Skip to page content

About this Piece

Sibelius composed in his lifetime 101 songs for solo voice and piano, practically all of them between 1888 and 1918. Only a few songs without opus number are of a later date. There are 14 published opera with 2-8 songs in each, 15 songs are without opus number, three are missing, and two are drafts without a text. Songs belonging to incidental music and arrangements of songs written for voice and orchestra are not counted.

A large number of the songs were written for and first performed by the Finnish soprano Ida Ekman, whom Sibelius valued most because of her 'instrumental' way of singing. Other famous performers of Sibelius songs have been Aino Ackté, Kirsten Flagstad, Birgit Nilsson, Jussi Björling, and Kim Borg. Today their foremost champions include Tom Krause, Jorma Hynninen, Monica Groop, Soile Isokoski, Karita Mattila, and Anne Sofie von Otter.

Written with the sound of the piano in mind, the accompaniment does not always lend itself easily for the orchestra. Sibelius prepared orchestral versions of only a few of the songs himself. But there are many arrangements by others, including the composer's son-in-law Jussi Jalas, and new arrangements are still being made at this time. Perhaps this is a sign of increasing interest in this repertory outside the intimate sphere of a Liederabend. [Canadian composer John Estacio (b. 1966) made these arrangements for performances by Ben Heppner and the Toronto Symphony.]

The songs may be seen as Sibelius' most important group of works after the symphonies and the symphonic poems. That they are not well-known outside the Nordic countries is due to the language barrier, in the first place. Sibelius' favorite poets were his compatriots Johan Ludvig Runeberg (1804-1877) and Karl August Tavaststjerna (1860-1898) and the Swedes Ernst Josephson (1851-1906) and Viktor Rydberg (1828-1895). They all wrote in Swedish, which was Sibelius' mother tongue. Only a few of his songs are set in other languages: seven in German, six in Finnish, and one in English.

The present selection contains two songs from Op. 17, "Vilse" (Astray; Tavaststjerna, 1898, rev. 1902) and "Illalle" (To Evening; Forsman, 1898). The former is a humorous Nordic romance about two young lovers who go astray from their company in a forest and do not seem very unhappy about it. The title of the latter has a double meaning. "Illalle" is both 'To Evening' and 'To Ilta,' Ilta being the first name of the poet's wife, Ilta Forsman. Musically it is a fine example of Sibelius' method of recycling a single phrase, an eleven-note recitation figure, only slightly varied, over and over again. This potentially endless chain of similar phrases is typical of ancient Finnish rune singing.

"Soluppgång" (Sunrise; Tor Hedberg, 1902), Op. 37, No. 3, is an aubade. In the moment of the dawn a "knight stands at the window frame, listening for the voice of battle." He then "raises horn to mouth, blows wildly in the dawn over the silent waste… and the sun slowly rises." The two other songs from Op. 37, "Var det en dröm?" (Was It a Dream?; Wecksell, 1902) and "Flickan kom ifrån sin älsklings möte" (The Tryst; Runeberg, 1901), are songs of betrayed love, the former sad and dreamy, the latter wounded and dramatic. "Var det en dröm?" spins a firm B-major legato line against a flickering polyrhythmic accompaniment. "Flickan kom ifrån sin älsklings möte," a dialog between mother and daughter, is written in the style of a dramatic ballad with harmonies and melodic lines reminiscent of Tchaikovsky.

"Säv, säv, susa" (Reed, Reed, Rustle; Fröding, 1900) is a ballad telling a story of a young girl in love who drowns herself in a lake under evil-minded social pressure from her community. The sad events are told in the central recitative against a background of a fateful tremolo. The recitative is surrounded by a folk-tune like melody that first depicts, in A-flat major, a lake scene with waves bubbling and then turns into a dirge in A-flat minor at the end.

The final song, "Svarta rosor" (Black Roses, 1899), is a setting of a symbolist poem by the Swedish artist and poet Ernst Josephson. It uses a powerful image of a rose tree with its tearing thorns growing inside a human being's heart. The thorns give pain and hurt and never ease off - for sorrow's roses are black as night! The song is written in C major, but the key of the black roses is C-sharp minor.

- Dr. Ilkka Oramo is Professor of Music Theory at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki.