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Attractive: Sibelius; Scenes historiques; En saga

The MHS Review 404, VOL. 12, NO.8• 1988

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David M. Greene


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I am fairly certain that the first time I ever heard of Arnold Bocklin was when a radio announcer told me that a painting of his was the inspiration for a Rachmaninoff tone poem which I understood to be I love the dead. This necrophilic work turned out, of course, to be Isle of the Dead. Bocklin's picture shows a little boat on an absolutely calm sea carrying two hooded figures toward a small island of abrupt stone cliffs and cypresses. (Bocklin actually painted five versions of this work, different in color and configuration, one of them now in New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art.) I have seen a good deal of Bocklin, both in reproduction and on the hoof, in the intervening years, but I was surprised to read just now that Sibelius' well-known En saga (A saga) may also derive from his work.

Arnold Bocklin (pronounced as an Alabaman might say "Birklin") was born in Switzerland in 1827, and died in Italy, from which he took much of his inspira­tion, in 1901. His work was basically il­lustrative, like so much 19th-century pain­ting, and hence was out of favor until recently. He took his subjects from myth, legend, and fantasy, and is said to have had considerable influence on the later Surrealists.

In 1892, when Sibelius was working on the composition in question, he described, in a letter, the analogies to Bocklin's work: "He paints the sky too bright, too white swans and a sea which is too blue." There are such Bocklin paintings--they remind me, somehow, of Maxfield Parrish!­--though this quality is not typical of most of those that I know.

The Finnish critic Erik Tawaststjerna, who authored the excellent notes for the original of this record, reports that Sibelius would have familiarized himself with Bocklin's work in Berlin and Vienna, though he points to no particular picture. My own feeling is that if inspiration came from that source, it was generalized­though Sibelius' remark about the colors may perfectly well have been after the fact. Nor do I ''hear" them in the music, which, though perhaps more simplistic of tune and rhythm than some major Sibelius, seems to me characteristically dark and brooding.

Bocklin or no, En saga has a sufficiently odd history. In Vienna ca. 1890, sup­posedly, Sibelius wrote or worked on an octet for strings, flute, and clarinet that was its urtext. But the piece was either lost or destroyed or was all in his head. By September 1892 he was contemplating a septet which seems, a couple of months later, to have turned into Ballet Scene no. 2 (unknown to posterity; Ballet Scene no. 1 was written in 1891), which Sibelius describes as "just like a saga in the roman­tic style, 1820." (From this rather flimsy evidence, Tawaststjerna deduces that it was based on the Grimrns' fairy tales!) Less than a month after that, Sibelius is announ­cing that he has a "saga for orchestra" ready. (Despite all this, most accounts say that it was commissioned for or by the con­ductor Robert Kajanus, who wanted something with popular appeal.)

Sibelius saw fit to revise the work in 1901, and it was published in 1903. Its popular appeal has lasted these 85 years. Late in his long life, Sibelius swore that there was no program, and that the piece was merely reflective of a state of mind, which, he implied, had been tempestuous on his part. (1892 was the year of the Kullervo "symphony" and of his marriage.)

The greater part of this record is given over to the two sets of "Historical Scenes" which, save for a single movement (Festivo ), went unrecorded until the LP era, and have not enjoyed much attention since. Like Finlandta, they were written to accompany patriotic tableaux in the wave of nationalism that stirred the Finns as a consequence of oppressive actions by their Russian overlords around the turn of the century. Expectably lightweight, these are bright and attractive pieces despite their low calorie count.

This recording is a part of BIS' effort to put all of Sibelius' works into a uniform recorded edition. The orchestral works are handled by the excellent Neeme Jarvi, who seems to be engaged in recording all the orchestral music ever written.

Review of Sibelius; Scenes historiques; En saga Page 49

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