Work: Karelia Suite, Op. 11
About This Work
Sibelius' work on the incidental music to Karelia was borne on the rising tide of nationalism that swept through Finland in the 1890s. During this era, many considered education to be the best means of preserving cultural identity and thus opposing
Russia's encroachment on Finland. Sibelius' score, composed in a frenzied rush in 1893, was a natural response to this outlook and to the Finnish people's fondness for historical tableaux.
The work was commissioned by the Viipuir Students' Association of the University of Helsinki -- a student organization that was prevalent across the province of Viipuri (now part of Russia) -- and was premiered at a November 1893 gala event. Proceeds from the ticket sales were to go to "improving the social and cultural life of the Eastern border districts." The work was a rousing success; as Sibelius noted in a letter to his brother Christian, "You couldn't hear a single note of the music -- everyone was on their feet cheering and clapping."
Buoyed by this popular acclaim, Karelia got off to a promising start and was performed a handful of performances to similar acclaim. The composer, however, was less convinced of its musical value, and soon his excitement for the piece waned, likely from a belief that it was too loosely constructed and "tableaux-like" for a concert setting. He later condensed the eight scenes into the three-movement work now familiar as the Karelia Suite, Op. 11.
In its original form, after a patriotic overture, the work's first tableau ("Karelian Home -- Runic Song, interrupted by War Music, 1293") features a stylized "Karelianist" interpretation of rune singing from the Karelia region. In the second tableau ("The Founding of Viipuri Castle, 1293"), Sibelius incorporates a fugato based on Gregorian chant, followed by a chorale-like subject intended as a reference to the blessing of the foundation stone by Bishop Petrus. Following this lofty subject matter, the third tableaux ("Narimont, the Duke of Lithuania, levying taxes in the Province of Käksim, 1333") somewhat prosaically depicts the collection of taxes; appropriately, it begins with clamorous battle music, followed by a central march section. The subject of the fourth tableau ("Ballade -- Karl Knutsson in Viipuri Castle, 1446") is the famed King, who after being deposed in 1446 withdrew to Viipuri Castle to lick his wounds; in Sibelius' score, he seeks solace in the singing of a troubadour. The distinctly warlike fifth tableau ("Pontus de la Gardie at the Gates of Käkisalmi, 1580") includes several fanfares, some wildly dissonant in relation to a pedal bass, leading to a central Alla marcia. The sixth tableau ("The Siege of Viipuri, 1710") hints at Sibelius' characteristic mature style, an exciting combination of brisk motion and static, block-like harmonies. The seventh and eight tableaux ("The Reunion of Old Finland with the Rest of Finland, 1811" and "The Finnish National Anthem 'Our Land'") are allegorical renditions, the latter of which elevates the Finnish national anthem to new dramatic heights. As Jouni Kaipainen, who in 1997 edited and reconstructed parts of the original work, noted, "The nature and message of the tableau was so stunningly obvious that it is actually interesting to wonder how the Czarist censor ever managed to let it through."
-- Brian Wise
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