I’ve mentioned several times now the growing influence on Finnish folklore in Realmgard — Aurorean poetry has ended up being based on the Kalevala, most names of Aurorean mythological figures are Finnish (most notably the patron goddess Nainen).
Now, I’d say that my two biggest sources of exposure to Finnish folklore came come from the Folk Metal band Korpiklaani (whom we’ve discussed) and Romantic composer Jean Sibelius.
In fact, I found Sibelius interesting enough that I wrote a term paper about him in my third-year Music class.
To briefly put Sibelius’ music into historical and cultural context, he was born in 1865, during a period of cultural awakening and independence movements across Europe (and, indeed, around the world), at time when Finland itself had been part of Russia since 1809 — and ruled by Sweden before that since about the 1200s.
Again, to be brief, the big takeaway here is that Sibelius was one of many artists at the time working to express a unique cultural identity. Also worth noting, the Kalevala — while based on longstanding oral tradition — was compiled by 1835.
Perhaps the most unsubtly Finnish of Sibelius’ works is the Finlandia — though many of his other works are tied to the Finnish national identity in some capacity.
The work I want to focus on today is his tone poem The Swan of Tuonela, one of four tone poems about the Finnish folk hero Lemminkäinen — while not the main figure of Kalevala (that’s Väinämöinen), Lemminkäinen is one of the prominent heroes, a sort of Thor or Heracles–like figure compared to Väinämöinen’s Musical Wizard character.
The Swan of Tuonela tells the story of Lemminkäinen’s death attempting to capture the eponymous swan — swimming in the river that separates Tuonela, the underworld, from the realm of the living.
While attempting to capture the Swan, he is shot with a poisoned arrow and dies.
FYI: the next piece in the Lemminkäinen Suite is about how he’s brought back to life.
And, quick final sidebar, The Swan of Tuonela was intended as the basis for a sequence in Fantasia that never made it to film.
Admittedly, The Swan of Tuonela kinda sounds like it could be about anything if you don’t know the context. I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing. It’s an interesting, dream-like, melancholy piece of music in its own right.
And you can listen to it here, performed, fittingly, by the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra:
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