The Lemminkäinen Suite is a collection of four symphonic poems, written originally in 1893-95, revised several times, and published as a whole only in 1954. Three of the poems are based on a legend from the Kalevala that depicts the adventures of Lemminkäinen, the most thoroughbred male shaman in Finnish narrative poetry. The fourth poem, The Swan of Tuonela, originates from an overture Sibelius wrote for his opera "The Building of the Boat" that foundered. It seems that musical ideas drafted for the opera ended up in other movements of the Suite as well.
The Lemminkäinen motives are taken from the runes 29, 15, and 30 of the Kalevala.
Lemminkäinen and the Maidens on the Island. In the first episode 'Lemminkäinen, full of joyance, Handsome hero, Kaukomieli', chased by the folks of Pohjola, flees and leaves his parental home, sails to the open sea, and arrives at the shore of an island. 'Then the minstrel, Lemminkäinen,? Roamed throughout the island-hamlets, To the joy of all the virgins, All the maids of braided tresses.' Thematically, this first movement corresponds to Strauss' Don Juan (1889).
The Swan of Tuonela. No textual background.
Lemminkäinen in Tuonela. Lemminkäinen proposes to the daughter of Louhi, mistress of Pohjola. Louhi assigns him three tasks to solve, the last one being to hunt the swan from Tuonela's river that separates the world of the living from the world of the dead. But before Lemminkäinen even gets sight of the swan, a shepherd who guesses his aim kills him and throws his body in pieces into the river. Told about the death of her son, Lemminkäinen's mother sets off to look for him, collects his remains from the river, puts them together, and revives him.
Lemminkäinen's Return. The episode from the Kalevala that seems closest to the spirit of the final movement is from rune 30. An excerpt from this rune is also included in the printed miniature score of the British & Continental Music Agencies Ltd. (1943):
Then the lively Lemminkäinen,
He the handsome Kaukomieli,
From his care constructed horses,
Coursers black composed from trouble,
Reins from evil days he fashioned,
Saddles from his secret sorrows,
Then his horse's back he mounted,
And he rode upon his journey,
At his side his faithful Tiera,
And along the shores he journeyed,
On the sandy shores proceeded,
Till he reached his tender mother,
Reached the very aged woman.
(English translation by W.F. Kirby)
The translation reproduces two of the three main characteristics of the Kalevala language, the eight syllable trochaic tetrameter and the parallelism. To apply the third one, alliteration, on this text does not seem possible in English, except in a few cases (lively Lemminkäinen, secret sorrows).
The sequence of the four movements of the Lemminkäinen Suite does not follow the sequence of the events in the Kalevala and does not make any sense as a story. When Lemminkäinen returns home, he does not return from Tuonela, the realm of the dead, as one would suppose, but from a failed reprisal against the folks of Pohjola who had burnt his native village while he was staying with the maidens on the island. In the Kalevala, the Tuonela episode takes place much before these events.
This means that Sibelius takes, in the spirit of Liszt, an episode from the poetry for the sake of the atmosphere only, and then continues to reimagine it in purely musical terms. The Lemminkäinen Suite is actually more absolute music than narrative and programmatic; and it is scarcely unintended that the individual poems and their sequence roughly correspond to the movements of a symphony: Lemminkäinen and the Maidens on the Island to a sonata allegro, The Swan of Tuonela to a slow movement, Lemminkäinen in Tuonela to a scherzo, and Lemminkäinen's Return to a rondo finale. But unlike movements of a symphony each of them can be played without the others.
In Finnish art, the 1890s was a time of symbolism and art nouveau. The symbolist movement laid emphasis on immediate and personal expression in contradistinction to the objective world of realism and naturalism. The aesthetics of art nouveau opposed the rigidity of classicism and relied on the imitation of natural forms, especially those of plants and animals. The Lemminkäinen Suite is the most important manifestation of these currents in Finnish music. Its symbolism stems from the mythical world of the Kalevala, and its techniques - instability of harmony, a musical line that flows freely and rhapsodically but still obeys strict inner discipline, and an exceptionally rich network of almost unnoticeable associative developments - has striking similarities with the principles of art nouveau.
- Dr. Ilkka Oramo is Professor of Music Theory at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki.