Sibelius: En saga, Op. 9 (1892, original version)
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Jean Sibelius: En saga, Op. 9 (1892, original version)
Okko Kamu, conductor
‘But what is new in this En saga is so worthy that it completely elevates this work above all of Sibelius’s other orchestral works. The ex- tensive fantasy; the masterful handling of the simple, main motifs in constantly new forms; the strength, which swells from the composer’s bosom to quite awesome, yet magnifi- cent heights; the subtlety, which gently caresses the ear and perforce pushes its way into the heart; the richness of colour which comes from the excellent orchestration and imitation of its effects: such are qualities that are by no means of low value. When, in addition to and in the background of all this, appear such beautiful, wafting Finnish motifs tinged with sadness, as in this fantasy-like En saga, in our opinion it shows that Sibelius has taken a re- markable step forward in the noble task of his great soul.’ (Oskar Merikanto, Päivälehti, 17th February 1893)
En saga is one of Sibelius’s longest symphonic poems and, in its original form, was one of his earliest orchestral works, predating the Karelia music, Skogsrået (The Wood-Nymph), Lemminkäinen, Finlandia and all the numbered symphonies. Even though Sibelius had encountered plenty of orchestral music during his studies in Helsinki, Berlin and Vienna, most of his own output before 1892 had consisted of chamber pieces. Admittedly he had written various orchestral exercises as a student, nota- bly for Albert Becker in Berlin, but his earliest independent pieces for orchestra, an Overture in E major and a Ballet Scene, were written as late as 1891. The definitive turning-point came with Kullervo – a five-movement score for soloists, male chorus and orchestra premièred in April 1892. The success of that work prompted the conductor Robert Kajanus to commission a new orchestral piece from him, and the result was En saga, which he worked on at Monola, near Lieksa in North Karelia, on his honeymoon in the early summer of 1892 and completed in Helsinki that December.
The piece was first performed on 16th February 1893 in Helsinki, conducted by the composer. It was well received, although some judged it to be overlong. An inconsistency in the rehearsal lettering in a set of parts made for the conductor Georg Schnéevoigt suggests that Sibelius may have responded to such criticism by immediately making a substantial cut (at bar 393). As Schnéevoigt’s copies are the only surviving material for the original version, however, this cannot be definitively proved.
It has been suggested that some of En saga’s thematic material derives from earlier sketches for an octet for strings, flute and clarinet, but little is known with certainty about the origin of the themes and motifs, although it is safe to say that, unlike Kullervo, it has no direct connection with the Kalevala. Some of the themes sound like stylized versions of folk music (this is characteristic of Sibelius at this period, though he did not quote genuine folk melodies) and one of them strikingly resembles the second theme of the Overture in E major. The (Swedish) title En saga might be translated as ‘A Fairy-Tale’, but Sibelius made it plain that it did not have an explicit programme: ‘En saga is [only] an expression of a state of mind’. This sombre, dramatic and compelling work is often claimed to be based on sonata form – al- though here, as in his later music, Sibelius lets the themes themselves determine the overall shape of the music.
En saga is nowadays normally heard in the revised version Sibelius prepared for a concert in Berlin in November 1902. The original version did not sink without trace, however; Georg Schnéevoigt conducted it in Helsinki and Malmö in 1935, and it was also played – together with the final version – in 1944 (Swedish Radio) and 1958 (Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra); its first commercial recording was made by the Lahti Symphony Orchestra under Osmo Vänskä in May 1995. Sibelius’s wife, Aino, was not pleased that he decided to revise the work. She later observed: ‘I like and have always liked the first version. “Papa” took away a number of wild passages’.
Some points to listen for: • Original version is 142 bars longer than pub- lished version, containing additional thematic material (e.g. ‘pastoral’ passage in the middle of the work) • Alterations to instrumentation, dynamics and articulation throughout • Original version has more frequent changes of tempo and key"