08 Nov 2012

Sibelius – “The Swan of Tuonela” No. 2 from Legends, op. 22

By Jeff Counts

Instrumentation: solo English horn, oboe, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trombones, timpani, bass drum, harp, strings.

Duration:  10 minutes.

Jean Sibelius (1865-1957) – Sibelius completed the first version of his Lemmenkäinen Suite (Four Legends from the Kalevala) just before the turn of the century in 1895. The Kalevala is the national folk of epic of Finland and was a logical source of inspiration for a budding nationalist like Sibelius in his late 20s. Three of the four “Legends” are taken directly from the Kalevala poetry that tells of the “handsome hero” Lemmenkäinen. The famous Swan of Tuonela is the exception. Based instead on material from the overture of an unsuccessful opera project (The Building of the Boat), the Swan of Tuonela does not tell a tale but rather sets a mood. Sibelius provided an inscription in early editions of the score to help define the atomosphere. “Tuonela, the Kingdom of Death, the Hades of Finnish mythology, is surrounded by a broad river of black water and rapid current, on which the Swan of Tuonela glides in majestic fashion and sings.” The music is wonderfully descriptive of that scene and some claim the Swan as Sibelius’ first genuine masterwork, the first of many to be sure.