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ClassicsOnline Home » SIBELIUS: Tapiola / En Saga / Oceanides / Pohjola's Daughter
Jean Sibelius (1865-1957) Pohjola's Daughter • The Oceanides • Tapiola • En Saga • The Bard
The Finnish composer Jean Sibelius was born in 1865, the son of a doctor, in a small town in the south of Finland. The language and culture of his family, as with others of their class and background at the time, was Swedish. It was at school that Sibelius was to learn Finnish and acquire his first real interest in the early legends of the country, a Russian grand-duchy from 1709. Throughout the later nineteenth century there were divisions between the Swedish-speaking upper classes and the Finnish-speaking people, the cause of the latter embraced by influential nationalists, and accentuated by the repressive measures instituted by Tsar Nicholas II, before the revolution of 1905. In this society Sibelius was deeply influenced by his association with the family of General Järnefelt, whose daughter Aino became his wife. Nevertheless Swedish remained his mother tongue, in which he expressed himself with greater fluency than in Finnish.
The musical abilities of Sibelius were not developed early enough to suggest music as a possible profession, until he had entered university in Helsinki as a law student. His first ambition had been to be a violinist. It later became apparent that any ability he had in this respect was outweighed by his gifts as a composer, developed first by study in Helsinki with Martin Wegelius, then with the pedantic Becker in Berlin and with Goldmark, and more effectively, with Robert Fuchs in Vienna.
In Finland once more, Sibelius won almost immediate success in 1892 with a symphonic poem, Kullervo, based on an episode from the Finnish epic, the Kalevala. There followed compositions of particular national appeal that further enhanced his reputation in Helsinki, including the incidental music to the student patriotic pageant Karelia, En Saga and the Lemminkäinen Suite. During this period Sibelius supported himself and his wife by teaching, as well as by composition and the performance of his works, but it proved difficult for him to earn enough. In 1896 he was voted the position of professor at the University of Helsinki, but the committee's decision was overturned in favour of Robert Kajanus, the experienced founder and conductor of the first professional orchestra in Helsinki. As consolation, Sibelius was awarded a government stipend for ten years, and this was later changed into a pension for life. The sum involved, however, was never enough to meet his gift for improvidence.
Sibelius continued his active career as a composer until 1926, his fame increasing at home and abroad. The successful First Symphony of 1898 was followed by the still more successful Finlandia. Busoni had tried to arrange the publication of his music by the benefactor of later Russian musical nationalism, Belyayev, on the plea that Finns were, in a sense, Russians, or at least citizens of a Russian grand-duchy. This came to nothing, but publication by Breitkopf and Härtel ensured a wider public abroad than provincial Finland could ever have offered. The Second Symphony, in 1902, won an unprecedented success in Helsinki. This was followed by the Violin Concerto, a Third Symphony and, after an illness that put an end for the moment to any indulgence in alcohol and tobacco, a Fourth, with travel to the major musical centres of Europe and international honour. The Fifth Symphony was written during the war, after which Sibelius wrote only four more works of any substance, the Sixth and Seventh symphonies, incidental music for Shakespeare's The Tempest and, in 1926, the symphonic poem Tapiola. An Eighth Symphony was completed in 1929, but destroyed. The rest was silence. For the last 25 years of his life Sibelius wrote nothing, now isolated from and largely antipathetic to contemporary trends in music. His reputation in Britain and America remained high, although there were inevitable reactions to the excessive enthusiasm of his supporters. On the continent of Europe he failed to recapture the position that he had earlier known in pre-war Germany, in France and in Vienna. He died in 1957 at the age of 91.
The symphonic fantasia Pohjola's Daughter was written in 1906. Like Kullervo and the Lemminkäinen Suite, it is based on the Kalevala. The great Finnish epic had in fact been assembled in the nineteenth century from the oral tradition of peasants, lays that from 1828, the year of their publication, became more accessible to the literate. While Kalevala is the Fatherland of Heroes, Pohja or Pohjola is the back country, Lapland and the North. The heroes of Kalevala seek wives from among the daughters of Pohjola, with varying degrees of success, since the normal state between the two was one of open hostility, particularly under the Lady of Pohjola, Louhi, protectress of the country. Oddly enough Sibelius originally intended a work based on Luonnotar, the nature-daughter of the first part of the Kalevala and in 1913 to be the subject of a tone poem for soprano and orchestra. The relatively indeterminate nature of extra-musical programmes for musical compositions is demonstrated by the sudden change from Luonnotar to the story of Väinämöinen's wooing of the fair maid of the North, as the work drew to completion. Sibelius proposed to his new publisher, Robert Lienau, in Berlin, the title L'aventure d'un héros, since the name of Väinämöinen would have meant little abroad. Lienau, however, rejected the obvious reference to Richard Strauss in favour of Pohjola's Daughter. The hero Väinämöinen woos the girl, inviting her to join him as he makes his way home on his sledge, seeing her sitting above a rainbow, busy with her spinning. She sets him Herculean tasks, to split a horsehair with a pointless knife or to tie an egg into a knot, with further labours until, in making a boat, as she demands, from her spindle, he is injured, and rides away on his sledge, seeking a remedy for his wound.
Sibelius wrote The Oceanides in 1914 for a tour of America. While the Finnish title of the work might suggest the Kalevala, it is in fact based on Homeric epic rather than Nordic saga. Oceanus, the river that encircles the earth, is personified as a Titan, responsible with Tethys for the origin of the gods, father of the rivers and of the Oceanides, the ocean nymphs. The sea-picture opens with muted strings, over drum rolls, soon joined by bird-calls from the flutes and an emerging melody, against the misty background, suggesting Delius or the French impressionist composers. The tone poem leads to a great climax, quickly subsiding to end on a chord that swells in volume, before diminishing to a whisper.
Tapiola was the last of the tone poems by Sibelius, written in 1926 and published by Breitkopf, in spite of the composer's doubts and hesitations. In explanation of the title Sibelius offered a verse of his own:
Wide they stand, the dark forests of the Northland, Old, mysterious, meditating wild dreams; There within lives the great god of the forest And in the darkness wood-spirits weave their secret magic.
Tapio is the god of the forest and Tapiola his country, where Lemminkäinen ventures in Canto XIV of the Kalevala and Väinämöinen in The Bear, Canto XLVI of the epic. Highly characteristic of the composer in its orchestration, the work starts with a slow introduction, with a partial statement of the theme from which the whole tone poem develops, leading to unusual effects, as the thematic material is entrusted to divided violas, underpinned by a double bass pedal-note, against a background of sustained bassoon chords, suggesting the brooding northern forest. Tapiola is marked throughout by subtleties of scoring in the use of divided string sections and of the contrasts of colour and register of woodwind and brass.
The tone poem En Saga followed immediately after Kullervo in 1892 and was revised ten years later. Rich in thematic material, varied by its shifts of key, the work offers a general picture of the world of the sagas, rather than following a detailed programme from the Kalevala. It won immediate success at its first performances in 1893 and in its revised form has retained a place in concert repertoire. The first theme of a work as essentially symphonic in structure as any of the tone poems, is heard in the introduction and three further themes are to appear, all more or less related within an essentially symphonic structure.
Similarly The Bard, completed early in 1913 and briefly revised the following year, has no detailed programme. Its title, however, with the use of the harp, gives a clear indication of the subject on which it is loosely based. Relatively short and contemplative in mood, much develops from the harp chords and viola figuration of the opening.
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SIBELIUS: Tapiola / En Saga / Oceanides / Pohjola'...