Jean Sibelius: The Swan of Tuonela
Jean Sibelius composed The Swan of Tuonela in 1895 as part of the Lemminkäinen Suite. The suite is based on the Finnish mythological epic, Kalevala. The Swan of Tuonela is the second in the quartet of tone poems, and is by far the most popular. The work was actually originally composed in 1893 as the prelude to his first successful opera called The Building of the Boat. This didn’t quite work out, so Sibelius revised the piece two years later to be part of the suite.
The suite itself is based around the figure of Lemminkäinen, a youthful hero that is not too dissimilar to Wagner’s Siegfried. Each of the four tone poems captures a decisive moment in the hero’s adventures. Sibelius made a point not to create a straightforward narrative using these myths, but instead create a snapshot of music that could be attributed to the stories.
At the top of the score for The Swan of Tuonela Sibelius writes:
“Tuonela, the land of death, the hell of Finnish mythology, is surrounded by a large river of black waters and a rapid current, in which the swan of Tuonela glides majestically singing.”
The serene opening captures an idyllic scene, an English horn becomes the voice of the swan, with the solo proving to be one of the best for the instrument in Western classical music. The plaintive English horn solo sits gently on top of a rich string orchestra. Sibelius’ attention to orchestration details is fascinating. The strings are muted throughout, and are divided into thirteen separate lines, which are then further subdivided on each desk. The richness that Sibelius was able to get by doing this adds to the luscious textures and helps capture the story.
Sibelius only uses a small orchestra, however doesn’t include trumpets although four horns and three trombones are written in. The harp also has a big role, with sweeping flourishes hinting towards a glimpse of sunlight. The swan’s voice becomes quieter as it flies away back into the darkness. The atmospheres that Sibelius creates throughout the work is a real testimony to his understanding of sonority.
As the swan’s voice fades deeper into the darkness there is an ominous beating drum in the distance. The strings swell together plating tremolos col legno (with the wood of the bow). This kind of creative and use of textures and timbres makes The Swan of Tuonela a truly beautiful work.
The story that accompanies The Swan of Tuonela shows a transcendental image of a swan flying through the realm of the dead. The youthful hero, Lemminkäinen, has been tasked with killing the swan, however in the process he himself is shot with a poisoned arrow. The following movement shows Lemminkäinenbeing resurrected. A beautifully mystical work, this is certainly some of Sibelius’ most picturesque writing.
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