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Based on the Finnish lore, Sibelius's Luonnotar describes the title goddess’s descent from the air into the sea and the subsequent creation of the universe.

Jean (Johan Julius Christian) Sibelius was born at Hämeenlinna (Tavestehus in Swedish), Finland, on December 8, 1865, and died at Järvenpää, near Helsingfors (Helsinki), on September 20, 1957. He composed Luonnotar between mid-July and mid-August 1913 for the soprano Aino Ackté, who sang the first performance on September 10 that year at the Gloucester Festival in England.

In addition to the soprano soloist, the score of Luonnotar calls for 2 flutes and piccolo, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani (2 players), 2 harps, and strings (first and second violins, violas, cellos, and double basses). The piece is about 9 minutes long.

Sibelius took inspiration for his music from several sources, among them nature in general and the elemental landscape of his native Finland. Another important source of inspiration was the Kalevala, the so-called “Finnish national epic” that enshrines his country’s lore and mythology.

The Kalevala is a conflation of Finnish folk tales, lyrics, narrative, and magic charms that was actually compiled in 1835 after extensive field research by Elias Lönnrot and then expanded to twice its original length fourteen years later by Lönnrot and David Europaeus. It served Sibelius well on numerous occasions. It was with the premiere in Helsinki on April 28, 1892, of his Kullervo for soloists, male chorus, and orchestra—a seventy-five-minute “symphonic poem” based on the exploits of Kullervo, one of the Kalevala’s four main heroes—that the 26-year-old composer secured his reputation in his native land. His Four Legends from the “Kalevala” (composed 1893-96, including most famously The Swan of Tuonela), a set of four symphonic poems for orchestra alone, were inspired by the exploits of another Kalevala hero, Lemminkäinen, as was the “symphonic fantasia” for orchestra, Pohjola’s Daughter (1906). (The Kalevala’s other two main heroes are Väinämöinen, of whom more below, and Ilmarinen.)

Unlike these other works, Luonnotar, Sibelius’s extraordinary tone poem for orchestra and soprano, is based not on heroic exploits, but on the creation myth as recounted in the Kalevala’s first canto. Sibelius wrote this work for the Finnish soprano Aino Ackté (1876-1944), who sang at the Met, the Paris Opera, and Covent Garden (and who, incidentally, between 1912 and 1916, was the first to oversee the staging of operas at what is now the site of the modern Savonlinna Opera Festival some 200 miles from Helsinki). In 1911, Sibelius canceled a planned concert tour in Germany with the soprano; for that tour he had promised to write, at her urging, a new orchestral song based on Edgar Allan Poe’s The Raven, which he was to have conducted along with other works of his own. (Some of the music conceived for that unfinished project ended up in his Fourth Symphony, work on which was one reason he ultimately canceled the tour—another being his pique at the soprano’s promotional campaign for the tour, which he viewed as too self-centered on her part.) As a result, in 1913, when Ackté requested from him a new work for soprano and orchestra that she could pair on programs with the final scene from Strauss’s Salome, he effectively “owed” her. He began sketching Luonnotar in mid-July and by mid-August sent her a score; she declared the new work “brilliant and magnificent” but also “madly difficult” given the intricacies of the vocal writing (“my otherwise sure sense of pitch may fail me”). Though it was an engagement for concerts that fall in Manchester that had prompted her to request the new work, it was at the Gloucester Festival on September 10, 1913, that she sang the premiere.

Sibelius’s version of the creation myth as he has excerpted and condensed it for Luonnotar from the Kalevala is elliptical at best; so one needs first to know the basics of the story. Luonnotar, “Daughter of the Heavens” (also known as Ilmatar, “Spirit of the Air”), comes down to the sea, where she becomes “Mother of the Water.” A bird variously described in different English translations as a gull, teal, or goldeneye alights and nests on Luonnotar’s knee as she drifts upon the waters. Ultimately the bird’s eggs roll from the nest and break into pieces, from which are formed the earth, heavens, sun, moon, and clouds. Luonnotar next creates a variety of geographic formations (bays, shores, shoals, and the like), and then, after a gestation period of thirty years, gives birth to Väinämöinen (who, having lost patience during this extended process, finally forces himself from his mother’s womb). Väinämöinen is the hero whose adventures then take up the first main portion of the Kalevala.

In less than ten minutes of visionary music, Sibelius’s Luonnotar encompasses the creation of a world. Through his skillful manipulation of general tension level, harmonic dissonance, and instrumentation, the composer is able unfailingly to suggest the primeval, mysterious atmosphere of a world yet unformed. As his version of the story begins, Luonnotar—“Air’s young daughter, a virgin”—descends upon the waters from “those far-extending deserts of the air”; she drifts, frustratingly, for centuries, then swims “in all directions.” The soprano soloist relates this in two brief, bardic, narrative-style stanzas over the sparest possible—yet uniquely colorful—accompaniment from the orchestra. Harp and timpani herald “a sudden mighty tempest”; the vocal line extends upward. Now Luonnotar’s “wretched fortune” and frustration at leaving air’s realm are conveyed through repetitions of a slow-moving sigh-motif on which her text-syllables are stretched. Next the orchestra—beginning with the rustling string music that opened the piece—anticipates the arrival of the teal (descending woodwind flutters reflect the bird’s flight and descent). Three extended “No!”s (“Ei! Ei! Ei!”) capture the bird’s concern over choosing a safe nesting place. Here again we get that haunting sigh-motif. The third “No!,” pianissimo in the soprano’s highest register, provides one of the most extraordinarily evocative echo-effects to be found in music: one can’t help but sense the enormity of the universe. The teal’s continued expressions of concern carry this central section of the piece to its climax.

As we learn through music that once more turns spare, archetypal, and bardic, the bird finds protection from the billows and winds by nesting on Luonnotar’s knee, which the Mother of the Water has lifted above the water’s surface. A burning sensation causes Luonnotar’s limbs to shake convulsively. The eggs fall into the water and break. From the upper fragment of one egg rise the heavens and moon. From “all that in the egg was mottled” come the stars of heaven. Alternating, dissonance-tinged harp chords heard against repeated timpani rolls and sustained strings provide an atmosphere of primeval mystery. The stars appear. Dark becomes light.

Marc Mandel

Marc Mandel, former Director of Program Publications for the Boston Symphony Orchestra, joined the staff of the BSO in November 1978 and managed the orchestra’s program book from 1979 until his retirement in July 2020.

The first Boston Symphony Orchestra performance of Luonnotar was sung by soprano Karita Mattila under Osmo Vänskä’s direction at Tanglewood on August 10, 2002, though Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops had given a performance featuring soprano Sylvia Aarnio at Symphony Hall on June 24, 1957.