Luonnotar is one of my favourite ever pieces. From the hypnotic and powerful soprano part to the elusive and ethereal ending, it’s one of the most astonishing works that Sibelius ever wrote. But it very rarely makes it onto concert programmes, and when it premiered in 1913, critics were completely nonplussed. The reviews were a far cry from the effusive declarations of adoration that had been prompted by his early orchestral works. One reviewer offered the timidly polite conclusion that ‘one has to exert faith that there is more in the music than is apparent on one hearing.’
A underwhelming response, to say the least. But given the context it’s hardly surprising. It was premiered at the 1913 Three Choirs Festival in Gloucester. Amidst a programme that featured Mozart’s Piano Concerto K. 595 and Verdi’s Requiem, Sibelius served up an esoteric work for soprano and orchestra, with a Finnish text drawn from one of the lesser-known passages of the Finnish national epic, the Kalevala. And it was unlike anything that Sibelius had composed before. Critics just didn’t know what to make of it. So what was Sibelius doing, and why?
Sibelius wrote Luonnotar in 1913, which was a difficult year for him. He was in the middle of a period of intense self-evaluation which had begun in 1909, as he tried to find his place within the changing landscape of twentieth century music. Sibelius’s reputation as a leading modern composer was well-established, but not infallible. Critics constantly compared Sibelius to younger, more avant-garde composers from Finland and elsewhere. Sibelius was well aware of the fact that his music might start to sound old-fashioned, and his stylistic changes between 1909 and 1915 were at least partly an attempt to compete with this new generation of composers.
Comparisons with younger composers did nothing to help Sibelius’s worrying about his age. In 1913 he was two years away from his fiftieth birthday — which might not seem so old, but Sibelius had already survived an operation for a throat tumour and fretted constantly about his health. His diary entries from this period are full of him worrying about getting older, and reflecting on his passing youth.
In addition, negative reviews of his Fourth Symphony were coming thick and fast — his friend Wilhelm Stenhammar reported that when he conducted the symphony in Gothenburg audiences weren’t just ambivalent, they actively hated the piece. ‘What happened has, as far as I know, no precedent in the annals of Gothenburg musical life’, he wrote:
for, at the end of the symphony, the timid, polite applause was drowned by loud hissing. … the applause itself was virtually negligible and the audience was totally bewildered … our stupid critics, who have hitherto borne your colours aloft, suddenly turned tail and denounced you in the most ludicrous and uncomprehending fashion.
This would have been disheartening even to the most thick-skinned composers, which Sibelius definitely wasn’t. He took criticism hard, and was dismayed by the general lack of enthusiasm for his latest symphony.
So 1913 was a year of experimentation. He produced three extremely different orchestral works, the first of which was The Bard. This is a short and pensive piece, a sonic evocation of the poet as creator. For his next projects, he stayed with the theme of artistic creation but from wildly different perspectives. Luonnotar was composed alongside his ballet-pantomime Scaramouche — another fab Sibelius piece that’s not often performed. Scaramouche is a blog post for another time, but it couldn’t be further from Luonnotar if it tried. It has all the early twentieth-century tropes about sexuality: an unfulfilled woman who murders her lover and dances herself to death, a sexually inadequate partner, a musician whose sexual power stems from his musical abilities… you name it, this piece has it.
Luonnotar, by contrast, is Sibelius’s adaptation of the Kalevala’s creation myth. The titular nature spirit swims, alone, in the ocean for seven hundred years while pregnant with the Kalevala’s central hero, the bard Väinämöinen. Eventually she rests with one knee out of the water, on which a giant bird lays its eggs. When the eggs crack open, they become the sun, moon, and stars.
This story is a world away from the tragic-hero tales of Kullervo and Lemminkäinen, the characters that put Sibelius’s name on the map. Here, Sibelius is doing something quite different. He’s at his most innovative and exploratory, and what different conclusions he’s drawing when compared to the nationalistic heroism of his earlier Kalevala pieces. He hinted towards his revised response to the Kalevala in 1910, writing ‘how much I have grown out of this naive poetry.’ Luonnotar is a much more introspective and allusive take on the Finnish epic, presenting a complex and ambivalent response to the text.
The premiere’s reviewer was right: there is much more to this piece than first meets the ear. Luonnotar is the sound of Sibelius re-evaluating his relationship with Finnish nationalism, dealing with worries about his age, and trying to work out what he had to offer the musical world in the face of an emerging avant-garde that he knew he didn’t belong to. No wonder he didn’t go for the Kalevala’s heroic figures. By 1913 Sibelius saw himself more like the nature spirit — pensive, melancholy, and alone.