Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Sibelius's "Oceanides"

Continuing my series of program notes:

Jan Sibelius (1865-1957)
The Oceanides

Portrait of Sibelius in 1892 by his brother-in-law, Eero Järnefelt
In the ‘teens’ of the 20th century, it was as if Sibelius was seeking in his music to find the Being of nature behind the acoustic surface of his works. This was not ‘easy’ music. In several works of the period, Sibelius himself struggled through various drafts before arriving at satisfactory results. Not surprisingly, much of this music defied classification into standard classical forms and audiences were puzzled by works such as the Fourth Symphony (1910-11) or Luonnotar (1913).

In many respects, The Oceanides signified emergence from the bleak rigour of this period’s music. The work was commissioned in 1913 by philanthropists Carl Stoeckel and his wife, Ellen Battell-Stoeckel, for the next year’s Norfolk Festival in Connecticut. Sibelius wrote a draft in three movements. At this stage it was called ‘Fragments of a suite for orchestra (Precursor to The Oceanides)’; material that wound up in the final work was recognisable in the second movement. Sibelius then wrote a one-movement version in D flat. By now the work was called not only Oceanides, but Aallotaret, ‘water nymphs’, from the Finnish word ‘aalto’, for wave.

In his programmatic works, Sibelius was often inspired by the scenery and mythology of his native far north (particularly as found in the Finnish national epic, the Kalevala), but he could also be inspired by the south. The ‘oceanides’ themselves were found in Homer, feminine spirits of Oceanus, the great river that encircles the earth.

The sea’s shifting shapes and consistency make a good analogue for the form of the work, which in general consists of waves accumulating to a climax. The temptation to look for conventional form might find encouragement in the fact that at one point in May 1914 the work was temporarily called, in German, Rondeau der Wellen (Rondo of the Waves).

The Oceanides is often described as Sibelius’s most impressionistic work, and it is possible that the original three-movement version was an answer to Debussy’s La Mer. Sibelius champion Cecil Gray described the work as ‘pointillist’, a term from painting that has also been applied to Debussy’s work, but any pointillism in Sibelius serves a different purpose. He is interested in what motives amount to, not in limiting our attention impressionistically to the passing moment.

Sibelius’s sea crossing to America to conduct this work in 1914 led to one of the most rewarding experiences of his life. He visited New York, Boston and Niagara Falls (which moved him profoundly). At Norfolk he was thrilled by the quality of the orchestra – musicians from Boston and New York’s Metropolitan Opera – and even wondered if they may not have coped after all with the more mysterious D flat in which he had written the second draft of The Oceanides.

The reception in America was timely. While Central Europe had recently been coming to terms with the tonal experiments of Schoenberg, Richard Strauss and Mahler, Sibelius was falling out of fashion. It must have been gratifying to find a ready reception among people at the far western perimeter of the Central European tradition.

Gordon Kalton Williams © 2011

This note first appeared in program booklets of orchestras associated with Symphony Services International ( Please contact me if you would like to reprint this note in a program booklet. If you would like to read more of my notes on this blog please see:

Edward Elgar's Froissart, published 2 July 2013
Aaron Copland's A Lincoln Portrait, published 3 July 2013
Franz Waxman's Carmen-fantaisie, published 6 July 2013

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