Apart from the seven magnificent symphonies Sibelius’ endowment to the World’s musical heritage includes twelve tone poems, one Violin concerto, one finished and one unfinished Opera and numerous vocal, choral, chamber and many other different compositions. Today, we’re going to talk about one specific segment of one very special tone poem – Pohjola’s daughter.

In August 1894, while he was in Münich, Sibelius wrote to his wife Aino that he finally understands many things about his musical path. He found Liszt’s music very interesting and close to his affinity, which led him realize that he is a true tone painter. And what a painter he was! Heaving that said, it is not a coincidence that Sibelius was so devoted to tone poems. In 1901 he started composing one of them while he was in Italy. It was Pohjola’s daughter.

In my opinion, it is one of the best programmatic compositions ever written. Richard Strauss’ composition A Hero’s Life inspired him with its sumptuous orchestration to start working on a tone poem with mythological background. Five years later, Sibelius finished Pohjola’s daughter. Side note here – there was a quite long road until the final title of the composition was set, but there wasn’t any doubt that it will be based on a mythological story.

Kalevala as a source of inspiration for Sibelius

Sibelius loved Kalevala very much, and he often looked there for inspiration. In December 1890 he wrote to his wife: “I’m reading Kalevala intensively and I feel I understand Finnish people much better already. Kalevala strikes me as much as any modern work, and for my ears it is pure music. Theme and variations; its story is far less important than atmosphere and mood it conveys. Gods and human beings, Väinämöinen is musician and so on…”.

One of potential titles for this piece was Luonotar, which as well as Pohjola descends from Kalevala. Luonotar is a strong female character of unworldly beauty. Pohjola on the other hand, isn’t a name of a specific female character, but rather a word that designates a far north of Finland. It is mentioned in Kalevala and descends from Finnish word pohjoinen, which means “the north compass point”. In this composition though, Pohjola’s daughter is a girl of extraordinary beauty that sits on the sky and she is the “Daughter of the North”.

Similarity between these two female characters, apart from the fact that both of them are present in Kalevala Runes is that both of them have some connections to Väinämöinen, a significant mythical figure. For the purpose of understanding tone painting of the far north at the beginning of this piece we have to have in our minds the first stanza of actual poem that serves as a programmatic context.

Sibelius' Poem with excerpts from Kalevala

“Väinämöinen, old and truthful,

Rides his sleigh and travels homeward

From the dark realm of Pohjola,

From the land of gloomy chanting.”

Pohjola’s Daughter – Tone Painting of The Far North

First twenty-six measures are representing the introduction in sonata form. Its function serves as scenography placement where the main act will take place. Primary key center is in G, because composer throughout the whole piece combines tonality and modality. Distinctly low register, static chord structures in p dynamics and melody of narrow range quite vividly represent the darkness, cold and infinite broadness of the far north. Allison Portnow in her paper “Epic Time and Narrativity in Jean Sibelius’s Lemminkäinen Suite” tells us that minor pentachord is prevalent in Finnish folk music. If we take a closer look at the opening measures of this piece we’ll find exactly that (Example 1).

Example 1

Jean Sibelius Example 1
Minor pentachord at the beginning

Moreover, thanks to masterful use of orchestra, Sibelius enriches this sight with different shades of dark color. Composer is constantly relocating the main melody to different instruments – cellos, bassoons and bass-clarinet. In 10th measure melodic line expands its range and we can notice the characteristics of G Dorian mode. Veijo Murtomäki advocates that Dorian mode should be characterized as The Finnish Mode, because it has abundant usage in Finnish folk music. It is very important for our understanding of tone painting in this piece (Example 2).

Example 2

Dorian mode and different shades of dark

Measures 14-21 are also part of the introduction, but they participate in musical flow creation on a completely different way. Ostinato based on eights in the Cellos part in measure 14 introduces certain agility which depicts Väinämöinen’s movement in his sleigh far, far away. We can hardly hear his movement and see him clearly though. But we get the impression that someone is fighting the vast white space, interspersed with ice, snow and centuries-old tall conifers. Melodic line in English horn and Clarinets permanently changes its place. Together with rhythm, this kind of melodic line could easily make us think that it represents the strong snowy winds of the North (Example 3).

Example 3

The last piece of the introduction (mm. 21-27) brings a brand new ostinato rhythm in Strings section. This ostinato is in the prime musical plan and its presence has extraordinary significance for musical flow. If we only analyze a couple of measures of the First subject group in measures 28-56 we’ll see that this ostinato changes its musical plan and goes into the accompaniment. It serves as accompaniment to the melody in Oboe. Heaving that said, that last piece of the introduction represents the gallop of the sleigh animals. Also, it has sort of movie-like effect of the zooming frame(Example 4).

Example 4

One could easily see wounded John Snow on a horse after the battle with White Walkers ridding to the Wall while listening to this excerpt. Or you can have your own interpretation. I personally like to imagine Väinämöinen himself, since I’ve read a lot about him. But one thing is crystal clear. This segment of Sibelius’ tone poem is one of the best examples of tone painting that includes cold, windy and snowy North in the history on classical music. I even managed to create my own piano excerpt of this segment, you can hear it here. In conclusion, if you like this post, please share it with your friends, family and colleagues. Also, comment down bellow if you feel need for it. Until the next reading, be happy and enjoy Sibelius. 😊    

  • Grimley, M. Daniel. Jean Sibelius and His World, Princeton University Press, 2011.
  • Hartley, Claire, Jannie. Outside the circus: psychology, modernity and narrativity in Sibelius‘s Fourth Symphony, University of York, 2016.
  • Lönnrot, Elias. Kalevala (trans. by John Martin Crawford), EBook, 2004.
  • Portnow, Allison. Epic Time and Narrativity in Jean Sibelius’s Lemminkäinen Suite, Chapel Hill, 2007


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