Sibelius: Lemminkäinen's Return, Opus 22, No.4

Lemminkäinen's Return from Four Legends from the Kalevala, Opus 22, no.4

Jean (Johan Julius Christian) Sibelius was born on December 8, 1865, in the garrison town of Hämeenlinna (sometimes referred to by its Swedish name, Tavastehus) in what at the time was the Russian Grand Duchy of Finland and died on September 20, 1957, at his home, Ainola, in Järvenpää. Sibelius composed Four Legends from the Kalevala (also known as the Lemminkäinen Suite) in 1895, incorporating material he had written as early as 1893 for an abandoned opera project. The composer conducted the Helsinki Orchestral Society in the premiere in Helsinki on April 13, 1896, and later revised the score on several occasions, allowing only two of the Legends (The Swan of Tuonela and Lemminkäinen’s Return) to be published in 1900. The other two movements were withheld (and thought by some to be lost) until they resurfaced in a performance of the entire suite in 1935, the centenary of the first modern publication of the Finnish epic, TheKalevala. Sibelius proceeded to make more revisions before publishing the other two legends in 1954. The first San Francisco Symphony subscription performances of Lemminkäinen’s Return was in March 1962, with Enrique Jordá conducting. The complete Lemminkäinen Suite (including Lemminkäinen’s Return) was last performed in December 2002, with Mikko Franck conducting the SFS. Lemminkäinen’s Return is scored for two piccolos (no flutes), two oboes, English horn, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, triangle, tambourine, cymbals, bass drum, bells, and strings. Performance time: about seven minutes.

By the mid-1890s, the young Jean Sibelius had experienced his first crest of fame with the triumph of his large-scale choral symphony-cantata Kullervo and his symphonic poem En Saga (both from 1892). But with early success came high-pressure expectations. What next? Now that he’d inherited the mantle of Finland’s most prominent emerging composer, Sibelius found himself at a crossroads.

Opera seemed the logical next step. Sibelius found a potent source, he believed, in The Kalevala, the collection of ancient Finnish epic myths that he had already begun mining for inspiration in Kullervo and to which he would repeatedly return later in his career. Kullervo had traced the misfortunes of its eponymous hero from The Kalevala—by far the unluckiest of that epic’s heroes. For his putative opera, Sibelius planned to focus on the efforts that The Kalevala’s central character, the sage magician Väinämöinen, undertakes to win the love of the elusive daughter of the moon. The opera-in-progress had the working title Veneen luominen (The Building of the Boat), referring to Väinämöinen’s central labor (with a striking resemblance to Siegfried’s forging of the sword). This mythic material later found another outlet in the similarly themed tone poem Pohjola's Daughter (1906).

Sibelius toiled away at his operatic project during the period 1893-95, simultaneously immersing himself in the world of that most formidable operatic model of the era, Richard Wagner. Given the excitement of his discovery of Finnish mythic material, Sibelius naturally became curious to experience firsthand what the Wizard of Bayreuth had concocted from (roughly) parallel Teutonic sources. And that meant making the pilgrimage to Bayreuth itself, which the young composer did in the summer of 1894. He plunged in full force, seeing most of the Ring (except Das Rheingold), Tristan und Isolde, Die Meistersinger, and Parsifal. Sibelius seems to have undergone an accelerated version of the love-hate pattern of pro- and anti-Wagnerism that afflicted many of his contemporaries. While on the one hand he denounced Wagner’s music as too “calculated” and full of “manufactured ideas,” Parsifal (with its own swan imagery) had the effect of an epiphany and triggered a new surge of creative self-confidence: “I had thought I was already a dead tree,” the composer wrote upon returning to Finland, “but no, such is not the case.”

However, Sibelius decided to abandon the opera on his work table—a quiet way of defusing the anxiety of influence, perhaps—and it’s impossible not to lament the operatic career that might have been, given what we know of the dramatic power that fuels his symphonies and the mastery with which his tone poems can evoke a memorable scenario. (In the event Sibelius did make one contribution to the genre, in 1896, with his one-act, verismo-style The Maiden in the Tower; he continued to toy with operatic projects later in his career as well.)

Sibelius instead found himself energized by a study of Franz Liszt’s symphonic poems, gaining a fresh perspective on the untapped possibilities of purely orchestral writing. Leaving his Boat on the dock, he thus embarked on another Kalevala-inspired project in the autumn of 1895. This time Sibelius turned his attention to the exploits of the reckless young Lemminkäinen, a character remarkably dissimilar from the unlucky Kullervo. Regularly announced by a quasi-Homeric epithet—“handsome man with a far-roving mind”—Lemminkäinen in his varied exploits represents a sort of mash-up of a Don Juan, Achilles, the young Siegfried, and Osiris. The composer’s new project became a series of orchestral tapestries that could be linked together as a suite of four movements, each based loosely on various episodes from Lemminkäinen’s picaresque adventures.

