Sunday, April 5, 2009

Finland: Siblelius' "Flickan kom ifrån sin älsklings möte," "Luonnotar" and Saarriaho excerpt

Jean Sibelius 1865- 1957

Some things to note:
A majority of his songs are in Swedish. Sibelius was brought up in a Swedish-speaking family, but he entered a Finnish-speaking school and was bilingual, Swedish however was his mother tongue.

A couple of interesting facts concerning the language issue in 19th century Finland:

From about the year 1200 until 1809 Finland was a part of Sweden, which explains the important position of the Swedish language in the 19th century. The Swedish language remained in this position even when Finland became a Grand Duchy of Russia in 1809 and after Finland gained its independence in 1917. Today Swedish is the second official language of Finland. During the 19th century Swedish was the language of the educated classes, while Finnish was regarded as a language of the peasants. It was not until the second half of the 19th century that Finnish was recognised as the official language of Finland and the Finnish-language secondary school system was founded.

The main source of Sibelius' inspiration comes from Swedish lyric and nature poetry, whether by Finnish poets writing in Swedish such as Runeberg, Tavastjerna or mainland Swedes like Fröding and Rydberg. One quarter of his song output are by Runeberg, who was much admired by Brahms.

Both Sibelius and Swedish composer Stenhammar set the famous poem by the Finnish poet, Runeberg- "Flickan kom ifrån sin älsklings möte," which was written in Swedish. Stenhammar's is the earlier setting by seven years. Is anyone confused?
This is Sibelius' setting.

Flickan kom [från]1 sin älsklings möte,
kom med röda händer. Modern sade:
"Varav rodna dina händer, flicka?"
Flickan sade: "Jag har plockat rosor
och på törnen stungit mina händer."

Åter kom hon från sin älsklings möte,
kom med röda läppar. Modern sade:
"Varav rodna dina läppar, flicka?"
Flickan sade: "Jag har ätit hallon
och med saften målat mina läppar."

Åter kom hon från sin älsklings möte,
kom med bleka kinder. Modern sade:
"Varav blekna dina kinder, flicka?"
Flickan sade: "Red en grav, o moder!
Göm mig där och ställ ett kors däröver,
och på korset rista, som jag säger:
En gång kom hon hem med röda händer,
ty de rodnat mellan älskarns händer.
En gång kom hon hem med röda läppar,
ty de rodnat under älskarns läppar.
Senast kom hon hem med bleka kinder,
ty de bleknat genom älskarns otro."
The girl came from meeting her lover,
came with her hands all red. Said her mother:
"What has made your hands so red, girl?"
Said the girl: "I was picking roses
and pricked my hands on the thorns."

Again she came from meeting her lover,
came with her lips all red. Said her mother:
"What has made your lips so red, girl?"
Said the girl: "I was eating raspberries
and stained my lips with the juice."

Again she came from meeting her lover,
came with her cheeks all pale. Said her mother:
"What has made your cheeks so pale, girl?"
Said the girl: "Oh mother, dig a grave for me,
Hide me there and set a cross above,
And on the cross write as I tell you:
Once she came home with her hands all red,
... they had turned red between her lover's hands.
Once she came home with her lips all red,
... they had turned red beneath her lover's lips.
The last time she came home with her cheeks all pale,
... they had turned pale at her lover's faithlessness."

I found this particular performance interesting because it introduced me to the singing of tenor, Rickard Söderberg, whom I hadn't known and also because I've heard this piece only done by women.

When I first heard Luonnotar, I was completely overwhelmed by the myth and the primeval atmosphere created in this extraordinary piece.(See the Link at the left for more info. on Luonnotar and Sibelius.) If you're not familiar with this piece, I think you're in for a marvelous treat. This performance by Finnish Soprano, Karita Mattila is very good but there are others. In particular, an outstandiing recording by the Finnish soprano, Soile Isokoski. It's amazing!

Luonnotar (Daughter of Nature)

Language: Finnish

Olipa impi, ilman tyttö,
Kave Luonnotar korea,
Ouostui elämätään,
Aina yksin ollessansa,
Avaroilla autioilla.

Laskeusi lainehille,
Aalto impeä ajeli,
Vuotta seitsemän sataa
Vieri impi veen emona,
Uipi luotehet, etelät,
Uipi kaikki ilman rannat.

Tuli suuri tuulen puuska,
Meren kuohuille kohotti.
"Voi, poloinen, päiviäni.
Parempi olisi ollut
Ilman impenä elää.
Oi, Ukko, ylijumala!
Käy tänne kutsuttaissa."

Tuli sotka, suora lintu,
Lenti kaikki ilman rannat,
Lenti luotehet, etelät,
Ei löyä pesän soia.

"Ei, ei, ei.
Teenkö tuulehen tupani,
Aalloillen asuinsiani,
Tuuli kaatavi,
Aalto viepi asuinsiani."

Niin silloin veen emonen,
Nosti polvea lainehesta.
Siihen sorsa laativi pesänsä,
Alkoi hautoa.

Impi tuntevi tulistuvaksi.
Järkytti jäsenehensä.
Pesä vierähti vetehen,
Katkieli kappaleiksi.

