Saturday, October 13, 2012

Lemminkäinen

I've been listening to Sibelius' Lemminkäinen Suite, in the 1999 Naxos recording with Petri Sakari conducting the Iceland Symphony Orchestra. One of the notable things about this is that they revert to the original sequence of the four pieces, i.e.

Lemminkäinen and the Maidens of the Island
Lemminkäinen in Tuonela
The Swan of Tuonela
Lemminkäinen's Return

The best information I can find about the work is by Richard A. Kaplan. Its first performance was in  April 1896. It was strongly criticized by Karl Flodin (generally an admirer of Sibelius' music),  and again when it was performed in revised form in November 1897; Flodin considered it "downright pathological". Sibelius subsequently banned performance of the first two pieces for many years. The entire suite was not peformed again until 1935.  Sibelius made substantial revisions to the first two pieces in 1939 and it was also at this time that he changed the running order, placing The Swan of Tuonela second and Lemminkäinen in Tuonela third. Most recordings (though not this one) have gone with Sibelius' final ideas.

It's interesting to listen to the suite in its original sequence, even though the pieces are in their final versions, so it is not the same suite that had upset Karl Flodin.  For example, in 1896/97 Lemminkäinen in Tuonela had a different beginning; Lemminkäinen's Return had additional material and was twice as long as in its final version.

Lemminkäinen and the Maidens, above all, was extensively rewritten (bars 155-402). Arguably this was Sibelius' last major piece of composition. I have a personal theory that it was his re-acquaintance with this jubilant and inventive music from his early years that persuaded him, once and for all,  that his creative fires were no longer, er...  burning.

Sibelius said that he had always planned  Lemminkäinen as a programme symphony, and the revised order feels more acceptable - perhaps more conventional - symphonically. But what about the programme aspect?

This gets complicated. In the Kalevala there are two  main sections centred on Lemminkäinen, XI-XV and XXVI-XXX. Elias Lönnrot's Lemminkäinen aggregates features of different characters from his Karelian hoard - sources that he had collected from several different Karelian regions - ; moreover these two sequences in Kalevala to some extent run parallel with each other. Sibelius in his Suite quite reasonably conflated the two.

In particular,  Lemminkäinen's stay with the maidens on the island (Runo XXIX) has quite a lot in common with the earlier episode at Saari (Runo XI). In fact "saari" is simply the Finnish word for "island". Nevertheless, in Runo XI (but not XXIX) "Saari" is capitalized and treated as a place-name, though it clearly is an island too. This is why, though Sibelius referred to Runo XXIX when he described the theme of his first piece, its title has often been translated as "Lemminkäinen and the Maidens of Saari".

The two inner pieces both refer to the action in Runos XIV-XV. Lemminkäinen is sent on a mission by the mistress of Pohjola to shoot the Swan of Tuonela, but instead he is ambushed and killed; his beloved mother magically restores him. The revised running order seems to make more narrative sense than the original - first we are introduced to the Swan, in a wonderful still piece of scene-setting. Then the sombre and violent Lemminkäinen in Tuonela describes the hero's grisly death and, towards the end, with a hint of a lullaby, his mother's recovery of his remains (Sibelius confirmed this aspect of the "programme" in 1948).

Why would you choose to place the Swan AFTER Lemminkäinen in Tuonela, as Sibelius did in his original running order? Maybe to provide a lapse of time, parallelling the long process of cure (in Runo XV) before Lemminkäinen makes a full recovery? Or perhaps, as many feel, Sibelius was not really intending to programme a continuous narrative, but just to provide a musical contemplation of four separate "legends".

Lemminkäinen's Return does not refer to any particular return. None of Lemminkäinen's various returns in the Kalevala is triumphant, but Sibelius wanted to celebrate him as a character (and imply a Finnish nationalist subtext);

I think that we Finns should really show more pride.‘Let us not bear our helmet crooked,’ a quotation from the Kalevala. What do we have to be ashamed of? This is the idea running through ‘Lemminkäinen’s Return.’ He is as good as the finest count.”

To my mind there is a musical dash of that other anti-hero, Grieg's Peer Gynt (specifically, "Peer Gynt's Homecoming").