A very brief overview of that source text:It was in 1835 that the physician-scholar Elias Lönnrot assembled this material, which had been handed down for long centuries from pagan times by oral tradition, into a written form for the first time. What Lönnrot gathered from his field trips was eventually published as a collection of fifty poems (“runes”). Knowledge of the Kalevala spread widely in this period of parallel national (re)discoveries—later to surface, for example, in such concrete influences as the trochaic tetrameter Henry Wadsworth Longfellow used for his once enormously popular epic poem The Song of Hiawatha.

Rather than unfold as an overarching narrative, The Kalevala comprises a motley assortment of episodes mixed with ancient spells, charms, and songs. Characters are introduced and then dropped willy-nilly, only to resurface in later runes. The overall “action” takes place in a misty, northern landscape setting that mirrors the Karelian region of Finland where the oral transmission of these poems had endured. Sibelius himself had made an earlier summer excursion to Karelia to study these traditions. As a result of that internalized familiarity, the music of Sibelius at times seems to breathe the air of native folk idioms without actually quoting original folk material.

The Four Legends as a whole represents the most fertile, confident, and colorful writing for orchestra thus far in the career of the young Sibelius. The process of composing this suite in turn paved the way for his emergence as one of the greatest symphonists of all time. Still, we should not be too hasty to read the Legends merely as a symphonic trial run. Already in its four movements Sibelius has begun mastering the organic development and transformation of core musical ideas that are essential to symphonic thinking. Later, in a famous exchange with Gustav Mahler, Sibelius maintained that, to him, the idea of the symphony connoted “the profound logic that creates an inner connection between all the motifs.” Even in the programmatic context of the original Four Legends, this deep inner logic can be traced in the score.

Along with the concluding panel of the Four Legends, which we hear on this concert, the preceding movements depict Lemminkäinen’s Casanova-like behavior while visiting an island of brides and widows (the first legend); his task of trying to slay the swan of the underworld (a region known as Tuonela in Finnish mythology—hence the atmospheric The Swan of Tuonela—originally planned as the prelude to the abandoned opera, which enjoys an independent concert life as the best known of the Four Legends); the hero’s death which results from his venture there; and his resurrection through the intervention of his mother. Sibelius changed his mind about the proper order of the two middle movements (they both take place in Tuonela), but it is this vaporous, gloomy underworld landscape that sets the stage for the brisk finale, Lemminkäinens Return. This is by far the shortest of the four movements as a consequence of Sibelius’s decision to prune it following the premiere. Here, his subject is described in the score: “Exhausted after a long series of wars and battles, Lemminkäinen decides to return home. He transforms his cares and worries into war horses and sets off. After a voyage that is rich in adventure, he finally arrives in his native land, where he rediscovers the places that are so full of childhood memories.”

Even without a performance of the preceding musical material, the listener is immediately caught up by the excitement of Sibelius’s characteristic ostinato patterning. From his orchestra he unleashes a sensation of driving momentum (which happens to provide a splendidly effective contrast with the impressive stasis of the music from The Swan of Tuonela). An outburst in C minor undergirds a brief motif in the bassoon, whose shape continues a thread that had been developed in the music of a preceding legend. Throughout the Four Legends, Sibelius refrains from giving his hero an easily recognizable leitmotif, instead offering subtler hints of an overarching coherence for the entire sequence of legends. This bassoon motif proves especially fertile and becomes the source for the principal subject of a rondo-finale design. Energy is generated from the rapid alternation of instrumental choirs against thrilling pulsations in the strings. After a number of tonal detours, Sibelius heralds his hero’s victorious arrival in a resounding E-flat major. This is the same key from which the Four Legends had set out, and thus marks a homecoming and a return for Lemminkäinen—and a new, confident departure for Sibelius as a master of the orchestra.

Thomas May

Thomas May is a Contributing Writer to the San Francisco Symphony program book. He blogs at

More About the Music
Recordings:Osmo Vänskä and the Lahti Symphony Orchestra (BIS)  |  Leif Segerstam and the Helsinki Philharmonic (Ondine)  |  Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Los Angeles Philharmonic (Sony)

Reading: Sibelius (multivolume biography),by Erik Tawaststjerna (University of California Press)  |  Sibelius' Orchestral Works: An Owner's Manual, by David Hurwitz (Amadeus)  |  Jean Sibelius, by Tomi Mäkelä (Boydell)  |  The Cambridge Companion to Sibelius, edited by Daniel M. Grimley (Cambridge) | The Kalevala, translatedby Keith Bosley (Oxford University Press)

(May 2014)