Muuttuivat munat kaunoisiksi:
Munasen yläinen puoli
Yläiseksi taivahaksi,
Yläpuoli valkeaista,
Kuuksi kumottamahan,
Mi kirjavaista,
Tähiksi taivaalle,
Ne tähiksi taivaalle.

One final excerpt from a piece by Kaija Saariaho. She is a gifted contemporary, Finnish composer. This is a short introduction to her compositional style. There are other examples of her work at YouTube.

This piece was written for Edna Michell's Compassion Compassion project. Saariaho, speaking of her work: "In the composition I follow the idea of a dialogue, suggested by the text I have chosen. The intimate nature and fragile sound world of the duo mirror the fragility of our uncertain existence." Go here for more about Saariaho.


  1. The poetry to "Flickan kom ifrån sin älsklings möte" is so incredibly powerful and original. Although there is tons of great poetry, the Scandinavian poetry seems to have an entirely different flavor than that of say, German lied. There is a simplicity, a tenderness and a special truth that makes the poetry unlike any other. Fabulous to read!

  2. Epic. I like the two different moods in "Luonnotar:" the drama of the instrumental sections and the more deliberate intensity of the narrative. The narrative sections capture the natural lilt of the poetry, especially with the descending lines revealing a stressed-unstressed emphasis written into the music itself. The poetry was set extremely well.

  3. I love "Luonnotar". I'm not very familiar with this piece, but I agree that it touches on the primeval. It is a stunning piece. It's great to hear "Flickan kom..." being sung by a man. I've never heard it sung by a man before. It works great with either a man or woman narrating the piece. I also think Saarriaho touches on the primeval and archetypal in her music. It seems to cut through straight to the bones. I heard an interesting interview with her when she talked about how difficult is was to grow up a woman wanting to study composition in Finland. Her parents thought she was nuts, and she went to Paris to pursue her studies. The Scandinavian countries are very equal on the surface, but when you scratch a bit deeper all sorts of things come up.

  4. I too really loved "Luonnotar." In my experience, the composers who best capture the spirit of these ethereal poetic subjects are the composers that are steeped in the natural wonders of their countries. Sibelius excellently captures the natural effects that originally spawned the supernatural tales and stories. Most of those stories were created to explain the wonders that no one had any words to describe. Obviously music is an apt vehicle for things that do not fit into words!

  5. Wow, can't wait until I can sing "Luonnotar," which will probably be a good 20 years or so! The orchestra really illustrates every nuance of the story. I love that there are moments when the vocal line is simple and declamatory, almost like a folk tune or rune songs, and then the voice wanders back into more ambiguous keys and much more virtuosity.

  6. For as stark as the Saariaho piece is, it speaks volumes! The first image that popped into my head as the song was playing was the third picture that was posted with the Scandinavia photos. They both share a very sparse, silent beauty. I love when a piece of music can be very minimal, but at the same time, be so expressive and emotional.

  7. Sibelius's setting of "Flickan" is quite different than Stenhammar's (which I've played through). Stenhammar's contains a recurring folk-like melody (perhaps it is an actual folksong... it sounded quite familiar) while Sibelius's setting has that recurring "grand" gesture. I wasn't able to find a recording of Stenhammar's setting on youtube, but I did find a lovely recording of Birgit Nilsson singing the Sibelius with orchestra:

  8. I like the combination of flute and voice in the Saariaho piece. I like the effect of their combination because at times you do not know which instrument you are hearing. I also liked the video media used in this production. It seemed to add to the affect of the performance. A similar song to this but not in classical genre is an Imogen Heap song titled "Hide and Seek". It is from her album Speak for Yourself. Listen to Hide and Seek here

  9. Wow! Luonnotar is an incredible piece--thanks for posting that. Derek, you are absolutely right: music expresses that which cannot be expressed in words. (It always baffles me that some try so hard to describe music in words...)

  10. Wow. "Luonnatar" is tremendous. It is so completely unique yet still touches on universal emotions and experiences. What an unbelievably gorgeous composition. The video added a beautiful new dimension to the piece, enhancing the listening experience. I was especially moved by the connection to nature and earthly phenomena found in this piece.

  11. John expressed my clearest impression of Luonnotar: Epic. With such an incredibly rich color palate in the orchestra, and I cannot imagine attempting this piece with voice and piano. Is it done? I agree with Professor Vargas, Karita Mattila handles the challenging range and contrasts very well. This strikes me as a piece of music with so many rich layers that one would be hard pressed to find themselves lacking in interpretive choices to be made, re-examined, and made anew. I guess that happens when one is singing/playing the universe into existence.

  12. Flickan--This piece was actually the first Scandinavian piece I learned and the one that inspired me to study this repertoire further. I find it interesting to contrast Sibelius' setting with Stenhammar's. Both composers capture the folk character and the drama of the poetry remarkably well despite their very different approaches. Hearing this piece in a male voice changes its character entirely--I appreciate how his rich timbre complimented the lush, Romantic texture of the piano.

