Work: Swan of Tuonela
About This Work
The Kalevala is a collection of folk poetry from Northeastern Finland and Archangel Karelia (Russia), compiled by Elias Lönnrot (1802-1884). The original collection, from 1835, consisted of 32 cantos, but Lönnrot expanded it to 50 in 1849,
to fashion the popular version that would later inspire Sibelius to compose several works, including the Lemminkainen Suite: Four Legends from the Kalevala. The central character of the stories is Lemminkäinen, a sort of Finnish mythological figure, somewhat along the order of Don Juan. The Swan of Tuonela is the third of the four Legends and has been called the composer's first bona fide masterpiece.
It begins in a somber mood, the music depicting the Swan singing as it serenely glides atop the river -- a river where one senses hovering mists and an eerie quiet. The English horn has a prominent part here, playing the lovely, melancholy main theme (the Swan singing), a creation whose exoticism and mesmerizing character impart both a sense of loneliness and of soothing consolation. The music intensifies midway through, but cannot quite generate enough momentum to break away from the ethereal and mystical mood established at the opening. The English horn returns in the latter half to sing its music again, but the mood darkens further, especially in the string writing, which favors the violas, cellos, and lower ranges of the violin, and divulges a sort of funereal manner. Lasting 9 to 10 minutes, The Swan of Tuonela is probably the finest of the four Legends from the Kalevala.
-- Robert Cummings
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