Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0015296, Wed, 13 Jun 2007 23:36:17 EDT

Re: THOUGHTS: Iris Acht in PF

In a message dated 14/06/2007 02:48:55 GMT Standard Time,

Aino Ackté


Given the allusions to the Kalevala in "Pale Fire", the following may be of
interest. Luonnotar is a marvellous work.

Anthony Stadlen

<< Cori Ellison
New York City Opera
“Luonnotar”, Creation, and the Yin of Sibelius

“Luonnotar”, Op. 70, though only ten minutes long, is surely one of Sibelius
’ greatest and most original works, and perhaps his most singularly “
feminine” work. Delving into it can shed unique light on Sibelius and his creative
process. Composed during the same period as many of his most inspired vocal
works (including the masterful songs of Op. 35), “Luonnotar” displays the
expressive intensity and the bold imaginative sweep of such great Sibelian
orchestral works as Tapiola, Op. 112 (1926). Yet the virtually unclassifiable “
Luonnotar”—fully a symphonic tone poem in conception and design, yet fully a
song—is one of Sibelius’ least-known and most infrequently performed major
As one of his few large-scale solo vocal works in the Finnish language, “
Luonnotar” also stands apart from the bulk of his solo vocal works, which are
set chiefly to Swedish texts. With the orchestra, his favored “instrument”,
taking the piano’s customary role, Sibelius was freed in “Luonnotar” to reach
heights of song previously inaccessible to him. Yet “Luonnotar” is,
ironically, relatively unknown outside of Finland not only due to its language (set
here with unusual grace), but to the obscurity of the tale it tells.
Sibelius himself selected and freely adapted the text of “Luonnotar” from
the first poem of the Kalevala, the Finnish national epic whose publication
sparked the nation’s phenomenal cultural blossoming, not to mention its
independence. The character of Luonnotar had fascinated Sibelius as far back as
1893, when he had planned to make her the heroine of his projected opera Veneen
luominen. Later, in the early 20th century, Sibelius mentioned several times
in his notebooks the idea of composing a piece based on the Kalevala’s first
poem, the ethnic Finnish version of the creation myth. This ancient Finnish
account of the creation differs from those found in most of Western mythology
in that its central figure, the “air-daughter” Luonnotar, is female. Aptly
enough, Sibelius’ first Luonnotar venture boasted a strong feminine hand: in
1905, the composer and his wife Aino began what he called their “joint
enterprise”, a projected symphony or symphonic poem to be entitled “Luonnotar”.
Though this project was abandoned in 1906, its musical materials were absorbed
into the symphonic fantasy Pohjolan tytär, Op. 49 (1906) and also the Fourth
Symphony, Op. 63 (1911). And in 1912, Sibelius once again planned a symphony to
be called “Luonnotar”, according to his diary. Obviously, the Finnish tale
of the birth of the world resonated deeply within Sibelius, echoing perhaps
not only the genesis of his beloved nation but his own experience as a
It was indeed a female “muse” who finally brought Sibelius’ “Luonnotar” to
fruition. In 1913, Aino Ackté, the great Finnish operatic soprano who had
vigorously championed the composer’s songs outside of Finland since 1890, asked
Sibelius to compose a solo piece with orchestra for her to sing at the
Gloucester Festival in England. In writing this strikingly original work, and in
revising it after its premiere on September 10, 1913, Sibelius greatly
deepened his understanding of the human voice as a musical instrument through his
collaboration with Ackté.
“Luonnotar” nevertheless remains a vocally daunting work, with its
two-octave range, wide leaps, and sustained pianissimo high C-flat, not to mention
its dramatic and almost instrumental treatment of the voice. Ackté herself
called the work “absurdly difficult”, and this is perhaps another reason that “
Luonnotar” has not enjoyed the worldwide popularity its brilliance deserves. >>