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Sibelius Is My Hero

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From the BSO, a Heroic Approach to Sibelius
Washington Post, June 14, 2008

Baltimore Symphony Orchestra
Thomas Dausgaard, guest conductor
Barry Douglas, piano
Rachmaninoff, Piano Concert No. 3
Sibelius, En Saga (op. 9) and Symphony No. 7
Meyerhoff Symphony Hall (Baltimore, Md.)

Some research that could not be accommodated in the word limit:

Andrew Barnett, Sibelius
Andrew Barnett, Sibelius

Sibelius Studies
Sibelius Studies, ed. Timothy L. Jackson and Veijo Murtomäki
Andrew Barnett, in his 2007 biography of Sibelius, tries to tease apart some of the mystery behind the autobiographical program of En Saga. The work followed the more massive Kullervo, composed for more modest orchestral forces in response to criticism that Kullervo would not be performed often enough. Its first version, in 1892, was never published, but Sibelius uncharacteristically held onto the manuscript which is preserved at Ainola, the composer's home. It was composed shortly after the composer's marriage and his collecting of examples of Finnish runic singing in Karelia. Sibelius made it clear that the unspecified "legend" of the title was autobiographical but refused to go into detail.

A clue can be found in the library at Ainola, a painting by Axel Gallén from 1894. Often called En Saga, it is a watercolor in three parts: a portrait of Sibelius, a mysteriously colorful landscape, and a blank space left for the composer to notate part of the tone poem. Sibelius left it empty, but a clue to the meaning of the tone poem may be in it.

Barnett and Veijo Murtomäki note that there is a musical clue, too. The hero's crisis was like that found in so many ballads: the hero destroyed by sexual hubris, the temptation of libidinal urges. The quotation of Wagner's "Tristan chord" in En Saga also points to a wound that is related to a forbidden love. There are themes in En Saga, especially in the slow middle section (mostly excised by Sibelius in the 1902 revision), that recall what Richard Taruskin has called the "nega topos," serpentine, especially chromatic melodic lines often associated with a female seducer who enslaves men. Axel Gallén, who was part of the Symposium drinking club with Sibelius, the conductor Robert Kajanus, and critic Oskar Meribanto, may have known something about the episode behind the tone poem.

Online scores:
En Saga and other tone poems

Recent performances of Sibelius 7th symphony:
University of Maryland Orchestra (October 26, 2007)
National Symphony Orchestra (May 29, 2008)

Barry Douglas:
With Camerata Ireland (March 23, 2007)


Anonymous said...

There are also plenty of references to Tristan at the beginning of the Seventh Symphony. Check out bars 3 - 6: almost every chord there is related to the "Tristan" chord! This is mentioned in the "Sibelius Studies" collection, page 239.

Perhaps it is no coincidence that En Saga and the Seventh are two of my favorite Sibelius compositions!

Charles T. Downey said...

Ooh, good point. Yes, the 7th is a good one, no doubt about it.

Anonymous said...

Though the 4th may be an even better one ...