Sibelius’ tone poems stand alongside his symphonies as his greatest creations, vivid pictorial partners to the more abstractly imagined symphonies. Or it might be better to say that the tone poems and symphonies are interwoven, both chronologically and contextually; two sides of the same aesthetic coin. The tone poems span his entire creative career, from En Saga in 1892 to Tapiola in 1927, and are as rigorously and boldly formed as the symphonies, which in turn are as profoundly imbued with extra-musical inspirations of myth and nature as the poems, if seldom as explicitly.
In many ways, Luonnotar is as characteristic as any one piece could be of this very distinctive group. It is in a single, organically formed movement, evocatively scored with utter originality using only standard symphonic instruments, and based – like most but not all of the tone poems – on a scene from the Kalevala, the Finnish mythological epic.
In this case, the scenario is the allegorical creation myth from the first book of the Kalevala. Luonnotar is the daughter of Air (the heavens), living lonely in space before coming down to earth and roaming the seas as the Mother of Waters. A great tempest suddenly arises, and Luonnotar calls to Ukko, the Father of the Heavens for help, which he sends in the form of a seabird. To make a place for it to nest among the waves, Luonnotar lifts her knee out of the water. Her leg becomes hot and convulses, rolling the eggs into the water, where they shatter. But from pieces of the eggshell come the sky, and the sun, moon, and stars.
Luonnotar differs dramatically from Sibelius’ other tone poems, however, in that the composer gave his title character here a literal voice, in a solo soprano song of dark beauty and bardic intensity. He wrote it for Aïno Ackté, who wanted an orchestral song she could sing on programs with the final scene from Strauss’ Salome. At first he tried setting The Raven by Edgar Allen Poe, but he ended up incorporating that music into his Fourth Symphony. He did not complete a piece for her 1911 tour of Germany as she had hoped, but when he also found himself unable to complete a commissioned choral work for the Three Choirs Festival in 1913, he offered them Luonnotar instead.
Ackté sang the premiere brilliantly in Gloucester, on September 10, 1913 (Herbert Brewer conducting), though with some trepidation: ”Luonnotar is brilliant and magnificent,” she wrote to the composer. “It has swept me off my feet – but at the same time, I am frightened that I will not be equal to its demands, for it is madly difficult and my otherwise sure sense of pitch may fail me.” Ackté also sang the Finnish premiere in January, 1914, conducted by Georg Schnéevoight, who would become the second music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic 14 years later.