Säv, säv, susa Op 36 No 4 [2'47]
Jag är ett träd Op 57 No 5 [3'03]
Var det en dröm? Op 37 No 4 [2'14]
Robert Layton, who has provided the booklet notes for this album, describes the treasure-trove of Sibelius's songs as one of music's best-kept secrets. The composer wrote a surprisingly large number of songs throughout his life, and anybody who responds to the Nordic spirit and subject-matter of the symphonies and other orchestral music will find much to please them here. They are tuneful, passionate and evocative of the northern latitudes. Virtually all of them are in Swedish which, although he was Finnish, was Sibelius's first language, but the Opus 50 set is in German. There are no fewer than seven settings of the composer's favourite poet of the northern landscapes, Johan Runeberg, including two of Sibelius's best-known songs, 'The tryst' and 'The first kiss'.
Our singer is the delightful Swedish soprano Katarina Karnéus, sometime winner of the Cardiff Singer of the World Competition.
Apart from his lifelong fascination for the symphonic challenge, there are three sources of inspiration running through Sibelius’s art: first, the Nordic landscape which one can glimpse in almost all genres he touched; secondly, the rich heritage of Finnish mythology enshrined in the Kalevala which fertilized his imagination, from The swan of Tuonela at the beginning of his career to Tapiola at the very end; and thirdly, the music of the Swedish-language nature poetry to which he was drawn for so much of his life. The songs are among the best-kept secrets of the repertoire and an enormous treasure.
The vast majority of them are in Swedish, the language with which Sibelius grew up as a child. Indeed, he did not begin to learn Finnish until he was eight years old, in preparation for entrance to the first Finnish-speaking grammar school in the country, the Hämeenlinna Soumalainen Normaalilyseo. The Treaty of Tilsit had brought Finland into the Tsarist empire, but the Russians continued to administer the ‘Grand Duchy of Finland’, as it became, through the existing civil service set up during the six hundred or so years of Swedish rule. And so Swedish remained the language of government, alongside Russian itself, and was the preserve of the educated classes, while Finnish was the language of the masses. Sibelius’s school allowed lessons to be conducted in the vernacular and not just in Swedish and Latin, and so he first encountered the Finnish folk-poetry which was to inspire so much of his orchestral music. But in his hundred or so songs, plus the sketches for some three dozen more, all but a handful are to texts by Swedish poets. The sketches, incidentally, include more than one attempt at setting the same poem. His very earliest song is a Runeberg setting, Serenad (‘Serenade’, 1888). Other songs from the same period include Näcken (‘The watersprite’) to an accompaniment of violin, cello and piano (1888), completely unconnected with the Op 57 No 8 setting on this recording; Skogsrået (‘The wood nymph’, 1888/9) to words of Viktor Rydberg, and another Rydberg setting, Höstkväll (‘Autumn evening’), completely different from his 1903 setting, Op 38 No 1. (See Robert Keane: ‘Höstkväll—two versions?’, Finnish Musical Quarterly, 1990.)
The Seven Songs, Op 13, date from the early 1890s, and the last, the six Runeberg songs, Op 90, are from 1917 when Sibelius was still struggling with the fifth Symphony and Finland was poised on the brink of civil war. There are some later songs but, to all intents and purposes, his contribution to the romans repertoire begins over a decade before the first Symphony and ends just before the third and final version of the fifth—well before his last four major works, the sixth and seventh Symphonies, Tapiola and The tempest. (‘Romans’, incidentally, is the Swedish equivalent of the German ‘Lied’ or the French ‘mélodie’.)
Almost a quarter of Sibelius’s songs are settings of Johan Ludvig Runeberg (1804–1877), the great Finnish poet writing in Swedish, and without doubt Sibelius’s favourite poet. The Opus 13 settings are all Runeberg and they come from the early 1890s: indeed, they were announced in the press as early as 1892, the same year in which he had scored his breakthrough with the Kullervo Symphony. They include Våren flyktar hastigt (‘Spring is flying’) and Under strandens granar (‘Under the fir trees’), the latter written on his honeymoon at Monola in Lake Pielsjärvi in the summer of 1892. Runeberg’s poem has something of the spirit of a folk-ballad: it tells how a watersprite seduces a handsome youth by assuming various disguises. Sibelius’s setting makes use of some freely-conceived recitative and the piano texture is obviously conceived in orchestral terms. Its companion on this recording, Våren flyktar hastigt is one of his most perfect miniatures whose flexible, pliable phrases suggest the transience of the seasons.
