About this Recording
8.573341 - SIBELIUS, J.: Swanwhite / The Lizard / A Lonely Ski Trail / The Countess's Portrait (Eklundh, Turku Philharmonic, Segerstam)

Jean Sibelius (1865–1957)
Swanwhite • The Lizard • A Lonely Ski Trail • The Countess’ Portrait


Jean Sibelius was the most significant figure in the formation of national identity in Finnish music, to the extent that since 2011 Finland has celebrated a Flag Day on 8 December (the composer’s birthday), also known as the ‘Day of Finnish Music’. The seven symphonies and Violin Concerto lie at the centre of Sibelius’ oeuvre, surrounded by tone poems often based on a Finnish folklore narrative, such as the famous epic, the Kalevala—the inspiration for his popular Lemminkäinen Suite. However, he was also prolific in other genres, not least in songs for voice and piano (which number over a hundred), incidental music (for thirteen plays), chamber and choral works, and even an opera. Despite this significant body of work, after the composition of Tapiola in 1926, Sibelius produced no large-scale works for his remaining thirty-one years—a period often referred to as the ‘Silence from Jarvenpaa’. Supporters say that this dearth was the result of over-stringent self-criticism, which shut down his creative faculties; critics blame a comfortable lifestyle supported by a state pension and refer to the composer’s notorious consumption of alcohol, which he once described as “my truest friend”. Sibelius did not stop composing altogether during this time, but focused on writing smaller-scale compositions and revising and adding to some of his earlier works.

In 1901 the Swedish author August Strindberg (1849–1912) wrote a symbolist fairy-tale called Svanevit (Swanwhite) for his fiancee, the Norwegian-born actress Harriet Bosse, who was to become his third wife. Five years later, Bosse assumed the role of Melisande in Maeterlinck’s play Pelléas and Mélisande, for which Sibelius had composed incidental music, at the Swedish Theatre in Helsinki. She later recalled how—even in character—she was moved to tears at every performance by Sibelius’s music for The Death of Mélisande, played by the orchestra as she lay on her deathbed. Indeed, so great was the effect of the composer’s music for Maeterlinck’s play that Bosse suggested to Strindberg that Sibelius should also write the music for Svanevit, which had not yet been performed on stage. The author accepted, and the first performance was initially planned for 1907 in Stockholm. However, when this proved to be impossible, the Swedish Theatre stepped in, and commissioned Sibelius to write the music. The premiere of both Strindberg’s play and Sibelius’ music eventually took place on 8 April 1908, with the composer conducting. It was well received by the critics, and was also a tremendous success with the public.

Svanevit represents Strindberg’s response to Maeterlinck’s symbolism, not only that of Pelléas and Mélisande but also Princess Maleine, which Strindberg had read in February 1901, just before he began work on Svanevit, and which also includes a wicked stepmother who thwarts the romance of a prince and princess. Svanevit’s eponymous central character is a fifteen-year-old princess who lives in a fairy-tale castle with her father, the Duke, and her wicked Stepmother, a witch, as well as the Stepmother’s three daughters.

Sibelius’s score—which often evokes the style of Grieg, not least in its melodic lines and ornamentation—comprises a horn call and thirteen musical episodes for an orchestra of thirteen. After the initial horn comes a pantomime scene 2, in which Swanwhite meets the Prince, who has been summoned to teach her in regal etiquette. She has been promised to the Young King of a neighbouring country since she was a child, but falls in love with the Prince as soon as she sees him. The very short third number, consisting of just a single chord that swells up and fades away, portrays the flight of Swanwhite’s Swan-mother, while the following movement finds the Swan-mother lamenting as she finds her daughter dirty and unkempt—the result of the evil Stepmother. The single chord of 3 returns for 5 to once again mark the flight of the Swan-mother, and in the sixth episode, the pizzicato arpeggio figures on muted strings describe the instrument associated with her: a magic harp 6. This is the second of the two musical instruments with magical qualities that assist Swanwhite throughout the drama (the other being a horn, heard at the very opening). Each of these is associated with her parents: she blows her horn to call for help from her father, while the harp belongs to her Swan-mother. As the harp plays by itself, it makes the lamps of the girls who are watching over Swanwhite extinguish and the chamber doors close. During this scene, the Swan-mother washes her daughter’s feet, combs her hair and dresses her in a white gown. (It is here that the shadow of Grieg is perhaps most explicit, both in the string writing and in the solo flute and clarinet parts).

