Sunday, November 6, 2011

In the Beginning, Cracked Duck Eggs

After a far-too-early blast of winter here and a power outage that wouldn’t quit, it’s not surprising that the re-dawn of electrical power might call to mind the beginning of the world.

In the midst of the outage, I decamped to New York City to set up a provisional place to work.  While there, courtesy of David Nice, I learned about a concert on BBC3 Radio, available for listening only three more days.  Had I been in a place without electricity, I’d have missed the concert entirely (along with the plumbing, but we won’t go into that).  As it was, I heard only part of it, but to that part I listened repeatedly.  The composer's work to which I listened was Sibelius, and one of the pieces was Luonnotar.

I thought I knew the work of Sibelius—after all, I’d heard Finlandia aeons ago.  At one point I listened several times to the Violin Concerto, both live and on CD.  I’d played CDs of a handful of symphonies from time to time as well, but that was all.  I’d certainly never heard Luonnotar and had no idea what it was about.

Luonnotar, as Nice notes, is “the Finnish creation myth as adapted from the Kalevala.”  The gist of the myth is this:  Luonnotar, sometimes referred to in English as the Water-Mother, dipped down from her lonely skyward place to land in the ocean.  A duck (variously identified as a teal, pochard, or scaup), took Luonnotar’s upraised knee for an island and built a nest on it.  In a wonderfully human touch, the myth has it that Luonnotar got hot and shifted her position, causing the duck eggs to drop into the sea.

All was not lost.  As the myth goes, in one translation:
But the eggs and pieces were not
Mixed up with the mud and water
For at once the crumbs grew comely
And the pieces beautiful.
One egg’s lower half transformed
And became the earth below,
And its upper half transmuted
And became the sky above;
From the yolk the sun was made,
Light of day to shine upon us;
From the white the moon was formed,
Light of night to gleam above us;
All the colored brighter bits
Rose to be the stars of heaven
And the darker crumbs changed into
Clouds and cloudlets in the sky.
In fewer than ten minutes, Sibelius’s Luonnotar, a symphonic poem for soprano and orchestra, evokes the whole of this creation myth.  I gather it’s the devil of a piece to sing, but in a performance like Anu Komsi’s, it’s an exotic and enthralling ride.

On looking further, I discovered that an intrepid Finn (though perhaps that’s redundant), Elias Lönnrot, compiled the Kalevala during a stint as district health officer.  To catch his quarry, he took repeated leaves from his duties (man after my own heart) to make trips into Finland’s countryside.

Another intrepid Finn, the painter Akseli Gallen-Kallela, embarked on a great project, left unfinished at his death, to create an illustrated Kalevala.  (His house has since become a museum devoted to his work.)

Oh, and speaking of houses, I have it on very good authority that the Sibelius house, Ainola, is a treasure trove.  But you needn't just take my word for it.  Instead, look here (home), here (swan songs), here (tributes), here (portraits) and here (instruments).

Now, of course, I want to go to Finland.

Not in winter, though, I’ll confess.

To hear Luonnotar, sung by Karita Mattila, click here (to avoid the unnecessary weather drama that introduces the piece, start at about :41):

For a Spotify Playlist of Sibelius tone poems and similar works, go to Sibelius Tone Poems & Other Works.

Credits:  The image at the head of the post is of Gallen-Kallela's watercolor "Thus she swam the Water-Mother."  The quotation from David Nice can be found here.  The image of the Sibelius portrait, also by Gallen-Kallela, can be found here.  The image of the watercolor, "From the waves her knee uplifted," also by Gallen-Kallela, can be found here.  The quotation from the Kalevala can be found here.  The images of Lönnrot and Gallen-Kallela can be found here and here.  The image of the fresco at the end of the post, also by Gallen-Kallela, can be found here.


Britta said...

Dear Susan,
what a bliss that you could hear at least a part of that concert in NY! Winter in your country already - shudder - we still are happy with a lot of sun, autumnal of course.
The creation myth is very interesting - so vivid the explanation of the sun and world and clouds.
We had our honeymoon in Sweden and Finnland(gift of a realtive) - we married on January 6th - so you can imagine the temperature there... But it was beautiful. I wish you no more power shortcuts, fine weather and great music to listen to!

Jane and Lance Hattatt said...

Hello Susan:
We too might have said that we know something of Sibelius's music, but, clearly, with your wonderful introduction to Luonnotar, there are many riches left to discover.

We listened entranced to the powerful performance of Karita Mattila which you so obligingly provided us with. Hauntingly beautiful, it does convey a sense of place, of a vast, cold expanse,inhospitable and yet dramatically beautiful, that in our minds is very much Finland.

A most interesting and inspirational post, for which many thanks.

We do so hope that the snowstorms have now abated and that things are returning to normal with you. Winter is very much here too in Budapest, but no snow as yet.

Suze said...

I am listening to your link as I type up my words in response.

My husband had a dream last night that we were lambasted by a snow storm as we had decided to camp on an open field.

I am deeply impressed by the translation of the myth you have posted. In particular:

'One egg’s lower half transformed
And became the earth below,
And its upper half transmuted
And became the sky above;'

I have it on the brain, a lot, so no doubt I am projecting, but this speaks to me of anima and animus.

David said...

How could the fish not bite this one? I listened again to Komsi's performance this afternoon - it so far outstrips both Mattila and Soile Isokoski (who won a BBC Music Magazine disc of the year award for her performance with Segerstam). And the fusion with the orchestra, which Sibelius would have marvelled at, has so much to do with the way she works with husband Oramo. My concert experience of the year - alongside June Tabor's solo folksongs at the Proms.

