The Orchestral Music
David Hurwitz
(Amadeus Press)
Jean Sibelius was smitten at an early age by the story of Kullervo of Finland. It's an old but universal tale of a simple man whose uncle killed his father and then had the boy raised as a slave. He was sent to tend the cattle with a loaf of bread (a "cheat-cake") made of stone. Angry at at such a lunch, he transforms the cows into bears and sends them off. They go back and eat the sandwich-maker.

Meanwhile, Kullervo runs away and meets his sister who he rapes. She kills herself. He then returns and murders his uncle Untamo. When he gets back to his childhood home, he finds his mother and all the rest of the family dead.

Kullervo then asks his sword if he should hang in there. The sword bursts into song, so he throws himself on it. According to one critic, the tale of Kullervo "is fairly ordinary in Finnish mythology."

Hurwitz believes that Sibelius included it as the first of his symphonies. Sibelius also composed Kuolema. It tells of the boy Paavali who wakes up to find his mother dancing with his father Kuolema ("Death") so she dies. Paavali runs off into the forest and finds Elsa who he loves. A crane flying overhead delivers them a baby. He marries Elsa and starts a school but his house catches on fire and he sees a vision of his mother carrying a scythe so he dies too. Elsa tells the villagers that Paavali will live on in the hearts of the people.

Sibelius final work of note was Opus 22, the "Lemminkäinen," the "Lemonade Sweet" in 9/4 (nine parts sugar, four parts lemon, one part vodka). According to Hurwitz, in 1929 Sibelius got bored and stopped composing and finally died thirty years later of ennui. This may be a familiar feeling to those who come to know his symphonies. He composed one concerto for violin which was described by a contemporary as "a polonaise for polar bears."

Polar bears, polonaise, and "plönk" --- the national drink --- are about all you can find in Finland besides snow and ice. And, too, there is "Finlandia." Sibelius wrote "Finlandia" in 1898 as a tribute to his country even though his country did not exist until twenty years later (Finland was owned by Russia until 1918 when she was returned to her original owners.) By the time of the nationalization of his country, the composer had run out of plönk and pluck.

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One of our correspondents from the northwest tells of his own experiences with Sibelius:

One evening, I attended a lecture about Sibelius at a nearby Swedish Club, along with a small audience of mostly elderly, rather somnolent Swedish-Americans. One of them roused briefly from his doze and asked: "Didn't Sibelius write anything cheerful?"

The lecturer, a mournful Finnish lady from the University Scandinavian Studies department, replied with some verbiage about the melancholy Finnish soul. Then she played a Sibelius song on a CD player, and began to weep.

I attend these functions partly in order to enjoy the buffet table, and took this opportunity to visit it. On this evening, it was a lot below its usual standard, and I began to weep too.

On another evening, my regular concert date and I went to a local symphony concert featuring Sibelius. She is an enthusiastic but rather ignorant classical music enthusiast. The opening piece was the last movement of Sibelius' "Four Kalevala Legends," which is called "The Return of Lemminkäinen." After its rousing conclusion, she turned to me and said that she could just picture all the lemmings hurtling over a cliff.

I gently explained to her that the hero of the Finnish national folk epic is not usually pictured as a little, four-footed, suicidal mammal. I also suggested that we discuss the subject in whispers, in case there were any Finns seated anywhere near us.

For the rest of the concert, this exchange kept coming back into my mind at inappropriate moments. When a soprano soloist, a massive woman wearing what appeared to be a garage canopy as a dress, waddled onto the stage I fought hard to keep a straight face. Then, when she and the orchestra launched into an absurdly lugubrious orchestral song, I cracked up entirely.

The people sitting all around us looked daggers in my direction. My friend tried to explain apologetically that I was of diminished capacity, and had been let out temporarily on a day pass.

--- Diane Singer
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