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FastNotes

  • The Bard (composed early 1913) is central pivot between Sibelius’ early and late styles and a merging of subjective description and objective form. It is the shortest of his tone poems and the only one not inspired by the Finnish legends of the Kalevala or nature.

  • There is no overt narrative or scene to The Bard, but there is a very real feeling of ancient mystery. Themes and motifs are more gestural than melodic; rising and falling chords in the harp, reflected in quicker rustling in the violas.

  • The second half of the piece is more urgently animated and reaches loud wind-blown climaxes, but without dispelling the sense of melancholy introspection. At the end, the harp recalls the opening briefly.


Composed: 1913; 1914
Length: c. 6 minutes
Orchestration: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, percussion (bass drum, tam-tam), harp, and strings

First LA Phil performances

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.

The Bard stands a little apart but also at the heart of this. A central pivot between early and late styles and a merging of subjective description and objective form, it is the shortest of the tone poems and the only one not inspired by the Finnish legends of the Kalevala or nature. It was composed early in 1913, and as Sibelius’ first major orchestral piece after the deeply personal and widely misunderstood Fourth Symphony, is a gateway, as musicologist James Hepokoski calls it, to the composer’s late period. Sibelius himself conducted the premiere in Helsinki in March 1913; he revised it the following year and conducted the premiere of that version in January 1916.

There is no overt narrative or scene to The Bard, but there is a very real feeling of ancient mystery, and the bardic essence is evoked by the prominent harp part. Hushed and haunted, the work begins in the muffled darkness of an E-flat minor more allusive than defined, as Sibelius evades tonic cadences and diffuses tonality with inversions and seventh chords. Themes and motifs are more gestural than melodic; rising and falling chords in the harp, reflected in quicker rustling in the violas.

The second half of the piece is more urgently animated and reaches loud wind-blown climaxes, but without dispelling the sense of melancholy introspection. At the end the harp recalls the opening briefly, and this solemn rite – a memorial service for the bard? – comes to a consoling rest in E-flat major.

John Henken is Publications Editor for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association.