Jean Sibelius (1865-1857): Opera and the Kalevala

                Recognized as Finland’s greatest composer, Jean Sibelius’s compositions vary in symphonic works, concertos, string quartets, and art song. Sibelius composed over 100 art songs including works set to famous Swedish poets like Runeberg, Rydberg, and Fröding. Aside from Swedish repertoire, Sibelius also completed a song cycle in German. In addition to the vast array of his vocal compositions, today’s frequently performed Sibelius works include the Violin Concerto in D minor, Op. 47; Finlandia, Op. 26; Karelia Suites, Op. 1; and Symphony No. 5, Op. 82.

Though he was fascinated with opera, Sibelius only composed one opera. He considered himself more in-line with Liszt and chose to focus on composing symphonic poems instead of opera.[1] Nonetheless, Sibelius did compose one opera; the Swedish opera, Jungfrun in tornet (The Maiden in the Tower). This 40-minute one act opera premiered in concert form in 1896. Just three years prior, in 1893, Sibelius had attempted to compose an opera based on text from the Finnish epic, the Kalevala. However, Sibelius abandoned this project and never completed this operatic work. It was titled, Veneen luominen (The Building of the Boat). Sibelius repurposed material from Veneen luominen in his four-movement symphonic tone poem, Lemminkäinen Suite, Op. 22 (1896).[2]Sibelius composed nine works based on the Kalevala. Two of those works are written for solo voice: “Kullervon Valitus” from Kullervo Symphony, op. 7,and the tone poem Luonnotar, op. 70.

In the late 1890’s, Sibelius had the idea to compose a work based on the Kalevala’s legend of Luonnotar though his original intention was not the Luonnotar being presented today. The version that did come to fruition, opus 70, was crafted between Sibelius’s fourth and fifth symphony. Luonnotar was premiered at the Gloucester Festival on September 10th in 1913 and came about per request of prima-donna Aino Ackté. Ackté had already been contracted to perform at the festival and she insisted that Sibelius compose a work for the occasion.[3] Sibelius lived during a time when Finland was seeking to find a national identity. Situated between Sweden and Russia, Finland has a long history of cultural influences and governing from its nearby neighbors. For the majority of Sibelius’s life, Finland was occupied by Sweden and Swedish was the primary language, however, Sibelius did attend Hämeelinna’s Finnish-speaking grammar school.[4] Finland gained its independence in 1917, only four years after Sibelius’s premier of Luonnotar. The publishing of the Kalevala played an important role in the


[1] Barnett, Jean Sibelius – a short biography

[2] Barnett, Lemminkäinen, Op. 22

[3] Sibelius, Works for Voice and Orchestra, p. X

[4] Barnett, Jean Sibelius – a short biography

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