About this Piece
Length: c. 15 minutes
Orchestration: piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 2 cornets, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, harp, and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: July 20, 1937, Werner Janssen conducting
Since Sibelius' sketches became available for scholars in the early 1980s, new light has been shed on the genesis of many works. The sketch material for Pohjola's Daughter is exceptionally rich. It has become manifest that the composer wrote down musical ideas that finally ended up in this work as early as in March 1901 when staying in Italy and working on the Second Symphony as his first priority.
The sketchbooks also reveal that he had in mind a symphonic poem or fantasy based on the 'Luonnotar' myth, a creation myth about the origin of the world as it is told in the first poem of the Kalevala. From a later date, perhaps from the autumn of 1905, there is an untitled manuscript score that Sibelius left unfinished and that probably is the work he referred to as 'Luonnotar.' This score can be regarded as the drafted first version of Pohjola's Daughter, completed in June 1906. (It should be noted that Sibelius's Luonnotar, Op. 70, tone poem for soprano and orchestra from 1913, is an altogether different work, although based on the same myth as this unfinished earlier project.)
The 'Pohjola's daughter' legend is related in the eighth poem of the Kalevala. The old hero Väinämöinen "is rumbling along out of dark Northland" when he gets sight of the young and beautiful maiden of Pohjola (Northland) sitting at the edge of a rainbow. He stops his horse at once and speaks: "Come, maid, into my sleigh, step down into my sledge!" The maid gives him three tasks to work out. Two of them he accomplishes. Then the maid says: "Well, I'd marry one who could carve a boat out of bits of my spindle." Väinämöinen set about carving a boat, but on the third day an accident happens:
into the rock the axe went
and the blade tip struck the cliff
and the axe bounced off the rock
and the blade slid into flesh
into the worthy boy's knee
Väinämöinen then had to abort carving and to set about looking for someone
who treats iron's toil
who bars a blood-rain
who checks vein-rapids
(translated by Keith Bosley)
The 'Luonnotar' myth and the 'Pohjola's daughter' legend are two completely different stories. As Sibelius changed the subject of his tone poem in the midst of the compositional process, "he had to recompose the nearly complete composition, change the order of its elements, rearrange the formal and tonal design, and omit material which he seems to have regarded as intrinsically valuable," as Dr. Timo Virtanen concludes on the basis of his sketch studies.
There was yet a third story. The writer Jalmari Finne offered Sibelius a libretto based on the 'Marjatta' legend of the Kalevala to serve as the text of an oratorio. This legend, told in the 50th poem of the epic, is about the birth of Christ. The maiden Marjatta enters the woods, eats a cowberry, becomes pregnant, and gives birth to a boy who, when baptized, sends Väinämöinen out to the open sea. The pagan era gives way to Christianity. Sibelius wrote a lot of music for the oratorio before abandoning the project, and this music ended up partly in Pohjola's Daughter and partly in the Third Symphony.
The music of Pohjola's Daughter, Symphonic Fantasy, Op. 49, thus stems from three different projects but was finally focused on the 'Pohjola's daughter' legend. Sibelius first wanted to call the work "Väinämöinen" or else "L'aventure d'un héros" - a clear reference to Richard Strauss' Ein Heldenleben that he had heard in Berlin in 1905 - but consented finally to the opinion of his publisher Lienau that a feminine name would be commercially better. Yet, the hero of the Fantasy is not the maiden of Pohjola, but Väinämöinen, who tries to work out the given tasks but finally fails. There might be something autobiographical to this music, too. Ten years earlier Sibelius had been working on an opera, "The Building of the Boat," that he, like Väinämöinen, could not finish.
- Dr. Ilkka Oramo is Professor of Music Theory at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki.