I had been waiting for so long. Going to Finland! Yes! My former biology teacher regularly passed his holidays in Finland, his daughters have Sami names if my memory does nokt betray me, and if you gave him the right keyword he would launch into an eulogy of the landscape, the people, their traditions, the peace and the solitude. Though his enthusiasm secretly amused us at the time, his passion had moved me and left a lasting impression. But somehow I didn’t find an occasion to go there – until last year.
A moving moment
I sat on that plane, comfortably installed in my seat, full of anticipation and joy and as we entered Finnish airspace I stared out of the window and caught a glimpse of what made my former teacher go ecstatic: vast stretches of forests and grazing land, myriads of lakes and rivers. Fantastic! I frantically scrolled through my iPad, here, Sibelius: Karelia Suite, op. 11. Play!
A dark rumble of the strings, the French Horns sound a fanfare, all the brass fall in, the strings’ rumble grows louder and a lively march, accentuated by the timpani, sets in: Welcome to Finland. I close my eyes, a warm feeling fills my body, I am truly full of anticipation. Jean Sibelius had nothing less in mind when he wrote the first movement of this symphonic suite. A procession of marching people amidst a sea of flags. The composer wrote the suite for a patriotic student parade in Karelia, a region that stretches from the north of Sweden through Norway, Finland into Russia.
Sibelius’ musical patchwork
The second movement has the shape of ballad as it used to be sung by Medieval bards. Sibelius attributes this role to the English Horn, the movement is supposed to conjure the image of a Swedish king, who once ruled Karelia, dwelling on happy memories from the old times while being entertained by minstrels. Sibelius himself looked back with similar emotions to Karelia, where he had spent his honeymoon. The last movement is a joyful march again with a prominent role for the flutes. It stems from a larger piece of music written by Sibelius meant to illustrate the siege of a fortress.
The three parts of the Karelia Suite are borrowed from Sibelius’ Karelia Music, which consists of an overture, eight tableaux and two intermezzi. Sibelius wrote it in 1893 and performed the overture as well as the three pieces that would be published as the Karelia Suite later. The complete score remained unpublished and it is assumed that Sibelius burned it in 1945 along with his Symphony No. 8. Efforts to reconstruct the Karelia Music were made in 1965 after Sibelius’ death, but the parts for the violas, the cellos and the double basses remained lost.
Neeme Järvi and the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra have made a wonderful recording of the Karelia Suite. Welcome to Finland!
© Charles Thibo