The Opus 17 set was written at various times between 1892 and 1902, and includes Illalle (‘To evening’, 1898), one of his rare settings of Finnish and among the most lyrical and affecting of his songs†. It is sometimes sung in Swedish too, as Om kvällen. There is great purity of line, a complete simplicity and a total harmony of means and ends. The accompaniment is confined to the simplest filling in of harmonies, and the setting of the language is guided by its own verbal music. It needs no special knowledge of the language to see that Sibelius alters his approach to the voice when setting Finnish. The vocal line seems to carry so much of the music of the language itself: to hear Illalle given in Swedish is quite a different experience. Finnish is a highly inflected language, rich in vowel sounds, and these songs reflect Sibelius’s growing confidence in handling it. Right up to the early 1890s Sibelius still made small mistakes in writing Finnish.
The Opus 36 songs are among Sibelius’s most popular. Svarta rosor (‘Black roses’) is probably the best known of all of them and its fascination lies in the way the mood darkens at the words ‘Ty sorgen har nattsvarta rosor’ (‘for grief has roses black as night’). This phrase is poised on the second position of the chord of C sharp minor before resolving on the C major tonic. But although it is a fine song and deserves its popularity, it pales in comparison with the second of the group, Men min fågel märks dock icke (‘But my bird is long in homing’), another Runeberg setting. This has a simplicity of utterance, an immediacy of atmosphere and a sheer melodic sweep that earn it a high position in the Sibelian pantheon. Runeberg’s nature lyricism seems to call on the deepest vein of inspiration in Sibelius, for not only is Men min fågel märks dock icke one of his most perfect songs, but it also ranks as one of the finest in the whole romans repertoire. In his definitive five-volume study of the composer, Erik Tawaststjerna reminds us that the rising figure which opens it ‘almost recalls the opening of The swan of Tuonela and that, of course, the song itself begins by a reference to a swan!’. Karl Ekman gives 1899 for these songs but this holds only for the first three. Fazer and Westerlund, the Helsinki publisher, bought Svarta rosor for the then substantial sum of 370 Finnish marks, and it is obvious that Men min fågel and Bollspelet vid Trianon were included in the deal. Bollspelet vid Trianon (‘Tennis at Trianon’) is a setting of Gustaf Fröding, one of the greatest Swedish romantic poets of the nineteenth century, and the poem strikes a particularly responsive chord in Sibelius for the piano part has a finesse not always encountered in his keyboard writing. Bollspelet vid Trianon shows considerable subtlety in the handling of contrast and the alternation between recitative and a pastiche pastoral style, and there is in the background a sense of foreboding at the approaching revolution.
Säv, säv, susa (‘Reeds, reeds, whisper’, though more often known as ‘Sigh, sedges, sigh’) is also to a poem of Fröding, a poem that is in itself so rich in verbal music that it must have represented an enormous challenge to the composer. Sometimes known in English as Ingalill, after the heroine of the poem, it in every way deserves its popularity. Sibelius heightens the music of the words by a gentle, sighing accompaniment of a harp-like character—indeed the harp plays an important part in the orchestral transcription by Alexander Hellman (which Sibelius subsequently authorized) and the return to the opening section is both magical and touching.
For the remaining two songs of Opus 36, Marssnön (‘The March snow’) and Demanten på Marssnön (‘The diamond on the March snow’), Sibelius turned to Josef Julius Wecksell (1838–1907), a Finnish poet writing in Swedish whose work owes something to Heine. He is said to have something of the intensity of Shelley though he succumbed to insanity at a relatively early age. Both poems dwell on the theme of death casting its shadow over the moment of fulfilment.
