A Smoother Pebble


Sibelius has always been one of my favourite composers, and until recently I thought that I knew all his major works: the Symphonies (1-7), the tone poems (the Oceanides, the Swan of Tuonela, Tapiola, etc.) and the Violin Concerto. But I have just found an almost unknown work which contains some of the greatest music Sibelius ever wrote, a true neglected masterpiece.

Sibelius composed the tone-poem Skogsraet in 1894, based on a ballad by Viktor Rydberg. It was performed twice and then the manuscript was lost until 1996. It's only been recorded once, in 2001. Considering its quality, you would have expected it to have entered the repertoire of the major symphony orchestras, been recorded several times and become one of the most popular of Sibelius' works. But none of that has happened.


One problem, at least in the English speaking countries, has been the usual translation for 'Skogsraet' - 'Woodnymph' . This horrible title suggests a gauzy, Peter Pan, pretty-pretty, sentimental, insubstantial piece. (Dvorak's tone poems have the same problem.)

Sibelius wrote two types of music. In his serious compositions, he tortured himself without regard for time or money to produce great music, heedless for anything except beauty. These are the works that are best known today, but they did not make enough money to support Sibelius and his family. To pay the bills, he dashed off light and fluffy music like Valse Triste and Valse Chevalaresque. 'Woodnymph' suggests the latter sort of piece. Outside Scandanavia, Sibelius is biggest in the Anglosphere, so the misleading title might be a factor in Skogsraet's neglect. Female Demon of the Woods would be a better title, but is terribly clumsy.

It's undeniable that, for all its inspiration, Skogsraet is repetitive and needs trimming. The manuscript not surfacing until 1996 has been another handicap. Most people I've spoken to are suprised at the idea that a work of so much richness, lasting over twenty minutes, could have been forgotten.

Sibelius himself, ironically, bears a good deal of the blame. Sibelius suffered all his life from alcoholism and depression. In his later years his output slowed and then stopped as he became creatively paralysed by self-criticism.

Sibelius' demons drove him to destroy the completed manuscript of the Eighth Symphony and many of his early works. It seems that Skogsraet and many other pieces only survived because he couldn't get his hands on their manuscripts. However, the mere fact that Sibelius removed Skogsraet from his published opus list appears to have convinced many people that the piece wasn't worthy of attention.

Going off on a tangent, they ought to have used Sibelius for the 'Lord of the Rings' trilogy, a good set of films with a forgettable sountrack. Take 'The Shining' or '2001' - average movies that most people remember for the music of Bartok, Ligeti and Strauss. When I saw the LOTR trilogy, I spent a lot of the time trying to mentally blank out the music and replace it with Sibelius. The dark brooding music at the end of Skogsraet would have been perfect for Sauron and the Land of Mordor; the repetition wouldn't have mattered in a film score.

In any case, Skogsraet is wonderful. Go get it.

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