Sibelius: Four Legends from the Kalevala, Opus 22

JEAN (JOHAN JULIUS CHRISTIAN) SIBELIUS

BORN: December 8, 1865. Hämeenlinna (sometimes referred to by its Swedish name, Tavastehus), Finland

DIED: September 20, 1957. Järvenpää

COMPOSED: Between the autumn of 1895 and the spring of 1896 (incorporating material written as early as 1893 for an abandoned opera project). Sibelius later subjected the scores to several revisions, allowing only 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 Kalevala. Sibelius proceeded to make more revisions before publishing the other two legends in 1954. For the work’s final version, he reversed the order of the two inner movements given at the premiere, when the Swan had succeeded Lemminkäinen in Tuonela as the third legend. In these concerts, the movements are heard in their original order, with the Swan in third place

WORLD PREMIERE: April 13, 1896. Sibelius himself conducted in Helsinki

SFS PERFORMANCES: FIRST AND ONLY OF THE FULL SUITE—December 2002. Mikko Franck conducted.

INSTRUMENTATION: 2 flutes, 1st doubling piccolo (2 piccolos with no flutes in the last Legend); 2 oboes and English horn; 2 clarinets and bass clarinet; 2 bassoons; 4 horns in F; 3 trumpets in F; 3 trombones; tuba; timpani; percussion consisting of triangle, tambourine, cymbals, glockenspiel, and bass drum; harp; and strings (with violins divided into 8 parts for the Swan)

DURATION: About 48 mins

THE BACKSTORY  Following an ill-fated attempt at an opera on the Kalevala, a collection of ancient Finnish epic myths, and energized by a study of Franz Liszt’s symphonic poems, Sibelius embarked on another Kalevala-inspired project in the autumn of 1895. This time he turned his attention to the exploits of the reckless young Lemminkäinen, a sort of cross between Don Juan (with whom the composer himself compares the hero), the young Siegfried, and Osiris. Sibelius decided to string together a series of orchestral tapestries in a suite of four movements, each based loosely on various episodes from Lemminkäinen’s picaresque adventures.

It is in his use of the Kalevala that one striking paradox of Sibelius’s genius emerges. On the one hand, such a close identification with the mythic roots of Finnish culture might have destined him to being pigeonholed simply as another late Romantic artist preoccupied with ethnic pride. Indeed, this was one of the dangers posed by the initial success of his large-scale choral symphony-cantata Kullervo, following which Sibelius had to discover how to continue proving himself as something more than Finland’s “national musical hero.” Yet as he returned to the Kalevala for inspiration throughout his career—in such later works as Pohjola’s Daughter, Luonnotar (for voice and orchestra), and his masterful final musical testament, Tapiola—Sibelius continued to carve out a persistently unique and strikingly original voice, one that is recognizable immediately. In a sense, this might be likened to a larger paradox of art itself, whereby the more incisively specific a creation is, the more likely it is to carry universal resonance.

A key turning point in that process of securing his voice can be found in the Lemminkäinen Legends. Something about the shift in focus clearly liberated Sibelius’s imagination to produce the most fertile, confident, and colorful writing for orchestra thus far in his career. This in turn paved the way for his eventual destiny in the pantheon of all-time great symphonists, with a First Symphony to come belatedly. Still, one should be careful not to read the Lemminkäinen Legends merely as a symphonic trial run. What is more significant is the fascinating balance each poses between the musical and extramusical/narrative spheres. Unlike his contemporary Richard Strauss, with his boasted ability to set anything to music—be it philosophy or his breakfast menu—Sibelius tackles the problem of programmatic music by focusing on atmosphere over narrative translation.

Rather than the state-of-the-art, technologically advanced symphonism of Strauss (who incidentally preferred the quasi-scientific term “tone poem” to the Lisztian “symphonic poem”), the more fruitful comparison might be with Mahler. Both composers channeled gifts that seemed in some ways ideal for epic opera into, ultimately, symphonic epic. Yet each arrived at a diametrically opposed vision of symphonic music and its relation to extramusical sources. Indeed, Mahler’s oft-quoted credo of inclusiveness—with the symphony envisioned as “like the world”—was part of a famous exchange with Sibelius. The latter maintained that the essence of the symphony was “the profound logic that created an inner connection between all the motifs.” Even in such “programmatic” pieces as the Lemminkäinen Legends, aspects of this obsession with the organic working out and transformation of musical material are evident.