The Opus 37 set includes two Runeberg settings: Den första kyssen (‘The first kiss’) and Flickan kom ifrån sin älsklings möte (‘The girl returned from meeting her lover’), sometimes known as ‘The tryst’. As usual when he is setting Runeberg, the musical language is direct and concentrates on line with a generally functional piano accompaniment providing harmonic support. Den första kyssen was written for Ida Ekman, the mother of his first biographer, Karl Ekman, and an eloquent interpreter of his songs. (It was she who, accompanied by Hanslick, sang one of his songs to Brahms in 1895.) Den första kyssen, incidentally, comes from 1900, not 1898 as listed in Ekman, Solanterä and the earlier editions of my own Master Musicians monograph. Lasse liten (‘Little Lasse’) is from 1902, as is Soluppgång (‘Sunrise’)—again, recent evidence has disproved the previously accepted dating. In May 1902, Sibelius spoke of his working on Tor Hedberg’s Soluppgång, which he described as ‘a slight but powerfully atmospheric poem’. And so indeed it is, and Sibelius’s setting evokes its mood with great finesse. Lasse liten has been criticized for its low-lying accompaniment, almost exclusively in the bass clef. Yet, oddly enough, its subtle rhythm, so completely attuned to the speech rhythm of Topelius’s verse, strikes a note of conviction, and the dark colours evoked convey an idea of the big wide world with all its attendant dangers that lurks outside the mother’s sheltering embrace.
German was, of course, Sibelius’s first foreign language (he spoke little French or English) and it was natural that at a time when his music was beginning to find a welcome in Germany in the first years of the century he should turn in his Opus 50 to a major language. Two of the set, Im Feld ein Mädchen singt (‘In the field a maiden sings’) and Die stille Stadt (‘The silent town’) are among his greatest songs. Lenzgesang (‘Spring song’), to words of Fitger, suffers from a piano accompaniment set in too low in register, which does not really blend with the voice, but the vocal part itself has exuberance and charm, as indeed does its immediate successor Sehnsucht (‘Longing’, or ‘Loneliness’). This has the simplicity and polish of the best Swedish settings, and the piano accompaniment has an affecting directness and economy. The piano part, syncopated chords gently adumbrated, lend the song a special pathos. The first of the Dehmel settings, a poet also favoured by Mahler, Aus banger Brust (‘From anxious heart’) is an impassioned one, and Sibelius subsequently scored it, but the real masterpiece here is its companion, Die stille Stadt. This has the concentration and atmosphere of a tone-poem: indeed, its serenity, beauty of line and sense of repose mark it out from the others. It is a grievously neglected song and has great distinction and refinement of feeling. Its subtle shifts of harmonic emphasis resonate in the memory. The last of the set, Rosenlied (‘Rose song’), though not in the same league, has great charm and an almost Viennese lilt.
The Opus 50 songs come from 1906, the year in which he also composed the symphonic fantasy, Pohjola’s daughter and the incidental music to Hjalmar Procopé’s play, Belshazzar’s feast. It is from the latter that Den judiska flickans sång (‘The Jewish girl’s song’) comes. It is a touching and contemplative piece, more familiar as ‘Solitude’ in the concert suite Sibelius made later that same year.
Ernst Josephson (1851–1906) was not only a poet but a painter as well. He spent most of his life in France and studied with Manet, and his paintings have to some extent overshadowed his achievement as a poet. The eight Josephson settings of Opus 57 come from 1909, the same year as the Voces intimae String Quartet. By far the loveliest of the set is the fifth song, Jag är ett träd (‘I am a tree’), which has a much bolder sense of line than its companions and a much more powerful and deeply characteristic atmosphere. Näcken (‘The Watersprite’ or ‘Elf-king’) is an interesting song, too, touched with striking moments of dark poetry.
During the 1914–18 war Sibelius was cut off from his income, and composed an abundance of miniatures including four sets of songs, Opp. 72, 86, 88 and 90, the latter to Runeberg texts. The first of the Opus 90 set is the most celebrated of the group: Norden (‘The North’), as in all the nature poetry of Runeberg, touches a special vein of inspiration in the composer. A steady, gentle syncopated figure is sustained throughout and serves to focus attention on the changing harmonies and the eloquent vocal line.
Robert Layton © 2002