"Tuonela, the land of death, the hell of Finnish mythology, is surrounded by a large river with black waters and a rapid current on which the Swan of Tuonela floats majestically, singing."
– Sibelius’ manuscript heading for The Swan of Tuonela
In the late 1890’s, opera was widely seen as the next big thing in classical music. After the composition of the choral work Kullervo, and the symphonic poem En Saga in 1892, Jean Sibelius found himself at a compositional crossroads. Kullervo and En Saga were triumphs for the composer, bringing him a great deal of fame, and so, he decided that his next work would be an opera. Not just an opera, but an EPIC opera, based on the story of Väinämöinen, a hero from the Kalevala.
At the time, the operatic standard was Wagner – not exactly an easy standard to live up to. Sibelius traveled to Bayreuth to see performances of Parsifal and Tristan und Isolde, and was alternately awed and disappointed by Wagner’s works. However, Wagner’s operas had done their damage to Sibelius’ confidence, and work on his epic opera Veneen luominen (The Building of the Boat) came to a halt. However, Sibelius knew that, although his opera was not to be, he had composed some good material for it. What had been the prelude to his now-defunct opera now became The Swan of Tuonela, one of the four symphonic movements Sibelius composed on the adventures of Lemminkäinen.
The orchestra needed for The Swan of Tuonela is smaller than your normal symphony orchestra – this is a somber piece, so the orchestration does not call for flutes, clarinets, or trumpets. The orchestra paints a vivid picture of the water surrounding Tuonela, slowly moving from chord to chord, as a solo English horn represents the swan’s mournful song. The piece as a whole is melancholy and gloomy. The titular Swan isn’t going anywhere specific, and the music here conveys that sense of slow movement without a destination.
Despite being part of the Lemminkäinen Legends suite, The Swan of Tuonela is often performed as a stand-alone piece. It’s a great piece for English horn – most, if not all, of the solo part is not incredibly difficult (technically, at least), allowing the soloist to focus almost entirely on tone quality. What makes the piece difficult from the soloist’s point of view is just that: maintaining a consistent GOOD tone quality despite having very few natural places to breathe.