The Kennedy Center

Pohjola's Daughter, Op. 49

About the Work

Image for Sibelius Composer: Jean Sibelius
© Richard Freed

Untitled Document

Sibelius composed Pohjola's Daughter in 1906 and conducted its premiere at the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg on December 29 of that year. The National Symphony Orchestra performed this work for the first time on March 30, 1941, under Hans Kindler, and presented it last on May 2, 3 and 4, 1985, Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting.

The score, dedicated to the conductor Robert Kajanus, calls for piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, harp and strings. Duration, 13 minutes.

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In November 1907 Gustav Mahler, in Helsinki to conduct a program of Beethoven and Wagner, had a conversation with Sibelius about the nature of the symphony. Mahler maintained that a symphony "must be like the world--it must embrace everything," while Sibelius insisted that a symphony was not for telling stories or painting pictures, but was defined by "the severity of style and the profound logic that create an inner connection between all of its motifs." When it came to concert works that were not symphonies, however, Sibelius had no reluctance in writing music that went beyond being merely "evocative" to depict the most vivid and colorful images and actions--as he had done a bit less than a year before his celebrated meeting with Mahler with the introduction of the work that opens the present concerts.

Pohjola's Daughter is the only work Sibelius labeled a "symphonic fantasy." He made sketches for it as early as 1901, when he was at work on his Second Symphony in Italy, but he did not actually compose it for another five years, just after revising his Violin Concerto and before the completion of his Third Symphony. With the enthusiastic support of such champions as Robert Kajanus (who gave up his own creative work to concentrate on conducting Sibelius's music), he had established himself as a major figure in the music of his own country and the world, and he had shaken off the last vestiges of whatever foreign influence may have remained even faintly discernible in his music to assert his individuality with stunning forcefulness.

Like so many of his other descriptive works, Pohjola's Daughter was inspired by Finland's national epic, the Kalevala, which deals in verse (in the same meter as Longfellow's Song of Hiawatha, in fact) with subjects ranging from the creation of the world and the mysteries of Nature to the exploits of the heroes Kullervo and Lemminkäinen. Lemminkäinen is celebrated for his conquest of Kyllikki and the maidens of Saari as well as his visit to Tuonela, the Land of Death. Eroticism has its place in this vast collection, and so does humor. Of the many works of music, painting, poetry and drama inspired by this rich source, Pohjola's Daughter is one of the most colorful examples and one of the few relatively light-hearted ones, in sharp contrast to the brooding nature of the dark-hued Swan of Tuonela, which Sibelius composed earlier, or the awesome starkness of his valedictory Tapiola.

The name Pohjola is the ancient bardic term for the Northland, the domain of the god Pohja (as Tapiola, the forest, is similarly named for its god, Tapio). In the past, in fact, this work was sometimes billed in English rather prosaically as Daughter of the North. The episode depicted in it is found in the eighth runo of the Kalevala, lines from which are printed in the score. The tale may be summarized as follows:

The venerable but still vigorous Väinämöinen, celebrated as warrior, minstrel and sorcerer, is making his way homeward through the Northland after one of his adventures when he finds himself confronted by Pohjola's Daughter, seated on a rainbow and spinning a cloth of gold and silver fibers. He is enchanted, but she is not impressed. His overtures are answered in riddles, and when he perseveres the temptress sets him on a series of impossible tasks. He deals successfully with every challenge but the last, in which he wounds himself beyond the powers of his own magic to heal. Defeated but not humiliated, old Väinämöinen resumes his journey and the healing of his wounds begins as the laughing girl and her attendant spirits vanish.

The listener may or may not find any of this reflected in the music, which surely does, however, suggest the vastness of the setting and the brilliant rainbow colors. In terms of sheer orchestral opulence, Sibelius never surpassed what he achieved in this score--nor did he make such an effort, preferring instead to strive for ever greater simplicity and clarity, not infrequently on a level of outright austerity.