re bringing up the original feeling and the rhythm, and you’re also doing it exactly the way he marked it to be done.

And the word lento doesn’t mean that everything should be slow. It just means it’s a slow waltz, but it’s still a waltz. This way, even at that slow tempo at the beginning, human beings could actually dance it. And that’s what seems crucial. But what I love is you’ve created something new, which has never been heard before. This has never been heard before in the history of the world.

I just want to say, John plays in an orchestra of 120 young people, so it’s very rare that you have an opportunity to single out a player and say something about that particular player because there are 119 other ones. But, John, I want to say you are a huge contribution. From the very first day, you’re always there. You’re always attentive, concentration, discipline, passion, love, caring about other people. You’re a model of what a musicians should be.

I have you that way in my mind, and I always will. I remember students. I’ve been doing youth orchestras for 50 years, 48 years, something like that, and I remember the people from the past. One of them is sitting right there. The people who played in my youth orchestra 20 years ago. And I will remember John, and what you’ve given to this orchestra and how you’ve been, all the time, every single time without fail. And that’s a beautiful thing. And it’ll carry on all the way through your life and it’ll carry on all the way through my life. And that’s how it works. Beautiful. Bravo. Thank you. Beautiful. Thank you.

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