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Length: 9 minutes

Composed: 1893

Orchestration: 3 flutes (3rd = piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons,
4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, tambourine, triangle), and strings

First Los Angeles Philharmonic performances

Sibelius composed incidental music for various theatrical performances throughout his career. Among the earliest is music composed for a historical tableau vivant staged by the Viipuri Student Association in November 1893. The main city of the province of Karelia, Viipuri (Vyborg) was an important locus of Finnish cultural and political strength, particularly as opposed to Russia, the giant on the other side of the border. Karelia was source for much of the Kalevala mythology, and in the 1890s Sibelius was absorbed with Karelianism, a Finnish-language nationalist movement. In the summer of 1892, following his marriage to Aino Järnefelts, Sibelius made his own pilgrimage to Karelia, where he wrote down many folk tunes.

But Sibelius' concept for a modern nationalism in music relied on conveying the essence of folk music rather than on literal quotation. "I think I am now on the right path," he had written to Aino in 1891. "I now grasp those Finnish, purely Finnish tendencies in music less realistically but more truthfully than before."

In the case of the Karelia Overture - and the three pieces of the Karelia Suite, Op. 11 - this new path led to boldly pictorial music expressed within fairly conventional orchestral means that would not tax school-pageant sensibilities. The Overture, which also introduces themes heard in the other movements of the Suite, depicts the grandeur of the Viipuri castle with something like the pomp Arthur Sullivan had used a few years before for the Tower of London in The Yeomen of the Guard.

- John Henken is Director of Publications for the Los Angeles Philharmonic.