‘Lasse liten’ is one of the creepiest songs Sibelius ever wrote. The piano has a sinuous, threatening chromatic line that opens with the right hand below the left, in the piano’s bass register. The piece is supposedly in G minor but this is disrupted from the right hand’s first note. Not only is it dissonant but it is a G sharp, destabilising the sense of a home key through the direct clash. Register and harmony combine here to give the song its sinister, otherworldly sound — and all this before the singer even enters.
When the singer finally starts, the piano continues to writhe beneath their line. In the third verse it seems as though we are going to escape from this claustrophobic world as the piano part opens up into flowing arpeggios, but this is cut short by a sudden return to the opening material before the verse has the chance to end. The piano is continually disruptive — singer and pianist do not fully cadence in the same key in the same place until the final bar, which finally brings about about a reflective, melancholy conclusion.
When I first heard this song, I assumed that the lyrics would be about death. But no. The poem ‘Lasse liten’ was originally from a children’s story-book by the Swedish-speaking Finnish author Zachris Topelius. In the book, the little boy Lasse sends boats out to explore the world, and when he travels to distant lands he encounters things he is afraid of. ‘Lasse liten’ is the song that brings Lasse home to his mother, but rather than make this a song of comfort and homecoming, Sibelius seems to have focused on the central idea of the world as a fearful place full of unsuspected terrors.
Topelius stands alongside Runeberg as one of the giants of Finnish literature. He wrote the libretto for the first Finnish opera, King Carl’s Hunt, and a number of other books that were formative for Finnish nationalism. Most popular were his fairy tales and songs, which Sibelius owned copies of. Topelius’s writing was a continual source of inspiration for Sibelius. Sibelius later said of the author that ‘Topelius has been so important to me since childhood that it is impossible for me to say how I was influenced by him. One can probably say that an entire era in Finland was permeated by the spirit of Topelius.’
Sibelius is very often depicted as a man who didn’t like literature, but this can hide the significant influence that many authors had on him throughout his life. Alongside Topelius he ranked the author August Strindberg extremely highly. He was able to quote Strindberg in his diary, and when he finally had the opportunity to write music for one of Strindberg’s plays he wrote shyly to the author that ‘I have always looked up to you. I pray that the music will succeed in coming close to your expectations’. But that’s a story for another blog post. If we look beyond the symphonies, there’s a whole wealth of songs and incidental scores by Sibelius that reveals his interest in literature. Topelius provided the texts for some of Sibelius’s best-known songs, amongst which ‘Lasse liten’ has to count as one of his most innovative and inspired settings.
Jeffrey Kallberg, ‘Finnish modern: love, sex and style in Sibelius’s songs’, The Cambridge Companion to Sibelius ed. Daniel M. Grimley (Cambridge, 2004) This is a great introduction to Sibelius’s songs that deal with love and sex, looking at how Sibelius’s explorations of gender impact on his reputation as a “modern” composer.