In the seventh number Swanwhite dreams of the Prince, but such blissful reveries soon give way to brooding timpani and a dark clarinet melody, describing the Prince in a troubled mood after the lovers have been quarrelling [8]. It is the wedding day of the Young King and Swanwhite, but the tone is bleak, and during the sombre, syncopated wedding waltz [9] dominated by muted strings, the Stepmother encourages the Prince to marry Magdalena instead. Still angry with Swanwhite after their argument, he rashly agrees. Magdalena is presented under a thick veil, but when he lifts this he discovers his bride-to-be is in fact Swanwhite. The bridal couple are taken to the bed, and the Prince places a sword between them as a sign of their chastity [10].

The Young King (to whom Swanwhite was originally betrothed) meets her and declares that he is not attracted to her, setting her free. During the music that follows [11], with a shifting tonality between A minor and C major, she is reunited with the Prince. The magic harp plays itself once again, and Sibelius also includes material—staccato flute rhythms—which he would later develop in the central movement of his Fifth Symphony (1915). This happiness is short-lived, however, and Swanwhite is compelled to blow her magic horn to request help from her father [12], after the Prince is caught in a storm on his ship. The father sets out to put matters right, but the Prince drowns. He is brought back to Swanwhite [13] and in the final episode she revives him [14]. The music adopts a religious atmosphere here, not least through the addition of an organ in the final two movements, and the characters fall on their knees, praising God for the Prince’s miraculous resurrection.

As was his custom, in 1909 Sibelius extracted an orchestral suite from Svanevit soon after he had completed the incidental music. In the same year he began work on music for another play, Ödlan (The Lizard), by Mikael Lybeck, which premiered on 6 April 1910. Lybeck’s play inspired Sibelius with its dreamlike atmosphere and its principal character, Count Alban. He is engaged to Elisiv, who represents everything that is pure, and the lovers linger in the “pure” world of music. Adla, on the other hand, in her lizard dress symbolises evil, and arouses both fear and passion in Alban. Elisiv and Adla both struggle to keep Alban’s soul on their side, and Elisiv perishes in the struggle. In revenge, Alban kills the evil that exists within himself—Adla. Sibelius was especially interested in Elisiv’s dream visions, writing: “In the dream sequence I can give my musical inventiveness free hand”. Scored for string orchestra, the music is organised into just two parts, scenes 1 and 2, and is seldom performed, possibly because it seems too closely connected with the stage action to be suitable for a concert performance (as with the incidental music for Jedermann, written several years later).

While Sibelius’ composed music for many plays to great effect, with the brief melodramas Ett ensamt skidspår (A Lonely Ski Trail) and Grevinnans konterfej (The Countess’ Portrait) he also demonstrated his skill in writing for drama on a miniature scale. Although Ett ensamt skidspår dates from 1925, it did not receive its first performance until 19 December 1948. Originally scored for narrator and piano, the version heard on this recording is arranged for narrator, harp and strings. The spoken text is by Bertel Gripenberg, charting the progress of a ski ride through a forest, drawing parallels between the trail in the snow that fades from sight and the waning of human thought, never finding the answers for which it is constantly striving. The narrator concludes, somewhat dejectedly, that his erratic wandering is nothing more than a ski trail that disappears with the freshly fallen snow. By contrast, Grevinnans konterfej (1906) for string orchestra features a text by Zachris Topelius dominated by references to eternal youth and springtime. Here, the ephemeral nature of the solitary ski trail is turned on its head, and instead of mourning over faded memories, the piece is pregnant with the anticipation of new life.

Dominic Wells

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