Jean Sibelius’ tone-poem, Finlandia, wasn’t supposed to be the program headliner last Saturday night at the San Francisco Symphony. The main draw was the Sibelius Violin Concerto, gracefully and sensitively rendered by Latvian violinist Baiba Skride, with Finnish guest conductor Osmö Vänskä leading the orchestra. Vänskä, music director of the Minnesota Orchestra—they of the Great Lockout of 2012-14 infamy—literally staked his position on turning said orchestra into one of the country’s finest, resigning in protest in the later months of the lockout, only to be rehired the following April (good call), where he now continues, with the Minnesota Orchestra, to excel and produce world-class music. Particularly impressive are Vänskä’s Sibelius interpretations.
No surprise, perhaps, as both hail from Finland and both have captured, in the music, the nuance, proud spirit and dignity of this Nordic country. And no piece conjures a sense of Finnish national pride more so than Sibelius’ Finlandia, a patriotic tone-poem, the seventh of seven tableaux written in 1899 and revised a year later. Coming in at eight-ish minutes (can be up to nine), it’s short, but amazingly effective.
The first part delivers a brooding fanfare of horns, rumbling timpani, depicting menace, oppression that, indeed, was part of Finland’s history, through occupations by Sweden and then Russia, into the early 20th century. The middle part of Finlandia calls in strings and woodwinds, a gentler but no less affecting sound, before the piece really ramps into high gear. It becomes propulsive and spirited, with plenty of crashing cymbals and an increase in speed and intensity from the entire orchestra.
And then, at its peak, comes the melody, slow and majestic, instantly timeless and memorable. Strings, woodwinds, brass all play in tandem, contributing different textures that meld perfectly. When the horns sustain one of their notes against the melody, it’s so beautiful—one of the most vivid aural depiction of love, fealty and longing I’ve ever heard. It never fails to make my throat contract, my eyes sting. Saturday night at Davies Symphony Hall, Vänskä conducting, was no exception.
Sibelius had written the piece, initially entitled “Finland Awakes,” part of his Press Celebration Music suite, for an event, a covert political rally of sorts to protest Russia’s increasing censorship and other punitive measures against Finland, an “autonomous” region of the Empire. It was an instant hit. In 1900 he revised, making the seventh piece stand alone and renaming it Finlandia. Its popularity grew in leaps and bounds, particularly when the fledgling Helsinki Philharmonic, eighteen months old, took it with them on their first European tour. Suddenly the world knew about Sibelius, Finlandia, and Finnish national pride. The Russians, of course, hated this, and did their best to censor performances of Finlandia. Story has it, the Finns got sneaky and gave the piece alternative names at future performances, like, “Happy Feelings at the Awakening of Finnish Spring,” and “A Scandinavian Choral March." The correlating hymn, too, had become a big deal. Huge. Sibelius had taken the piece’s slower melody and made it a choral hymn — although the more popular words were written in 1941 by Veikko Antero Koskenniemi. It became the patriotic cry of a nation. It defined the voice of Finland that emerged in December, 1917, when the Finnish parliament finally declared independence from Russia. It is second in importance in Finland only to the country’s national anthem, “Maamme.” (Some still would like to see it become the national anthem.)
December 6, 2017 marks Finland’s centennial. I can think of no better way to honor such an event than to share Finlandia with the world.
Following is a link to my favorite version of the choral hymn. It makes tears rise in my throat every time I watch it (and I’m going on a dozen times at this point). That nationalism can be expressed with such beautiful song, is just one more reason why Finland impresses me to no end. (Second: tied for highest literacy rate in the world at 100%. Third: most engaged, informed, prolific classical music audience in the world. Fourth: one of the highest functioning welfare systems and lowest infant mortality rates in the world. Fifth: the best front row seat for viewing the Northern Lights.)
Want to know the words? Here you go! (And if auto-correct made a mess of the Finnish spelling, apologies to all my Finnish readers out there! Let me know and I’ll fix.)
Oi Suomi, katso, sinun päiväs koittaa
Yön uhka karkoitettu on jo pois
Ja aamun kiuru kirkkaudessa soittaa
Kuin itse taivahan kansi sois
Yön vallat aamun valkeus jo voittaa
Sun päiväs koittaa, Oi synnyinmaa
Oi nouse Suomi, nosta korkealle
Pääs seppelöimä suurten muistojen
Oi nouse Suomi, näytit maailmalle
Sä että karkoitit orjuuden
Ja ettet taipunut sä sorron alle
On aamus alkanut
Here is the English translation:
Finland, behold, thy daylight now is dawning,
the threat of night has now been driven away.
The skylark calls across the light of morning,
the blue of heaven lets it have its way,
and now the day the powers of night is scorning:
thy daylight dawns, O Finland of ours!
Finland, arise, and raise towards the highest
thy head now crowned with mighty memory.
Finland, arise, for to the world thou criest
that thou hast thrown off thy slavery,
beneath oppression’s yoke thou never liest.
Thy morning’s come, O Finland of ours!
And now, here is a link to the full version (coming in at nine minutes, so a little more deliberate pacing), which also provides a film tour of Finland and its staggering natural beauty. (But warning, the cute little animals and birds kind of kill the mood of “we, the oppressed, must struggle or die trying” patriotic fervor. Now it’s more like a Nature episode. But a gorgeous one, I might add!)
PS: Happy Centennial, Finland!
PPS: Want to hear the original Press Celebration Music suite? In truth, it’s pretty cool, because, for you Sibelius fans such as myself, there’s some new music in there that hints at what he will produce further down the road. And there’s a pretty nifty slide show that depicts different historical scenes for each tableau, which are, themselves, intended as historical episodes. Further, you can hear the original 1899 first ending.
This article first appeared, in modified form, at The Classical Girl.
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