    Luonnotar--The superlative adjective for this piece is epic. Like the Kalevala it is immense, ancient, and purely Finnish. I personally find this piece to be entrancing and consider it to be among Sibelius' best works. While grounded in tonality, the melody employs modal chromaticism to suggest the primal and ethereal. Singing this piece with orchestra would be a major highlight of my singing life.

    Saariaho excerpt--I found this piece very interesting. I tend to have to appreciate this sort of music from an academic standpoint, but this piece struck me differently. The purity of the singer's voice so perfectly matched the flute and gave the impression of iciness or coolness. The piece was beautiful and atmospheric. I felt that the projections also added to the experience of the piece.

  13. Hearing Flickan sung by a man was an interesting treat. I feel that his performance of the first two verses were superb, especially personifying the different characters, but then the climax seemed to lack something that I think only a soprano can give for this piece.

  14. Changing Light - What a fascinating piece. I really enjoyed the vocalist's sound and all the different sounds she captured. Not to mention her great musicality to dig into those dissonances and nail those giant leaps!

  15. Flickan: I was pleasantly surprised by Söderberg’s interpretation and thought his narrative approach made sense. There were moments of tenderness, but I feel like this piece is best portrayed in the soprano voice. Though I liked that he took a risk.

    Changing Light- Saariaho’s voice is so free and pure and without restraint. It seems as though she’s pulling the pitches out of the air and with such control! Just as Beverly said, I also heard felt that her timbre resembled the flute.

  16. Personally, I liked this performance of "Flickan". He has a lovely voice, and it was an interesting contrast.

    There's a new posting of Karita Mattila singing "Luonnotar", just with some added initial sound effects, here: After reading all the previous comments I had to find it, and my goodness, it is stunning. The narrative is absolutely captivating, even without understanding a word of Finnish.

    The Saariaho is also stunning, but in a different sense. In a way, the interplay between flute and voice reminds me of the medieval music I've been singing lately, but with a different sound palate. It seems like a cry in the wilderness, set off spinning in the universe.


  17. “The Tryst” is a different song when sung by a man. While some of his gestures are a bit excessive and distracting, I quite like this rendition because I feel that his arc through the song was very natural: he starts very pedantically and naturally but by the end he is singing with so much emphasis, volume, and intensity that the listener almost wonders “How did we GET here?”…in a good way. I felt that a male singer can deliver the amount of volume and weight needed towards the end in a way I haven’t heard from the female singers who sing this piece. Although, I do wish the collaborative pianist played that cascading motive with a little more intention: like Ednaldo does.

    “Changing Light” is probably one of the most haunting songs I’ve heard. The flute and the voice together create such an eerie affect. Everything sounds like an echo…perhaps that was the intention; to mimic the acoustics of sounds echoing off massive vast peaks of a fjord. I love this piece, it’s a little creepy and unsettling yet unlike anything I’ve ever heard. So delicate in some places, screamingly intense at others. COOL!

  18. It was such a pleasure to perform "Flickan...". This piece is so intense, it seems to me that it is able to break even the most harsh "heart of stone". And every time I hear it I'm always surprised that, at least from what we get from the translations, that the poetry means so much with very simple words and straightforward sentences... except for the last strophe where all the intensity of both poetry/music explodes!

    Thank you so much for posting Luonnotar and the Saariaho pieces! Although they are so different, they share this primeval and "ethereal-mystic" qualities... It seems to me that the way the composers play with extreme registers symbolizes this extreme leap between nature forces (air/water, light/darkness, etc). Impressive pieces!

  19. I've always thought of Sibelius's music as broad and heroic; I usually find myself thinking of romantic Viking stories when I listen to his symphonies. "Flickan kom ifran" has some truly beautiful intimate moments, which surprised me. Sibelius manages to keep his dramatic nature even in those intimate moments which makes the ending of the song truly heart breaking.

    Luonnotar sounds like a song Sibelius would write- the orchestra is expansive with strong image painting in the texture of the orchestration. The large scope of the piece and the almost Wagnerian narrative line create an overall experience. I'm not sure I could repeat the vocal melody line after one listening session, but I can remember large parts of the story.

  20. For "Flickan…", somehow it sounds like Tchaikovsky to me, if I don't listen to the language of the text. The end of the song is very stunning to me. The harmonic twist from D-flat major to C-sharp minor makes the ending very dramatic and also powerful.

    I definitely love "Luonnotar"! The orchestration really captures the nature's image and power through different kinds of timbre. This song really grasps my attention as it is so complex and intense throughout.

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  22. Both pieces surprised me in that neither of them make me think "art song" while listening to them.

    The tenor's performance of Flickan kom if ran sin älsklings möte give me the impression that the song was an opera aria, perhaps by Tchaikovsky. It reminds me of our studies in the German lied as the voice is challenged to fill larger spaces and compete against the accompaniment of a full orchestra versus a piano. The accompaniment in the piano sounds like a reduced orchestra part, for it has a certain kind of grandeur to it.

    Luonnotar was really lovely. It is more clearly Sibelius to me because of the orchestration--the string writing is so reminiscent of his symphonies. The atmosphere is beautiful and the vocal writing was quite haunting. I wouldn't have guessed that these two pieces were written by the same composer.