I can't find an actual transcript of the 1896 program booklet on the internet. Apparently what it quoted was this (using the 1907 W.F. Kirby translation):

Then the lively Lemminkäinen,
He the handsome Kaukomieli
From his care constructed horses,
Coursers black composed from trouble.
+Then the lively Lemminkäinen
+Started on his homeward journey,
Saw the lands and saw the beaches,
Here the islands, there the channels,
Saw the ancient landing-stages,
Saw the former dwelling places.

Of course in the original booklet it would have been in Finnish (and also, I think I've read, Swedish).

The first four lines come from Runo XXX, when Lemminkäinen, in a relieved rather than a triumphal state, retunrs with his comrade Tiera from an abortive and nearly disastrous attempt to wreak vengeance on Pohjola.

The next six lines are from Runo XXIX. Here Lemminkäinen returns in a carefree way from a pleasant stay with the maidens on the island, only to find that the men of Pohjola have burnt his home to the ground (which is what leads to the revenge mission).

The most detailed account in Finnish quotes the lines

Siitä lieto Lemminkäinen, itse kaunis Kaukomieli,
laati huolista hevoset, murehista mustat ruunat,
(from XXX - the first four lines above)

and

tunsi maat on, tunsi rannat, sekä saaret jotta salmet,
tunsi vanhat valkamansa, entiset elosijansa
(from XXIX - the last four lines above)

but it misses out the two lines that I've marked with a "+", so I'm not sure if they really did appear in the program booklet or not.

In the edition of 1943 published by the British & Continental Music Agencies Ltd, the following quotation from Kirby's translation appears instead:

Then the lively Lemminkäinen,
He the handsome Kaukomieli,
From his care constructed horses,
Coursers black composed from trouble,
Reins from evil days he fashioned,
Saddles from his secret sorrows,
Then his horse's back he mounted,
And he rode upon his journey,
At his side his faithful Tiera,
And along the shores he journeyed,
On the sandy shores proceeded,
Till he reached his tender mother,
Reached the very aged woman.

This is an extended quotation of the passage in Runo XXX - there's nothing here from XXIX. I don't know whether this slightly different quotation was in any way authorized by the composer himself.

*

For me W[illiam] F[orsell] Kirby's translation of Kalevala is still the one to choose. He was an entomologist at the Natural History Museum. His middle name suggests some Swedish or Finnish ancestry, but he did not know Finnish and his original plan (announced in 1888) was to re-translate the Kalevala from the German of Franz Anton Schiefner (1852), the influential version that had also given Longfellow the idea for his Hiawatha-meter. John Martin Crawford (1888) had already taken the Schiefner route. Kirby, however, was subsequently persuaded (by Edmund Gosse, Andrew Lang and others) to learn Finnish and to translate directly from Lönnrot's original text. He also learnt Estonian and in 1895 published The hero of Estonia and other studies in the literature of that country - its centre-piece was a translation of the Kalevipoeg .

Keith Bosley's recent translation of Kalevala looks fascinating and skilful, but (unlike Crawford and Kirby) he chose not to use the Hiawatha-meter. Losing the constant flow of that drum-rhythm is too great a sacrifice, in my opinion.

"I was immensely attracted by something in the air of the Kalevala, even in Kirby's poor translation," J.R.R. Tolkien wrote to W.H. Auden in 1955.  Exactly what Tolkien supposed was poor about it I don't know. Today, certainly, we have to make some allowances for the style of 1907, but that can hardly have been Tolkien's problem, because his own verse is just as old-fashioned . Nor can I believe he knew enough Finnish to criticize the accuracy of Kirby's translation. So it sounds as if his issue was aesthetic.

There was evidently some snobbery around about Kirby not being a professional academic, and perhaps about the Hiawatha-meter (acceptable in Finnish but not in English). This is one of those irritatingly unargued value judgments that people make to each other when they're cosying up; and Tolkien may just as likely have been deferring to Auden's opinions as expressing his own. (The unholy alliance of progressive poets and stuffy academics created a fertile habitat for the coded transfer of age-old class exclusivities, as it still does today.)

As judges of poetry, I haven't the least confidence in either of them, but I do trust Tolkien's feeling of being immensely attracted in spite of his judgment.


Lemminkäinen, watercolour by Karin Boye*
[* Image found on this site: http://www.karinboye.se/verk/akvareller/index-en.shtml ]

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