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Sibelius (1865-1957) - Tone Poem "En Saga"

In the 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. 

While arguably immature, Kullervo is a crucial step in his development, especially when compared with its immediate successor, the astonishingly original 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 Yet even this was withdrawn after its première, only reappearing nine years later after extensive reworking.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 own. 

Unlike 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 Skazka). 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 later works. 

There are five sections: a slow introduction and postlude bracketing a sort of evolutionary Overture in the Italian Style (fast-slow-fast). 

1. 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]. 

2. 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”. 

3. 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. 

4. 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, Kamo, Whangarei 0101, Northland, New Zealand


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