The Kennedy Center

The Oceanides, Op. 73

About the Work

Image for Sibelius Composer: Jean Sibelius
© Richard Freed

While Sibelius described his symphonies as absolute music and declared that he was "not a literary musician," he did compose symphonic poems that are openly descriptive or evocative of specific images or scenes. He gave the form a shape and character somewhat different from it had been given by Liszt and even by his own contemporary Strauss. Liszt, after completing the composition of a symphonic poem at the keyboard, might leave the initial orchestration to his associate Joachim Raff (though the final version was always his own). Sibelius's concept was so thoroughly orchestral that he could not have worked that way. He simply conceived and created in the language of the orchestra.

Inspiration for his tone poems generally came to him from two basic sources: Finnish legend, as recorded in the national epic the Kalevala, and Nature in its varied moods and awesome dimensions. In some instances these two powerful influences converged. The Oceanides, as Sibelius pointed out, "derives from the mythology of Homer and not from the Kalevala," but the work has been regarded by many as a marine counterpart to the brooding and terrifying landscape painted later in his final masterwork in this genre (the last of his orchestral works, in fact), Tapiola, which represents the Kalevala's depiction of the domain of the forest god Tapio. These two contrasting yet complementary works, incidentally, were the only ones Sibelius composed specifically for presentation in the United States. He was not present for the premiere of Tapiola, given by Walter Damrosch (who had commissioned it) and his New York Symphony Orchestra at the end of 1926, but he himself conducted the premiere of The Oceanides at the Norfolk Music Festival in Connecticut a dozen years earlier, on June 14, 1914.

Carl Stoeckel and his wife Ellen, the supporters of that enterprise who commissioned this work, did not specify its subject; it may have been the prospect of the ocean voyage to conduct the premiere that directed Sibelius's thoughts to the realm of Oceanus and his three thousand daughters. The work he fashioned, in free rondo form, was given the working title Rondo of the Waves, but by the time the score was completed it bore the simpler (and more "Homeric") title The Oceanides (in Finnish, Aallottaret). Nils-Eric Ringbom, a Finnish composer and Sibelius authority, considered this evocative title an indication that the composer "wanted to stress the fact that he was not representing merely a naturalistic seascape but was bent on conjuring up visions of nymphs sporting on the crests of mighty waves." But Sibelius's nymphs are not conventionally voluptuous seductresses, and their sport would seem to be of a rather earnest nature; it would seem that his intention was to personify the sea itself in terms of its mystic denizens, as he would later personify Tapio's realm.

Toward the end of his life Sibelius spoke of The Oceanides as one of his favorites among his own works, and one he was eager to have more widely circulated. He never provided a specific program for the piece, and the listener would be ill advised in seeking one. More likely to be encountered are general impressions of billowing waves and, toward the end, the implicit menace of a gathering storm, but the relative sharpness or vagueness of such images has no effect on the music's aural impact. The extremely concise--and rather fragmented--nature of the thematic content and the fleeting touches of color provided by flutes, harps, timpani, clarinets et al. suggested the term pointilliste to the composer's early British champion Cecil Gray, and the term was taken up by others. These are all characteristically Sibelian devices, though, and Constant Lambert pointed out that

even The Oceanides, though pointillist in orchestration and superficially Impressionist in form, reveals on close analysis a construction as firmly knit as any of the symphonies. He has concentrated on the integration of form and has not wasted his energies on the disintegration of color.

It may be of interest to note that in March 1914 Sibelius sent off to the commissioning source in Connecticut a version of this work that was considerably shorter and less developed than the form in which he introduced it there three months later. This earlier version is known as the "Yale version" because the manuscript is owned by the library of the Yale University School of Music. Brought to light fairly recently is a still earlier "forerunner of The Oceanides" (the phrase is Sibelius's own), consisting of two brief "Fragments from a Suite for Orchestra" which clearly carry the seeds of the work as we know it.