Jean Sibelius: En Saga

Jean Sibelius is habitually referred to as Finland’s greatest composer. But to give the title to a single individual is to obscure the truth, which is that success on the revolutionary level that Sibelius achieved is not an individual endeavour but more commonly, at the very least, a joint one. In this case it was the friendship, and occasionally enmity, of Jean Sibelius and Robert Kajanus that was the driving force behind Finnish the development of Finnish orchestral music.

Sibelius and Kajanus first met not in Finland, but in Berlin. Kajanus, both composer and conductor, was conducting his own work Aino with the Berlin Philharmonic. Aino is a tone poem for orchestra and male chorus, with the chorus singing words from the Kalevala-- the Finnish poetic epic which Sibelius would eventually use as inspiration for twelve different works. Back in Finland, the two began working together in several capacities; first with Sibelius teaching under Kajanus at his conducting school, and then Kajanus acting as the principal champion, conductor and interpreter of Sibelius’ music. They were estranged due to a squabble over a teaching post, and then reunited; finally, in the 1930s, Kajanus embarked on a massive recording project of all of Sibelius’ symphonies, on the composer’s insistence. Only his death prevented him from finishing the cycle.

It is unsurprising, then, that the tone poem En Saga was a suggestion of Kajanus’s. Relatively early in their association, he asked Sibelius for an orchestral tone poem that would not make “too great demands on the powers of concentration and comprehension” of the audience. Sibelius, who shared Kajanus’s interest in Finnish history, folklore and independence, is mainly known for tone poems with programmatic themes; En Saga is the only one that has no story attached. Instead, Sibelius appears to have re-worked a previously written piece of chamber music into an orchestral work. The original version of En Saga, probably a septet or octet, has never been found; however, the tone poem was sized down for septet by Gregory Barrett, in an attempt to reconstruct how the original may have sounded.

Although the title, translating to “a fairytale,” suggests that there may be a hidden program behind the work, Sibelius rejected the idea of superimposing a story on it, while simultaneously hinting that for those seeking to find the true shape of his mind, this haunting, adventurous piece may be the place to look: “En saga is the expression of a state of mind,” he wrote enigmatically. “I had undergone a number of painful experiences at the time, and in no other work have I revealed myself so completely.”