Since the Karelia Suite was composed by Jean Sibelius, a Finnish composer, you can imagine he infused a lot of his homeland into the piece. What you may not know, however, is that the piece is more than just inspired by Finland – it is entirely all about Finland. From the title, which refers to a region made up by southeast Finland and parts of Russia, to the premiere in Vyborg, this work captures the spirit of Sibelius’ country and was not only popular during his time, but remains one of his most performed works today.
The Karelia Suite is actually music that was commissioned by students from the Helsinki University in Vyborg for a historical tableau – a set of scenes from the history of Karelia. The original work was called Karelia Music and was an intensely patriotic work, incorporating Finland’s main folk legends from the Kalevala (a 19th century work of epic poetry based on Finnish mythology). It consisted of an overture, 8 tableau movements, and two intermezzo movements. Sibelius created the suite we know today using 3 of the movements.
The three movements of the Karelia Suite are:
- Intermezzo: Sibelius borrowed the brass theme from the middle of the 3rd tableau to create this lively movement. It is a jaunty movement intended to depict the procession of Karelian laborers paying taxes to Duke Narimont of Lithuania.
- Ballade: This was based on tableau 4 of the original music. It tells the story of 15th century Swedish king, Karl Knutsson, feeling reminiscent while listening to his bard singing in the castle.
- Alla Marcia: This exhilarating march is very similar to the last half of the 5th tableau in the original music. The original tableau, however, depicted a violent city siege. This movement in the suite, however, is light, sunny, and jolly.
When the original Karelia Music premiered in 1893, it was not performed in the best of circumstances. The audience, made up of students from the university, was so loud that many could not hear the music at all. Sibelius himself remarked, “You couldn’t hear a single note of the music – everyone was on their feet cheering and clapping.”
Finnish author Ernst Lampén, who was in the audience, recalled:
The noise in the hall was like an ocean in a storm. I was at the opposite end of the hall and could not distinguish a single note. The audience did not have the patience to listen and was hardly aware of the music. The orchestra was actually there, behind the pillars. I thrust my way through the crowd and managed to reach the orchestra after a good deal of effort. There were a few listeners. Just a handful. I arrived just when they were playing the march. What a extraordinarily charming and varied melody! What a springy rhythm!
Despite this initial performance, Sibelius went on to conduct a very popular concert that included the Overture plus the three movements that would become the Karelia Suite and thanks to its wonderful reception, the composer decided to sell the pieces for printing. Many of the original tableaus may have been lost to fire (Sibelius burned many of his manuscripts in 1945), but the Karelia Suite survived.
Today, critics note that this suite combines rustic melodies with grand, noble moments to reflect both the rough, simple life and the deep patriotism of the Karelian people. Listening to the various movements (particularly the opening of the Intermezzo and the Alla Marcia), one cannot help but think of the beautiful wilderness, the vast tundras, and the proud people of Finland.
If you’d like to hear the Karelia Suite performed live, join the Parker Symphony on May 11 at the PACE Center when we perform this and other Scandinavian works.