Karelia Suite, Op. 11

by Max Derrickson

Jean Sibelius
(Born in Tavestehus (Hämeenlinna) Finland in 1865; died in Järvenpää, Finland in 1957)

Johann Sibelius is regarded synonymously with the country of Finland, and was an inspirational figure with his music during that country’s independence at the turn of the 20th Century.  Of Sibelius’s musical importance, his Finnish contemporary Robert Kajanus said, “…Finnish music…scarcely existed when Jean Sibelius struck his powerful chords….Finnish music’s mighty springs came bursting forth….Jean Sibelius alone showed the way.”  Born in south-central Finland, Sibelius spent nearly his entire life in his homeland.  He left for several years to study in Vienna and Berlin late in the 1880’s (at which point he “internationalized” his name to Jean), but returned to Finland and rarely traveled abroad thereafter.  One of his favorite places in Finland was the Eastern province called Karelia.  This was the place where, early in his musical career, he studied Finnish folk music and a place that so enchanted him by its beauty he chose to return there for his honeymoon in 1892.

Karelia Suite, Op. 11
1. Intermezzo
2. Ballade
3. Alla marcia

For centuries Karelia has been known as the center of folk ways, and even today it is home to the last rune chanter in Finland (as of this writing in 2015) – an ancient ritual of story-telling (epic and otherwise) through song.  The area is so famous in this way that decades ago writer J. R. R. Tolkien visited there and gathered inspiration for his famous Lord of the Rings books.  But half a century earlier, around the turn of the 20th C., Karelia was essentially the epicenter of a nationalist dispute with Russia.  Since Peter the Great (ca. 1721), the rugged, beautiful region was under Russian ownership.  In fact, all of Finland was ruled by foreigners for centuries, but mainly by Sweden and Russia who vied for its ownership in a dizzying political rugby match.  As Finland began its Nationalistic awakening, folkways were championed more than ever, and Karelia became a prime focus of Finnish identity.  In 1893, a lottery fundraiser was organized by the Vyborg Students’ Association to promote the education of the people of Vyborg Province (Karelia).  Rising Nationalist composer, Jean Sibelius, was asked to compose the music to accompany its “pageant,” a theatrical genre in vogue at the time that depicted scenes (tableaus) of historical interest, acted and pantomimed by live actors, with musical accompaniment.

Sibelius wrote eight vignettes for the pageant, finishing up with the Finnish National Anthem, but it’s impossible to tell how successful they were – the event was so nationalistically charged that the audience’s rowdiness drowned out every note.  Sibelius soon refashioned a suite from three of the vignettes, which depicted the following: Intermezzo (tableau No. 3) that portrayed the Duke of Lithuania levying taxes in part of southern Karelia in 1333; Ballade (tableau No. 4) that showed Swedish King Karl Knutsson reminiscing in his castle as a minstrel entertains him in 1446; and, Alla marcia (tableau No. 5 ½) that remembered Pontus de la Gardie, a French-born Swedish commander, in his march against Russia in the Russo-Swedish War of 1656-58.

The music Sibelius crafted was intentionally rough-hewn to sound folky and rustic with a light touch, and filled it with melodic and harmonic sophistication.  The Intermezzo is just this lovely kind of folk-like melody with a patriotic sashay, rousing and cheery.  The horn calls that begin and end the piece are as much a call to action as they would be to a hunt.  The Ballade is something unique.  In the original pageant, there was singing which here in this suite is sung by the English horn.  Immediately, Sibelius sets a stage for an epic tale, and the music begins a wonderful journey of olden times, like the King and his minstrel recalling the ancients.  Almost minimalistic, the sounds canonically meander like the aged rune songs, evoking enchantment and wonder.  There’s a terrific moment in which the double reeds make a long unison exclamation before the saga continues – the “…and then!” moment, humorous and charming, capturing the essence of those famous songs with an uncanny grace.  The Alla marcia is probably the most famous movement of the beloved Suite.  It’s saturated in good cheer and boasts a wonderful tune.  Dressed in an easy march tempo two-step, it comes with lazy brass fanfares and plenty of bravura.  Sibelius allows the two themes, the march and the fanfare, to build in exuberance, adding flourishes, more instruments and volume, leading to a triumphal ending.