The symphonic poem Tapiola (1925) was composed soon after completion of the Seventh Symphony and was to be Sibelius’ last major work. The sketches for the Eighth Symphony, which was awaited with eager anticipation throughout the world, were destroyed by the exacting composer. After writing the poem there came a thirty-year period of creative silence which Finnish journalists referred to as “silence in Järvenpää” (Järvenpää being where the composer lived, a small village not far from Helsinki).
Sibelius prefaced the score of Tapiola with a poetic programme:
Widespread they stand, the Northland’s dusky forests,
Immersed in a magical dream,
Within them dwells the forest’s mighty God,
And wood-sprites flutter in the silence.
The fourteenth rune of The Kalevala speaks of Tapio – the god of the forests in Finnish mythology – and of his abode, the woodland country of Tapiola.
Here I walk in the ancient woodland forest
On the way to Tapiola,
Into Tapio's wild dwellings.
Greeting bring I to the mountains and uplands,
Greet ye, heights with forests covered...
The music of the poem comes from a short motif that is close in its intonations to a folk tale. Fully-armed with skill, Sibelius creates a major symphonic form, subjecting the musical themes to different transformations, dressing them in colourful instrumental clothing, sometimes dazzling and at others bleakly northern... The conclusion of the poem is filled with peace and primordial silence.
The poem was written following a commission from the New York Philharmonic Society and was performed for the first time in New York under the baton of Walter Damrosch on 26 December 1925.
The Second Symphony was composed by Sibelius on the crest of the wave of success that accompanied the First. It continued the epic line in the composer’s art, also revealing it in a new light. The premiere of the symphony took place to great acclaim in Helsinki on 3 March 1902 under the baton of the composer.
“It seems as if the Most High, having thrown down pebbles from the vaults of Heaven – with which one could produce a mosaic, is telling me to bring them together as a single whole” was how Sibelius described the process of writing the symphony. There could be no better way to speak of the structure of the first movement, the exposition of which is a series of unique “pebbles”, at times even shards of musical themes. In the development the composer creates a refined and, at the same time, absolutely natural drawing or pattern.
Breaking with traditions, the dramatic core of the symphony is the lento second movement – the broadly developed symphonic ballade embodying, according to the composer’s notes, the tragic opposing natures of Don Juan and the Stone Guest, of Life and Death.
The third movement is a whirlwind-like scherzo. It is interrupted twice by a slow trio; the lyrical intermezzo of the oboe, clearly with folkloric roots, reminds us of the melodic images of the first movement.
The finale opens with the pathétique main theme which is performed by a “chorus of strings” to the accompaniment of the trombones and trumpet fanfares. This is one of the most inspired melodic discoveries Sibelius made. The contrast to the main theme comes with the second, which is imbued with a deep grief (the wind instruments sing it to the background of the suppressed gamma-like motion of the strings). In the reprise the second theme becomes lighter and together with the main theme concludes the symphony with a colonnade of majestic chords.
At the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, Sibelius created the song cycles Nos 36 and 37. The melodies of the songs are imbued with the influence of Finnish folk tunes. In stressing the stylistic differences of his music from works by modernist composers, Sibelius wrote “While other composers have become more refined in preparing cocktails of all sorts and of all shades I myself have always offered audiences pure fresh water.” The programme for the concert includes romances to verse by the Finnish poet of Swedish descent Johan Ludvig Runeberg – The Dream and The Girl Returned from Meeting Her Lover. The second of these romances, which tells of a girl abandoned by her lover, became incredibly popular.
Sibelius dedicated his symphonic poem for soprano and orchestra Luonnotar (1913) to the outstanding Finnish singer Aino Ackté. The premiere of the poem took place at a festival in Gloucester (Great Britain) on 10 September 1913, the soprano being sung by Aino Ackté.
As with many other works by Sibelius, the basis of Luonnotar is the Karelian-Finnish national epos The Kalevala. The first rune of The Kalevala tells of the creation of the world. Luonnotar, the spirit of nature and the daughter of the air, brings fruit from the wind and water and becomes the mother of the seas. A duck is swaddling a nest on the knee of the mother of the seas; the duck’s eggs crack open to reveal the earth, the sky, the sun, the moon and the clouds. The mother of the seas creates the promontories, gulfs, shores and sand-banks of the sea...
The miracle of the birth of the world is presented in music that is full of magical enchantment but, despite that, Luonnotar is somewhat rarely performed. This is linked with the extreme complexity of the vocal part – it was composed in an incredibly high tessitura and is rich in the vocal techniques of folk singers and story-tellers which are not so easy to perform for singers who have become accustomed to the classical singing technique.