En Saga, op. 9

We may witness the birth of an unmistakably individual style in the tone poem En saga, where Jean Sibelius, the master of northern mists, melodies of austere simplicity and dark timbres, stands before us in all his splendour. The 27-year-old Finnish composer had just become nationally known with his vocal symphony Kullervo, based on a tragic episode from the Finnish national epic Kalevala. Yet in spite of its acclaimed premiere, Sibelius did not consider Kullervo a truly successful piece, and never allowed it to be performed again during his lifetime. He felt, on the other hand, that En saga was a representative work, and ten years later he thoroughly revised it for an important concert abroad.

 

The work's Swedish title – Swedish was Sibelius's mother tongue – translates as “Legend”, but Sibelius emphasised that he didn't intend to tell a concrete story in music. The work tells its own “story” by purely musical means. What makes it a “story” is that its themes undergo complex transformation processes, like literary heroes to whom various things “happen” in the course of a work. The first such theme is a mere minor second presented by the horns over the arpeggios (broken chords) of the strings. The next melody, a slow march, is introduced by the bassoons. This theme sets out on a real journey through a whole series of changes in key, tempo and orchestration.  It is possibly the last of these elements – orchestration – that provides the key to the work, and to Sibelius's style in general as well. The divided strings, the soloistic viola, or the four muted solo violins provide so many special colours. And one cannot separate the orchestration from the many long pedal points that, whether as drum rolls or long-held bass notes, define the sound world of the entire piece.

 

Sibelius conducted the revised version of En saga in Berlin on 15 November, 1902.  (It shared a program with The Death of Pan by Ödön Mihalovich.) This concert was especially important for Sibelius, who came to the attention of German audiences – and influential German critics – for the first time.