But do carry on - in every nook and cranny of Sibelius's output there are such gems. My other favourites, apart from the symphonies, are the little mystery The Bard and the weightless sea-picture of The Oceanides.

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Susan .. I too am typing as I listen - which is bliss .. and I love the translation of the myth - it encompasses all doesn't it.

Glad you were able to decamp to NYC and able to listen to the concert.

Having just watched most of the 2nd part of David Attenborough's BBC's Frozen Planet .. I think I know what Antarctic storms are like - I'll stay here and live with ours.

I just hope we don't have an early whitening ... cheers for now - Hilary

shoreacres said...

So, the reader asks. Is it possible to experience the tale of Luonnotar in this world, in the realm of the real, rather than as myth?

I'd say yes, for reading the translation, I'm transported directly to my grandparents' kitchen, The snow is piled outside the windows, and on the gleaming white stove, the coffee kettle is being prepared - egg, coffee and water ready for the hands of those Swedish alchemists.

Seeing my grandmother break the eggs, stir them into the coffee, add the water, I'm struck again by the yellow of the yolk, the purity of the shell, the density of the grounds.

But the eggs and pieces were not
mixed up with the mud and water
for at once the crumbs grew comely
and the pieces beautiful..."

The yolk in her coffee was sunlight, indeed, and the white the color of snow and the shining of the moon. Myth, or truth? I don't know. But I can taste it.

Friko said...

I saw you had a new post up and had to come although it is midnight and I ought to go to bed.

I recently saw a series about Sibelius' life and music; like you I thought I knew much of his music and a little about his life, but he is one of these composers who offer you a new surprise every time you listen to him.

Do you know Kullervo? He is another character from the Kalevala. It is rarely performed; J. played it under Colin Davies some years ago and I loved the piece.

Thank you for giving me this recording of Mattila singing Luonnotar, I have not heard it before. A wonderful gift before bed.

I had the great good fortune of hearing Mattila at Covent Garden, she really is magnificent.

Mark Kerstetter said...

This was a nice listen after going from your spotify playlist Les Illuminations - I joined just to keep up with your playlists and noticed the Pierre Lunaire suite follows. A cellist I know recently encouraged me to listen to that piece.

I'm glad you survived that most unusual storm, and I look forward to your spotify lists. Perhaps, once I learn my way around, I'll share some lists too.

klahanie said...

Hi Susan,
Not much I can add to your previous, high intellectual replies.
Truly wonderful music such as mentioned by you can be discovered on BBC 3. And my personal favourite radio station, over here, Classic FM.
All the very best and stay warm :)
With respect, Gary

Susan Scheid said...

Britta: What an interesting and generous honeymoon present—despite my comment about Finland in winter, I can well imagine it’s beautiful in winter time.

Jane and Lance: I’m so glad you enjoyed Luonnotar, too. On hearing it, I realized I’d only skimmed along the surface of Sibelius. So much good listening ahead, isn’t there?

Suze: It is a great myth, isn’t it, the universe created from a broken egg? And, as I always am, I enjoyed learning where the thought of the myth took you. (As for projecting, well, why not? I would say myths are all about projecting. What do you think?)

David: I, too, can’t understand how (other) fish didn’t bite on this! While I haven’t your ability to distinguish among performances and thought Mattila’s stunning, I do agree that Kamsi inhabited the music in a way that would be hard to top. As you’ve described, it would have been dazzling to hear and see her, with that orchestra, her husband conducting, perform this live. I’m glad at least I had a chance, thanks to you, to listen to part of the broadcast while it was available. Thank you, too, for the additional recommendations, which I’ve added to my Sibelius listening list and am enjoying already.

Hilary: I’m so pleased you liked Luonnotar. I love to think of you listening as you respond to the post. Isn’t it a wonderful world we live in (even, perhaps, in an early snow)?

shoreacres: Such a wonderful recollection, and so vividly described. Do you know, though I’d quite forgotten it until you wrote this, one of my grandparents made coffee in this way, too. With your recollection, you’ve immeasurably enriched this little post.

Friko: In the light of all the gifts you’ve given me with your writing and poetry posts, how pleased I am to be able to return to you a gift of that beautiful piece, beautifully sung. I haven’t heard Mattila live, but hope that will change. Thank you, too, for tipping me off to Kullervo, though not the version you mention, which would have been fun. I do have the CD of Colin Davis and the LSO for Symphonies 2 & 6. Is it possible your Beloved played for those?

Mark: To think you signed up for Spotify to hear my little lists! I had best keep on my toes . . . I do hope from time to time there’s something there you’ll enjoy, and if you begin to create lists, do please let me know! As for Pierrot Lunaire: long on my list to listen to, but I seem to keep veering off in other directions. Let me know what you think, if/when you get to it.

Gary: So, of course, I’ve just looked up Classic FM—isn’t it amazing what the internet brings to us all over the globe? I hope you’ll write sometime and say what you’ve heard there that you particularly liked.

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Susan .. nope - no early snow thankfully .. last year it was about 27th Nov .. and that was early. I sincerely hope we don't get it this year ... I could do with a 'temperate' winter - who knows?! Cheers Hilary

Mark Kerstetter said...

I've listened to the Schoenberg piece several times now. It hasn't been love at first hear, but I think the music is worth delving deeper into; some things take a little longer.

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