Sib1 Saga

Severance Hall
February 6 – Thursday at 7:30 p.m. 

February 8 – Saturday at 8:00 p.m.

En Saga, Opus 9

Jean Sibelius  (1865-1957)
composed 1892-93

At a Glance
Sibelius wrote En Saga [“A Legend” or “A Fairytale”] in 1892-93, possibly reworking some sketches for a chamber work for flute, clarinet, and strings.  En Saga was first performed on February 16, 1893, in Helsinki, with the Helsinki Orchestral Society conducted by the composer.  Sibelius made some revisions to the score in 1902.

This symphonic fantasy runs about 15 minutes in performance.  Sibelius scored it for 2 flutes (second doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, triangle, cymbals), and strings.  

The Cleveland Orchestra first presented Sibelius’s En Saga in January 1932 during a weekend of concerts led by Rudoph Ringwall.  It was performed with some regularity over the next three decades, but was last performed by the Orchestra at concerts in December 1965 conducted by George Szell.

About the Music
Jean Sibelius cut a striking figure in his late twenties. A leading critic at the time, Carl Flodin, cast the young man in the guise of a brooding, Romantic hero (apart, perhaps, from the ears):   “His fair hair fell in disorder onto his forehead.  His eyes had a veiled expression, but when his restless imagination began to work, they became more penetrating and took on a bluish shimmer.  His ears were remarkable — large, well-shaped ‘sound receivers’.”

These ‘sound receivers’ would prove themselves sensitive to all sorts of aural stimuli, from the buzz and drone of traditional folk instruments to the whispers of the pines and the wings of a swan.  Sibelius found a unique way of hearing the world and translating it with striking imagination into his music.  Over the course of the thirty-five years of his active creative life — before lapsing into the long “silence of Järvenpää” of his later years — he remodelled the symphony as a genre, rejuvenated the tone poem, and refashioned orchestral thinking for generations to come.

En Saga is Swedish for “A Fairy-Tale” or “A Legend,” and is the first of thirteen atmospheric tone poems Sibelius would write, many of them based on legends from the Kalevala, one of the major Finnish folk epics.  As a mini musical fantasy, En Saga manages to have the trappings of a simple folktale while at the same time exploring radical new structural ideas. Indeed, its abrupt tonal shifts and loose narrative were steps too far for the critics at its premiere of 1893.  

Sibelius revised the work in 1902, paring it down and making it more direct.  At its second outing, in Berlin, it still had detractors, but the concert was successful enough to ensure Sibelius his break-through into the prestigious German musical scene.

What in lesser hands might have been a pleasant medley of Finnish folktunes becomes, with Sibelius at the helm, an enthralling trip into a fairytale world.  For the first two thirds of this tone poem the music is in perpetual motion.  It would be the perfect underscore to a night-time train journey (in a movie or on your EarPods).  In this music, the young Sibelius also demonstrates how adept he is at enchanting the listener by evoking a parallel realm of spirit and wonder.  He sets a precedent for Ravel to follow ten years later with his ballets about nymphs and princesses.  (The iridescent scoring to the opening of En Saga was doubtless particularly appealing to the Frenchman.)

What, then, is this “fairy-tale” about?  Tantalizingly, that is left unsaid.  Whereas in other descriptive works Sibelius was happy to respond explicitly to the narrative at their source, this work he described merely as “an expression of a state of mind,” adding that “in none of my other works have I revealed myself as completely as in ‘En Saga’.” 

It combines, in other words, the atmosphere of an ancient Finnish legend with a musical autobiography. 

It may be tempting to hear the heroic tone of the material as allied to Sibelius’s championing of Finnish independence, as this was such a defining passion for him in his early career.  Without evidence, however, that point cannot be pressed.  The pleasure is in allowing the music to take its own course.

Listening to En Saga
Once heard, the fantastical introduction to this work is not easily forgotten.  Under a rainbow of strings (using a string-crossing technique that Sibelius would use again and again in his compositions), bassoons and horns lurk in the dark, hovering between two deep notes.  Woodwinds give a pulsing response, sounding like water-birds. This sets the scene. There are then three main ideas, which will be repeated and developed:

1.  First, the main folk tune that uncoils in the low strings and bassoons before being held aloft by the violins; it is both proud and melancholic.

2.  Next is a rather sullen dance given out by the violas, who skip on the first note multiple times.

3.  Lastly, there is the violins’ brusque response to this, again hammering out their first note four times.

In keeping with Sibelius’s new, organic way of thinking, these three ideas now morph, shrink, and grow to feed the rest of the tone poem.  

At all times, the orchestra is presented in fascinating colors that will become common elements in Sibelius’s palette. The “cross-hatching” in the strings is a good example, as the entire section — from violins down to basses — blur a chord with hushed tremolo bowing.  The sound of the woodwinds is darkly clothed, and the brass are at times used like a dead weight.  The pleasure of a texture often takes precedence over a tune.  Many of these traits would be replicated and developed in subsequent orchestral works.

The final section of En Saga strikes a particularly personal tone, with the orchestra reduced to chamber forces, as if we are being given a diary account of events. Suddenly, all the earlier momentum is gone, and the ideas drift over a pedal-note before receding into silence. 

Then, a stern alarm call is given and our hero is stirred back into action, only to be returned to that magical gloaming where things began, this time accompanied by a mournful lone clarinet.  The work wanders into a distant key in its final bars.  Wherever the interpretation of each listener may take you, there is no “happily ever after” to be had here.

Jonathan James © 2020

Jonathan James is a lecturer, conductor, and BBC presenter based in Bristol, England.  There he runs a specialist music school and leads creative workshops.