Wednesday, 31 March 2010
Sibelius at home II: swan songs
This atmospheric gouache on paper by Lennart Segerstrale hangs above the entrance to the Ainola dining room. It has a special meaning for curator Hilkka Helminen, who always watches out for the migrating swans flying south in the autumn and back to the lake near Jarvenpaa in the spring; in fact several of her neighbours had reported isolated sightings, but in the protracted winter those had up to now been few and far between. One recent development has been that the migratory paths are now almost exclusively over Finland, and not Russia, because the fields lie fallow there.
That the swans, and the singing variety especially (the laulujoutsen), were of profound significance for Sibelius can be heard in his music and read in his diaries. There are two crucial entries as he worked on the Fifth Symphony in April 1915:
[21 April] Just before ten-to-eleven saw sixteen swans. One of the greatest experiences in life. Oh God, what beauty: they circled over me for a long time. Disappeared into the hazy sun like a silver ribbon, which glittered from time to time. Their cries were of the same woodwind timbre as the cranes but without any tremolo. The swans are closer to trumpets, though there is an element of the sarrusophone. A low suppressed memory of a small child's cry [probably a reference to his daughter Kirsti, who died in infancy]. Nature's mystery and life's melancholy. The Fifth Symphony's final theme.
[24 April] The swans are always in my thoughts and give life its lustre. It is curious that nothing in the whole world, be it art, literature or music, has anything like the same effect on me as these swans, cranes and wild geese. Their sound and their very being.
Hilkka reminded me that Einojuhani Rautavaara, a composer very much loved by her and many other Finns, incorporates recorded swansongs into the final movement of his Cantus Arcticus. The Italian posting on YouTube rather bizarrely calls it a 'concerto for birds', but I like it because of all the photos of swans in flight.