Sibelius: En Saga, op. 9

performed by the Lahti Symphony Orchestra under Osmo Vänskä

En saga is the expression of a state of mind. I had undergone a number of painful experiences at the time and in no other work have I revealed myself so completely. It is for this reason that I find all literary explanations quite alien…

Sibelius. He’s been around here before, but after his violin concerto and first, second, and third symphonies, we haven’t seen much of him. Time to remedy that, and what better time than by speaking of his earliest tone poems?

In contrast with recent articles about pieces like Les Preludes and Don Juan, this piece, as mentioned in the quote above, has no literary inspiration. As Wikipedia states:

… [the] evolution of this work is rather vague although it is known that in 1890–1891 Sibelius had begun composing an octet for strings, flute and clarinet.

Sibelius claimed in 1892 that he’d finished the work, after having a number of designations, as a septet, an octet and even a ‘ballet scene,’ but it wasn’t premiered in its final form until 1902. I have put it in the sequence of pieces based on its 1892 completion date, which is why we’re discussing op. 9 today.

The title, as you might possibly notice, is in Sibelius’ mother tongue, Swedish, not Finnish, and simply means ‘a saga’ or ‘a fairy tale’; Alan Gilbert says “a story” per below:

That discussion is in the context of its pairing with Wagner, but he does describe the work as a masterpiece.

The piece begins almost darkly, bittersweetly, with double reeds, woodwinds, and immediately there’s an open, woodsy, bleak landscape, expansive, open, a bit lost, and with a flourish from flute and brass it’s a bit brighter. This brings to mind the ‘fairy tale’ translation of the title. It sets an instantly-captivating mood, but it only gets better when low strings and bassoons enter under below the shimmery sounds.

Listen out for the strike of a timpani, where suddenly the undercurrents of all this brooding, almost menacingly dark music suddenly springs to sunny life, and the cellos take over. This soundscape, a rustic, pastoral one is something I feel is common to Sibelius’ music, but not of spring, not Beethoven’s pastoral. Instead, it’s a dense, wintry one, of deep, vivid blues and stark shimmering snow, whole swathes of light grey sky. But that’s also not to say that it’s all gloom and dismal barren nothingness. There’s plenty of life to this piece, and I find it lies mostly in the violas and cellos; you’ll know when it shows up. It’s a delicate, tender, very exposed melody, one that reappears often throughout this 18-ish minute work.

In that time, there’s not a lot of new material that shows up, not a ton of variation. The piece hovers tensely around these basic themes, disappearing and reappearing here and there, reaching some climaxes that contrast with the yearning, delicate nature of the themes themselves. It even comes to a complete halt, almost entirely silent, as if dead, about two thirds of the way through. One perhaps expects some sort of resolution to what seems to be the end of the conflict, and sure enough, the entire orchestra rises to a furious, lively pitch, with horns singing above strings and woodwinds. It’s outstandingly exciting, and Lahti’s horns play this exquisitely. The most energetic, perhaps optimistic, perhaps furious, passage of the piece ends with a cymbal crash, and we are back to our deep blue world of the pensive forest, lost in thought with a solo clarinet. From there, the piece dies away slowly, as if taking its last breaths, or disappearing into the horizon or over a hill into the snowy distance.

Aside from the stunningly beautiful, moving, deep music Sibelius has presented here, with rich textures and sweeping currents, what’s so interesting is that it’s a bit of a blank canvas for interpretation. It is simply a story, not of a famous literary figure, not of a poem, but something deeply personal to the composer, as he says. It’s not even really important what saga is being discussed. Everyone has their own ‘story’ and it can be most meaningful when applied personally. I hear struggle, tenderness, despair, sorrow, perhaps even anger, some bitterness, longing, but also a kind of resolve, a strength.

However, there’s no real ‘program’ to this work like there was with, say, Don Juan. With the final bowings of that work, we knew our main character was breathing his last. Here, though, how do  you interpret the contours, the highs and the lows of the piece? That explosion of activity and motion, the silence that follows it… is it success and triumph, celebration, struggle and defeat, a dirge? There’s at least nothing I could find aside from the above vague quote of “painful experiences,” but that’s really enough, isn’t it? The pain comes through.

I find this work extremely poetic for some reason, the real poem in tone poem. Even though it’s a full 18-19 minutes, it feels concise, tightly constructed, not ‘small’, but compact, dense in some way, a poetic, literary perfection. Pure emotion.

There’s more to come from Sibelius this week, so stay tuned.

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4 thoughts on “Sibelius: En Saga, op. 9

  1. I don’t know Sibelius a lot, but what I know I like: Kullervo, Pelléas et Mélisande, the String concertos… But I just discovered “En Saga” on that iPad of mine and check it out while I write a comment for the crosseyedpianist.com who is debating tiday with others on writing about classical music online and in real life. May be you want to add your voice to that debate… 😈

  2. Thank you for the heads up. I saw someone else mention that blog recently, so I suppose I should check it out. I left a comment. Sibelius is a very nice composer to get to know; I hear bits of Tchaikovsky, Bruckner, but only shades of suggestion. He’s an individual all his own. As for other Finns, I’ve been listening to some symphonies of Rautavaara lately (1, 3 and 8; 3 is wonderful!), and only starting with Melartin, a contemporary of Sibelius, and it seems eternally in his shadow, but I’m not familiar enough to make any comments yet. Glad you enjoyed the piece!

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