En Saga, Op. 9

by Max Derrickson

Jean Sibelius
(Born in Tavestehus (Hämeenlinna) Finland, December 8, 1865; died in Järvenpää, Finland, September 20, 1957)

En Saga, Op. 9

It was early in his career, 1892, when Sibelius wrote En Saga.  This was the first of what would become eight Finnish Nationalist tone-poems that he would write over the next eight years, works that won him hero status in Finland, and that helped launch his international renown.

En Saga is a transition work of sorts.  Sibelius had just premiered his gigantic “choral symphony” Kullervo in that same year, a piece that required so many musicians for performance that Sibelius only heard it five times in his life.  After that gargantuan piece, Sibelius was just beginning to appreciate the beauties of brevity and economy as he launched into En Saga.  He had also moved away from his earlier interest in Richard Wagner’s music and methods, finding the idea of Wagner’s “leit motifs” (those recurring themes that represent a character, or action, etc.) too obvious.  With En Saga, Sibelius began instead to explore the genre of the tone-poem made popular by Liszt and began working out his unique method of thematic homogeneity – that is, the seamless transfiguration of musical motives and themes throughout a piece.

What this rethinking produced in En Saga was perhaps his most enigmatic work.  Despite its title, En Saga (A Fairytale) has no literary […], Sibelius simply offered the following:

En saga is the expression of a state of mind. I had undergone a number of painful experiences […].”

It’s at turns haunting and swashbuckling, epic and […] It may also be his most hypnotizing work – next to Finlandia (1900), the last of the eight tone poems in this prolific period, En Saga is his most popular.

En Saga’s true compass bearing seems to be Sibelius’ mastery at weaving themes organically, one to the next, […] ringing out small bits of a theme – a theme that will soon coalesce in the low strings and return often in the piece.  Its first character is of a blazing light that could indeed come from the sun-blazed frozen expanses of the North.  When it appears again quickly after, it is more fleshed out deep in the basses and cellos and it is long and epic in feel – its character utterly changed.  As the poem moves along, the theme appears often, but […], Sibelius creates a magical soundscape through just this one theme (among several), and whether or not we can identify any overt or implicit  narrative in En Saga, we are led through Sibelius’ own kind of musical story.  It’s a masterful […]