EXPLORING MUSIC :A MUCH-ADMIRED RECORDING, The Scottish National Orchestra tells Lemminkainen
The MHS Review 384 VOL. 11, NO. 6 • 1987
click on the cover to return to the table of contents
David M. Greene
Once I read the Kalevala, read the endless Finnish epic, and a lot of good it did me! Can't remember any of it--not a one of all those verses, more than two-and twenty thousand. And the tale itself escapes me, how the good guys beat the bad guys--good guys are the Kalevalans and the bad ones come from Pohja-so I lean on a synopsis from a French encyclopedia occupied with matters mythic, showing no concern for legends. (Kalevala, this work tells me, has not much to do with mythos, thus its digest's very skimpy, and in general quite confusing.)
Kalevala tells of heroes, chiefly of one Vainamoinen, offspring of a virgin airnymph who for thirty years was pregnant with her son, who, grown impatient, forced his way into the daylight. Later on he steals the sampo from Pohjola (now called Lapland), bringing luck to all his people. (Do not ask about the sampo; what it was no one is certain.) Now established as a hero, Vainamoinen builds a vessel and sails off into the sunset, just like in the Bgrade movies.
Don't assume the epic's ancient: it was cobbled up by Lonnrot, Elias Lonnrot the folklorist. Round about the death of Schubert (eighteen hundred eight-and-twenty). he went forth and beat the bushes, looking out for ancient ballads still recalled by backwoods gaffers. From this stuff he took the substance, wrote himself a poem heroic, running to 12,000 verses, and he got the sucker published! (Finland, rarely independent, under Russian domination, welcomed patriotic epic.)
As time passed he added to it, and the poem was nearly doubled when it reached its final version at the middle of the century. Meanwhile, in an English version, it was read in our own country, by a noted Cambridge poet, a long fellow christened Henry, who, enchanted by the meter-this same meter I've been writing-used it for an Indian epic called The Song of Hiawatha, travestied, burlesqued, and parodied by 10,000 poetasters.
Enough already! Lemminkainen is, as I get it, a character subsidiary to Vainamoinen--a younger second-lead (Redford to Newman). Sibelius was a leader in the Finnish nationalist ferment that preceded World War I, so it is not surprising that he turned to the national epic for subject matter. Perhaps he saw in Lemminkainen such virtues as independence and persistence. The four pieces devoted to the hero come from two widely separated places in the poem. The first, from canto 29, tells how Lemminkainen seduces the entire female population of an island, and how grief-stricken the lasies are when he decides to move on to the fresh wood and pastures new.
The second and third, based on cantos 14-15, tell of how Lemminkainen fared on a journey to Tuoni or Tuonela, the gloomy Finnish afterworld, on whose boundaryriver a great black swan floats. He is there to slay the bird, in order to win yet another woman, but in the process he is hacked into bits by one of the Pohjolans, who tosses them into the water. Lemminkainen's mother, sensing that all is not well, acquires a rake of sorts, fishes out the gobbets, and with the aid of her considerable magic powers pieces them together and brings the result back to life, none the worse for wear. (And you think that violence and sex are modern concerns!) In the last tone poem, based on episodes from cantos 19 and 30, Lemminkainen fashions a fast team of horses from his worries, of which he has sufficient, and rides hell-for-leather back home.
At the end of his long life Sibelius told someone that he regarded these works as a four-movement symphony, and no doubt it is possible to do so. But he hardly treated them as such previously. The Swan of Thonela began as part of an aborted opera called The Burning of the Boat or The Building of the Boat, depending on which source you read. In 1894-96 he added the other pieces, and revised them in 1897. He further revised nos. 2 and 4, but mislaid the others, which did not turn up again for 40 years, and which saw publication as late as 1954.
These recordings have been much admired in England. In the March 1979 Gramophone, Andrew Lamb hails Sir Alexander as "a noted Sibelian," and says that "he brings commitment and genuine poetic feeling to these performances." On their reissue (April 1985), Ivan March adds that "He has a natural feel for the Sibelian sound, and shapes and colours phrases with a Nordic economy of texture."
Review of The Scottish National Orchestra Tells The Legends of Lemminkainen JEAN SIBELIUS