Jean Sibelius: The Swan of Tuonela

OK. As you’ve probably guessed by now, I spent a good deal of my life wallowing in self-pity. Looking back now, after all these years and with children of my own, I wonder what my parents thought about my plunge into classical music. Until then, I was known at school as a happy-go-lucky sort, always telling jokes, very active and being a boy scout, brave, clean and reverent. Suddenly I start reading Dostoyevsky and hole up in my room for hours on end listening to lugubrious works by Brahms, Beethoven, and Sibelius. No wonder my mother once said to me: “you think too much, and about the wrong things.”

Maybe she had a point, though, I can think of worse hobbies and obsessions, (such as video games, macrame, and Pro-Football), that do more damage to the soul.

The Swan of Tuonela was one of these pieces I used to resort to in one of my more abject bouts of wallowing self-pity. It is a tone poem by the Finnish composer, Jean Sibelius (1865-1957). It is inspired by a story out of the the Finnish national book of mythology, the Kalevala. Sibelius said “no” to the dissonance and  atonality of the 20th Century and did not abandon melody and harmony like many of his European peers. In fact, as this piece shows, he almost went of in the direction of hyper-Romanticism. Maybe this has something to do with the long Finnish winter nights.

Tuonela is the Hades in Finnish mythology, which a swift dark river encircles. On this river, a majestic swan swims and sings. In Sibelius’ tone poem, the swan is represented by a melody played on the English horn. The tune moves slowly and gracefully, looping around and above the lush harmonies of the orchestra. The river is represented mostly by the violins, which use soft and shimmering short bow strokes to capture the dark, quiet feeling one watching the last rays of daylight playing on the ripples of the water’s surface. Toward the end, the full orchestra wells up and plays forte, filled with anguish. This harmonic tension eventually resolves itself and a cello carries the swan’s theme off to the end.

I chanced upon The Swan of Tuonela by accident. It was in a group of used records I bought in a garage sale for about a quarter a piece. The same disk held a performance of Sibelius’ Second Symphony. These two pieces reflect Sibelius’ love of nature and its mysterious sounds. They remind me in a way of Bartok’s string quartets in which he tried to capture the sound of night. Listening to it again after all these years, I still find it haunting and beautiful.

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