Sibelius: Skogsrået

or The Wood Nymph 

performed by the Lahti Symphony Orchestra under Osmo Vänskä

I’m excited about the next few posts for this series because they touch on a special type of tone poem. There’s nothing anywhere (that I recall) about patriotic or nationalistic tone poems in particular, but a few of the upcoming composers in the series are known for being extremely proud of their cultures. Maybe it’s just that it’s easier to incorporate cultural triggers and references into a piece of program music based on a folk story or whatever, and then really go about evoking not only the sounds of that story, but of the culture that brought it to us.

Sibelius’ Wood Nymph is one of these, albeit Swedish, not Finnish. Swedish was, in fact, the composer’s mother tongue, and, as Wikipedia states, the piece:

takes its program from Swedish poet Viktor Rydberg‘s 1882 literary work of the same name, in which the hero Björn wanders through a magical Nordic forest and happens upon a beautiful—and coquettish—wood nymph.

The origins of the piece are unclear, but it seems that both the tone poem and a melodrama (chamber work with narrator) were both composed based on an idea that the composer had for an opera only vaguely based on the Rydberg poem, of a student who travels abroad and falls in love with a dancer, returns to tell his fiancée about her, and she immediately knows he was unfaithful, and then we see her funeral. Melodrama for sure, but it was never realized.

The tone poem itself was nearly lost, having never been published, even after its premiere in 1895. It was performed once in 1936, and then not again for 60 more years, when the above-mentioned pairing of Lahti and Vänskä gave it its modern-day premiere in 1996.

The literary context of Skogsrået is foreshadowed by the opera plot: unfaithfulness or forbidden love and death. The piece in the style of a march would become the opening section of Skogsrået, and the opera’s funeral procession its conclusion…Between these two sections is the section where the protagonist “takes himself off (abroad)” [mirroring The Wood Nymph’s excursion through the forest] and then the section with forbidden, sensual love.

I don’t know if there’s actually anything nationalistic or patriotic about the work, but it’s based on a Swedish poem, which is folksy and cultural enough for me. While the work (in reality like the other two this week) is quite charming and easy to warm up to, Wikipedia says that “many critics have faulted Sibelius for his ‘over-reliance’ on the source material’s narrative structure.” Who cares? In fact, again from Wikipedia:

In The Wood Nymph, Sibelius adheres closely to the narrative structure of Rydberg’s poem, so much so that at the 1895 premiere, audience members were provided with copies of the source material, indicating the centrality of Rydberg’s plot to the performance.

That doesn’t bother me. It seems like honest crediting of inspiration. It doesn’t make the work unoriginal, especially when you open with a melody as majestic and grand as this one.

We start with Björn, a handsome, youthful, heroic, but also kind of naïve figure, a purity and wholesomeness in the this theme, with crunchy strings supporting the brass from behind. It’s really a magnificent, magical way to open the piece, instantly gripping.

It’s also instantly obvious when our main character, to whom who we (or at least I) have quickly drawn attached, enters the forest. The mood changes, the colors, the feels. We turn to the clarinet to introduce a “proto-minimalist” repetitive, jumpy, skittish theme as Björn gets lost in the wood. Strings and other instruments join, and tension quickly builds. The piece swirls into a frenetic kind of energy, with trilling flutes, spinning strings, and offbeat horns, utter (but still magical) chaos compared with the purity of Björn’s theme at the opening, which reappears at the end of the second section, quite obviously, with a little more elaboration.

In our third section, the nymph herself finally shows up, played not by a flute or English horn or anything, but a cello. Look at the first line of the third verse, and you know exactly when the third section of the piece starts:

Nu tystnar brått den susande vind,
(Now the sighing wind is suddenly silent,)

There is a stunning, sudden silence before the solo cello appears, accompanied with pizzicato strings like her backup dancers. This section is in C# major, perhaps in contrast with the purity of the C major opening of the work. This section is indeed delicate, seductive, subtly erotic, as one would expect from a magical “dangerous seductress.” The section ends quite definitively (cadence and everything) after a slightly more lively passage, and you could be forgiven for thinking the piece was over.

But it seems only too appropriate to break cleanly from the recent liaison and wake to its disastrous effects. The funeral march, now in C# minor.

I can see how someone might find a lack of conflict or narrative in these quickly presented, almost independent sections that so cleanly depict the four sections of the original poem. But the piece itself is only twenty-ish minutes. The funeral march sounds incredibly tragic, but not mournful, to me anyway. It’s gut-wrenching, but it’s not Beethoven’s march funebre. There’s still an unsettled restlessness in it rather than a languid heartbeat.

There’s also almost no internal unity to the piece. Björn’s theme gets repeated once, and there’s some association between the keys in the sections: C major, A minor, C# major, C# minor, but it’s almost kind of through-composed. It’s not the most successful of the tone poems we’ll be talking about, but certainly has its charms. It is by all accounts a rare piece, and maybe should be, relative to others, but it’s still nice.

Next week’s pieces, no offense, blow this one out of the water. See you then.




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