Jean Sibelius: Karelia Suite
Jean Sibelius’ Karelia Suite is a small collection of pieces that were in the much longer Karelia Music. The original version had its premiere in November 1893 and was commissioned by the Viipuri Students’ Association. Sibelius also conducted the Karelia Suite just ten days later. At the premiere of the suite, Sibelius was unhappy with the response:
“You couldn’t hear a single note of the music – everyone was on their feet cheering and clapping.”
The suite is celebrated for its poignant use of folk tunes and aesthetics. Sibelius did not set out to compose virtuosic orchestral music, but instead explore folk stories and culture. The suite is split into three movements, which are either exact copies of the music from Karelia Music, or are slightly recomposed from fragments of the original.
Movement I – Intermezzo
Technically the only original movement of music to make it in the suite, the opening Intermezzo movement is perhaps the most well-known. Set as a spritely Allegro march,the movement portrays a militaristic atmosphere of the marching contingents. Primarily led by the horns and trumpets, the famous melody is accompanied by off-beats from the rest of the orchestra plus a tambourine. Sibelius’ rich textural writing in this movement allows the melody to soar above the excitable accompaniments. After a reprise of the quiet opening, the Intermezzo concludes poignantly.
Movement II – Ballade
The second movement, Ballade, is a reflection of a song sung by the bard. Sibelius uses the cor anglais to represent the voice in the movement. The mood is somewhat sombre and reflective, with the music capturing Karl Knutsson reminiscing in his castle whilst being entertained by a minstrel. The bubbling string movement adds interesting rhythmic movement, which is quite unsteady at times. The glorious oboe and cor anglais solos are emphasised by a full set of strings, which Sibelius utilises to the maximum here. Some recordings use an actual voice for the bard in the end, but many use the cor anglais version too.
Movement III – Alla Marcia
Set as an energetic march, the Alla Marcia is often played as a standalone movement. Almost exactly the same as the original music, Sibelius only makes a few chordal changes throughout. Similarly to the first movement, this march sees Sibelius utilise the brass again for fanfare work. The music is full of life and vitality and the instrumentation that Sibelius chooses is really intriguing. After a bombastic brass fanfare, the lone piccolo flute plays the melody, which offers a very different timbre and atmosphere. After a recap of the big brass fanfares, the finale movement ends with the orchestra coming together for the colourful final chord.
Full of glorious melodies, fanfares and solos, Jean Sibelius’ Karelia Suite is still one of his most cherished works today. Often heard as a trio, the first and third movements are also used on their own too.