Sunday, August 26, 2012

The Swan of Tuonela

In my never-ending struggle with iTunes, I have yet again had to recover all of my music after a hard drive crash.  I've gotten smarter over the years and keep a back up on an external hard drive.  But this time I decided I was really tired of the whole process (which seems to happen to me at least once a year) so I subscribed to iTunes Match which allows me for a yearly fee to upload all the music I have from my own CD's up into the Cloud - there to be retrieved whenever I need it.   It takes forever to upload it, but that is not the point of this post.

Since I was going through the whole time-consuming process I decided to load all of my remaining CDs into iTunes.  These were the CDs that for various reasons I had never thought it worth the time to load previously, mostly classical music CDs.  I never feel like listening to them except at home where there is a CD player right there.  But now they are available in the cloud to me through all of my various devices.

Before you read the rest of this you might want to click play and listen as you are reading:

As is probably predictable, this process caused me to listen to some pieces that I hadn't heard in a few years.  One of them was Sibelius' The Swan of Tuonela.  I've always liked Sibelius and Swan is a lovely, calm, soothing work that features an English Horn.  Although I've always liked the piece I don't think I've ever heard it live and I've never bothered to find out why it is called The Swan of Tuonela.  I think I knew that the English Horn is meant to be the Swan, but that was about it.

So, I looked it up.

The Swan of Tuonela is "tone poem" - a piece of orchestral music meant evoke the content of a poem, story, or painting.  Swan is part of a four part suite of tone poems (Op. 22 Lemminkäinen) based on stories from Finnish mythology.  Just as in Greek mythology the underworld (Hades) is separated from the world of the living by a river (Styx) with a ferry man (Charon), so in Finnish mythology the underworld (Tuonela) must be reached by crossing a river (Tuoni) via a ferry (this time the ferry man is a woman - Death's Maid).  Tuonela is actually an island (I assume it is in the middle of the river). 

In the myth, the hero Lemminkäinen wants to win the hand of a daughter of Louhi, a powerful witch and the queen of a land called Pohjola. Louhi has many daughters and she sets the suitors impossible tasks in order to win them.  Lemminkäinen must cross to Tuonela and kill (or capture, depending on the version) the swan that swims around it.  He fails.  He is shot with a poisoned arrow and dies, falling into the river.  But his mother searches heaven and earth for his body and eventually is able to bring him back to life.

The Swan of Tuonela is the second part of Sibelius' suite.   The music is meant to evoke the image of a swan swimming around the island of the dead, with the English Horn playing the part of the Swan.

Thus endeth the lesson.