Sibelius's En Saga is a dramatic reflection of the composer's state of mind, and a testament to his musical skill. Explore the piece here...
The title means "a fairy tale" in Swedish (Sibelius's first language), but there's no story behind the piece, no program describing what happens - it's pure music.
Sibelius even said any inspiration from literary sources was more from the epic texts of Iceland rather than the Finnish national stories. En Saga seems to be a mix of a variety of northern influences, not just a Finnish symphonic poem!
Let's take a look at how the piece came to exist...
In the early 1890s Sibelius was a composer bursting with youth and enthusiasm. He had written merely a handful of pieces, including the epic Kullervo choral symphony, celebrating Finland and everything Finnish.
But Kullervo was complicated: it needed a massive orchestra, and the average listener found it a bit too complex to enjoy fully.
Sibelius's friend Robert Kajanus, a well-known conductor, told the composer that a more mainstream piece, designed with a smaller orchestra in mind and aimed at the general public (instead of music theorists) would be a fantastic idea.
Sibelius drafted the piece by evolving some pieces he had been working on. It actually started life as an octet for chamber instruments. Then Sibelius dropped an instrument from the work, and called it "Ballet Scene No. 2".
This is the last we know of the piece before the composer announced, at the end of 1892, that he'd completed En Saga... and it was now an "orchestral piece"!
The piece premiered a few months later with Sibelius himself holding the baton and the musicians of Robert Kajanus's orchestra performing. Not the this fine orchestra was happy to play the piece - many of them found it confusing, and a few of them didn't even want to play it at all.
In any case, the premiere was successful. People loved the piece despite being baffled by it. What was it about? What's the fairy tale? they wondered (I assume).
Sibelius never gave anyone any idea of what the piece was about. The only thing he said was:
"It represents a state of mind"
The composer revised En Saga in 1902, and this is the version most heard today. The piece is one of Sibelius's most popular works, fascinating and inspiring listeners all over the world.
Let's take a quick look at the music itself...
The piece was only Sibelius's 9th published work, so it stands to reason that the music is energetically young and vibrant.
The orchestration is typically Sibelian: icy textures, warm brass and woodwinds, and melancholy solo instruments. It paints a sound picture of the cold tundra at the northern extremes of the world.
The music starts off shrouded in an enigma, with brief bursts of colorful woodwind evocative of new rainbows. The first theme emerges from the mist:
The pace slowly builds, and this melody evolves:
Until we come to a new melody, which blends with the first:
There's one more theme in the piece:
These themes all merge and interplay in a beautifully icy sound poem, until a solo clarinet mournfully winds down the piece, ending it quietly and bleakly.
A typical performance lasts around 20 minutes.
Here's a video of the complete piece:
My favorite recording is the one conducted by the young Mikko Franck with the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra. The conductor seems blessed with impressive interpretive powers, as he magnificently captures the icy, magical textures that pervade the piece. Everything is well-balanced and fantastically poised. 2 thumbs up!
You may also want to consider the recording on Super Audio CD by Sir Colin Davis with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, a classic recording from 1980. The extra audio quality of this SACD remastering allows breathtaking detail and ambience, as well as a much more accurate reproduction of each instrument's timbre. The result is astonishing - a mystical, living soundworld.
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