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Finnish composer Jean Sibelius (1865-1957) wrote The Oceanides for his one and only trip to the United States. In 1913, composer and church musician Horatio Parker, who was then Dean of the Yale School of Music, commissioned a new work from Sibelius on behalf of Carl Stoeckel, a well-heeled arts patron; the result was The Oceanides. Sibelius drafted the score during a winter 1914 stay in Berlin and sent the completed project to Parker after putting the final touches on it that March. Unhappy with this first version, Sibelius recomposed the work before arriving in the U.S. It was this revised version that had its premiere at Stoeckel's music festival in Norfolk, Connecticut on June 4, 1914, with Sibelius conducting an orchestra convened especially for the occasion and consisting of players from the New York Philharmonic-Symphony, the Boston Symphony, and the Metropolitan Opera. (The first, Yale version was recently "rediscovered" and recorded.)
Sibelius' American visit was one of the high points of his life. He got the star treatment, with society receptions and lavish accommodations the norm during the trip. He met such luminaries of the American musical scene as conductor Walter Damrosch and composer George Chadwick, and the music critic of the Boston Post, Olin Downes, campaigned tirelessly on behalf of his music, a campaign that would continue after Downes' appointment to The New York Times in 1924. Sibelius also got the grand tour of the northeast, including a visit to Niagara Falls, which the composer remembered as one of the most tremendous sights he ever beheld.
This sensibility, oriented acutely to nature, certainly informs The Oceanides. The work is the rare Sibelius' tone poem that does not take its subject from the Kalevala, the repository of Finnish mythology to which the composer often turned for inspiration. In Greek mythology, The Oceanides were the manifold daughters of Oceanus, the water that circled the earth. The Oceanides were associated with water in all of its forms - rain, rivers, streams, lakes, and the like - and they were one variety of the nymphs that inhabited the wild places of the ancient Greek world. That inspired Sibelius to compose one of the most organic and atmospheric orchestral works in his catalogue
The work's organicism is subtle, not easily perceived on first listening. After the opening - muted strings over rumbling timpani - Sibelius introduces two fragmentary themes, the first in the flutes, the second shared by oboes and clarinets. From this material, the composer derives much of what follows. The music itself proves to be an elaborate aquatic metaphor - Sibelius' revised version of the score reveals the impression the sea had made on the composer during his Atlantic crossing. Serene and subdued for much of its course, The Oceanides surges to a climax derived from the opening flute passage just before its closing moments, when the first theme returns, transformed, in the clarinets, bringing back the calm waters of the opening.
-- John Mangum is the Los Angeles Philharmonic's Program Designer/Annotator.