Sibelius (1865-1957) - Tone Poem "En Saga"
late 1800s, Finland's struggle to escape the Russian yoke inspired the
young Sibelius to express the vital Finnish mythology (notably the Kalevala)
through melody voiced in natural Finnish speech-rhythms, which in turn
stirred nationalist sentiment. In 1892, the successful premiere of this
earliest such effort, the epic Kullervo Symphony, prompted Robert
Kajanus to suggest he write another symphonic work, to appeal to general
listeners without overstretching their powers of concentration and understanding.
Apparently Sibelius took this as criticism of the (over-)ambitious scale
of Kullervo, because he withdrew it, and subsequently produced a
succession of shorter, tauter works, such as the Four Lemminkainen Legends
(1893-9), Finlandia and the First Symphony (1899), in which
he honed his distinctive, pithy style.
arguably immature, Kullervo is a crucial step in his development,
especially when compared with its immediate successor, the astonishingly
En Saga. Yet even this was withdrawn after its première,
only reappearing nine years later after extensive reworking. In a famous
conversation with Mahler in 1907, Sibelius expressed his belief that “the
symphony must contain a profound logic creating a connection between all
the motifs”. This principle was already gestating in En Saga, where
everything springs from one thematic cell which spawns one distinctive
theme, then another, and another, these themes taking on lives of their
his other, Kalevala-based symphonic poems, En Saga has no
specific “programme”, being quite literally “a Story” or “a Fairy Tale”
for which we must invent our own libretti (a direct parallel of Rimsky-Korsakov's
Sibelius claimed, “It represents a state of mind. I had recently undergone
several painful experiences, and in no other work have I revealed myself
so completely”. This is an “adventure in an inner landscape”, what we nowadays
would call a “psycho-drama”, and a far cry from the objectivity of his
are five sections: a slow introduction and postlude bracketing a sort of
evolutionary Overture in the Italian Style (fast-slow-fast).
An atmosphere of expectancy is immediately conjured by swirling (mist-ical?)
“sound effects”, unusually for Sibelius not thematically integrated. The
main melodic germ is born, protesting, out of agonised woodwind, growing
painfully in black woodwind and pizzicato double-basses before blossoming
on 'cellos as the flowing first derivative [A].
As if decisively embarking on some quest, the tempo picks up (an accelerando
devoid of the symphonic subtleties which would become his hallmark). A
second derivative [B], with a prominent dotted rhythm, soon followed by
a propulsive third derivative [C], dominate this part of the “quest”.
Our imaginary hero reins in his steed as he seems to lose the trail (my
libretto sees this as an equestrian quest!). [B] dissolves into chamber-music
textures. [C], plaintive on oboe beneath strange harmonic overtones, descends
into a vale of sighs and sobs echoing the pain of the mother-theme.
The music abruptly takes off like the Lone Ranger: “With the speed of light,
and a cloud of dust”, [A] plunges onwards in a cumulatively thundering
tumult, suddenly halted . . .
5. [C], broken, expires.
[A] wanders, in numb puzzlement, on lonely clarinet. Finally only [B]'s
dotted rhythm remains, a dull, bass throbbing. What has our hero stumbled
on? More to the point: how on earth does this grim pool of despond fit
in with the Finnish nationalist feelings of the time?
© Paul Serotsky
29, Carr Street,
for use apply. Details here
Copyright in these notes is retained by the author without whose prior written permission they may not be used, reproduced, or kept in any form of data storage system. Permission for use will generally be granted on application, free of charge subject to the conditions that (a) the author is duly credited, and (b) a donation is made to a charity of the author's choice.