THE MUSIC

Lemminkäinen and the Maidens of the Island

The two opening chords of Lemminkäinen and the Maidens of the Island—widely spaced pronouncements by the horns, first forte and then gently echoed—are like portals thrown open into a beckoning realm of the mythic past. The relevant passage from the Kalevala involves Lemminkäinen’s Casanova-like behavior as the far-roving hero enjoys the attentions of “a thousand brides” and widows alike while sojourning on an island. The mysteriously absent men eventually return, upon which Lemminkäinen prudently flees their wrath and the island, to the chagrin of the women. After a lingering introduction—including a theme of passionate longing and ending with a rising figure and another series of hovering chords—the pace quickens and a joyful, rhythmically incisive, dancelike theme emerges, traded among the winds. The “longing” theme transforms into a longer-spun, intensified version in the strings. This legend, anchored in a “heroic”-sounding key but fraught with many tonal shifts, has been described as a relatively loose version of sonata form, similar to what might be found in a symphony’s first movement. But what strikes a listener most immediately are the sudden and passionate bursts of color and ratcheted tension as Sibelius develops these thematic materials, playing them off each other. The “development/recapitulation section” is thus especially lengthy, stretching the sensuous character of the music into an expertly sustained, elongated crescendo and climax. The dance music gathers new strength and is whipped into a Dionysian level of excitement, with more than a hint of lessons Sibelius had picked up from his experience with Richard Wagner's Tristan und Isolde. A wistful coda colored by comments in the winds subdues the mood, rather like an elegiac Watteau sunset.

Lemminkäinen in Tuonela

The scene is now set for the next legend (along with the first, the lengthiest of the four), Lemminkäinen in Tuonela. In the original score Sibelius included a fairly detailed narrative inscription of events (an inscription he later suppressed). Lemminkäinen has visited Tuonela to shoot its Swan as part of a quest. He is pursued unawares by his nemesis, a blind cowherd who slays the hero and leaves him to be dragged into the waters of death. When Lemminkäinen’s mother discovers his fate, she rakes his dismembered corpse from the river and brings him back to life. Commentators have busied themselves over the precise point depicting the hero’s death, or when his mother learns of the tragedy, etc., but this is largely a distraction. Again, the musical focus is not on cinematic narrative but rather motivic elaboration of moods. In some respects, this score is the most advanced and daring of the Four Legends. Sibelius begins in an especially ominous, brooding mode with signature tremolos in the strings set in a Stygian F-sharp minor, with a motif whose contour later carries a whiff of the medieval Dies irae. Again, there’s a highly effective limitation of palette, which gradually admits plaintive cries from the winds (including a prominent four-note motif that ends with a descending fourth, of which more is to come). After a gesture of deceptive calm, the tension again builds relentlessly, this time expanding the sound colors into a massive outburst from trumpets, horns, and trombones. This outburst—unmistakably evoking the dense harmonies of the anguish music from Wagner's Parsifal—will continue to recur with apocalyptic monumentality. The intensity dies down and gives way to a contrasting section of strings, tamburo, and flute intoning an elegiac lullaby in a folklike key. The ominous themes return full force and then give way to an ambiguous coda with a rising solo cello phrase that echoes the opening of The Swan of Tuonela and comes to rest on a lonely sustained note.

The Swan of Tuonela

In The Swan of Tuonela, the best known of the Four Legends, Sibelius details Lemminkäinen’s attempt to slay the Swan of a caliginous underworld. He heads the score with an inscription from the Kalevala:

Tuonela, the land of death, the Hell of Finnish mythology, is surrounded by a large river with black waters and a rapid current, on which the Swan of Tuonela floats majestically, singing.

From that moment we are at Sibelius’s creative mercy. Welcome to this spectral realm: The Swan emerges on a glassy river that guards the land of death. Above a superlatively scored bed of strings, divided into no less than thirteen separate layers that are painfully—exquisitely—held, the Swan, voiced by a solo English horn, sings its plaintive song. After a glimpse of sunlight from the harp the music brightens, flickering for a moment in C major. But this glow is soon extinguished by unearthly desolation. The Swan glides back into the darkness and its song fades over a quiet drum heartbeat. We are left in vaporous Tuonela as icy strings tremor col legno (with the wood of the bow), softly quivering in the gloom.

Lemminkäinen’s Homeward Journey

Lemminkäinen’s Homeward Journey is a powerful example of Sibelius’s ability to whip repeated ostinato figurations into a sensation of driving momentum—thus making a splendidly effective contrast with the stasis of The Swan of Tuonela. A darkly hued minor-key outburst undergirds a brief phrase played by the bassoons, whose descending intervals immediately recall the music from Lemminkäinen in Tuonela. Suddenly we realize that, though there is no single, recurrent leitmotif for the hero, Sibelius offers subtler hints of an overarching unity that adds coherence to the sequence of legends. This bassoon theme is especially fertile, eventually growing into the main theme of this rondo-finale. Energy is generated from the rapid alternation of instrumental choirs against dizzying repeating figurations in the strings that make a number of tonal detours before landing triumphantly in E-flat, the key from which the Four Legends had set out, and thus marking a homecoming on several levels at once.—Thomas May and Jeanette Yu (The Swan of Tuonela)

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

More About the Music

Recordings: Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic (Sony)  |  Colin Davis conducting the Boston Symphony (Philips)  |  Neeme Järvi conducting the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra (Deutsche Grammophon)

Reading: Jean Sibelius, by Erik Tawaststjerna, in English translation by Robert Layton (Faber & Faber and University of California Press)  |  The Music of Jean Sibelius, by Burnett James (Fairleigh Dickinson University Press)  |  Sibelius, by Cecil Gray (OUP)