Unpicking a Static Reception: Unheard Suspensions at the Seams of Sibelius’s Swan of Tuonela (OSiMTA)

Oxford Seminars in Music Theory and Analysis (OSiMTA), November 20, 2019


Sibelius’s early tone poem, The Swan of Tuonela, has a long-established reception as a ‘sound-sheet’ devoid of harmonic motion. Yet this interpretation tended to ‘flatten’ features that do not conform to its idealized hearing as a static landscape – a swan gliding in the Finnish underworld’s river. This particular reading also seems to have repelled rigorous analytical approaches. The work’s few dedicated investigations emphasize its ‘formlessness’ or describe it in terms similar to Glenda Dawn Goss, as an ‘exquisite moment of stasis’. What is more, its popularity and standing as an example of quintessential Sibelian symphonicism, have both supported the commonplace and, at times, exoticising association of Sibelius’s music with proto-minimalist depictions of Finnish landscapes.

This seminar reappraises what has, itself, become a static and enduring interpretation of The Swan of Tuonela by revealing that this Sibelian variation form is not, in fact, static. Small disruptive ‘tears’ or ‘slashes’ can be heard in the work’s fabric. At these breaks in the cor anglais’s recurring melody and at the ‘seams’ of the form, ‘timbral outsiders’ – to use John Sheinbaum’s term – call out across a conceptual distance. These Suspensions, in the Adornian sense, establish a dialogue with the cor anglais’s musical material that suggests a double-tonic complex between keys from different tonal systems. The paper will also introduce several new analytical tools to Sibelius’s music in a full voice-leading analysis of the piece, including ‘multivalent’ or ‘sonorous voice-leading’ and ‘timbral uncovering’. By examining a particular quirk in the work’s publication history, along with the textual transformation of its programme, and unexamined markings in Sibelius’s copy of The Kalevala, the seminar will arrive at a new programmatic reading of The Swan of Tuonela that recontextualises the work in the heroic Kalevala-narrative of Sibelius’s suite of tone poems, Lemminkäinen, Op. 22.

The Oxford Seminars in Music Theory and Analysis website can be found here.