Svanevit (Swanwhite) (Incidental music and orchestral suite)
[Op. 54] Svanevit (Swanwhite). Music for August Strindberg's play of the same name; horn call and 13 pieces. Completed in 1908; first public performance at the Swedish Theatre in Helsinki, 8th April 1908 (conducted by Jean Sibelius). (Arrangement: see orchestral works op. 54).
Op. 54 Svanevit (Swanwhite), a suite. From the music for August Strindberg's play of the same name. 1. Påfågeln (The Peacock), 2. Harpan (The Harp), 3. Tärnorna med rosor (The Maidens with Roses), 4. Hör rödhaken slå (Hark, the Robin), 5. Prinsen allena (The Prince Alone), 6. Svanevit och prinsen (Swanwhite and the Prince), 7. Lovsång (A Song of Praise). Completed in 1909.
Swanwhite is in many ways a continuation of the incidental music for Pelléas and Mélisande. The famous Swedish actress Harriet Bosse had appeared as Mélisande at the Swedish Theatre, Helsinki, in 1906, and she was delighted with Sibelius's music. Bosse suggested to August Strindberg that Sibelius could write the music for his Swanwhite as well. The author accepted, which must have been an exciting experience for Sibelius. As a young man, Sibelius had been completely under the spell of Strindberg, but the writer's later works were less in tune with Sibelius's outlook on life.
Swanwhite was Strindberg's response to Maeterlinck's symbolism. It is a story in the fairly-tale mould, about a fifteen-year-old princess who lives in a fairy-tale castle with her father, a duke, and with her wicked stepmother. The princess Swanwhite has been promised to the king of a neighbouring country, but she falls in love with the prince, who is the king's messenger.
For the play Sibelius wrote a horn call and 13 musical episodes for an orchestra of thirteen. After the horn call we hear music for a pantomime scene, in which Swanwhite and the prince meet.
The very short third episode portrays the flight of Swanwhite's good Swanmother. The fourth episode describes the feelings of the Swanmother when she finds her daughter dirty and unkempt. In the fifth episode, which is just a single chord, the prince's Swanmother flies to the place. In the central sixth episode, the pizzicato figures describe the playing of a magic harp. The power contained in the harp gives Swanwhite clean clothes and properly combed hair. The seventh episode portrays Swanwhite dreaming of her prince. The dark melody of the eighth episode describes the prince in a troubled mood: the lovers have been quarrelling. The ninth episode is the wedding waltz, in which the angry prince wants to dance with another girl, Magdalena. However, the bride under the veil turns out to be Swanwhite. The bridal couple are taken to the bed, but a sword is placed between them. The tenth episode is background music for the lovers in bed.
The eleventh episode is of particular interest, since its material became part of the slow movement of the fifth symphony (1915). In its original context the music provides the background for the reunion of the prince and Swanwhite after their punishment. In episode 12 Swanwhite again blows her magic horn to get help from her father the Duke, when the evil king has forced the prince to flee on his ship. The father sets out to put matters right, but the prince drowns. Episode 13 describes how the prince is brought back to Swanwhite. In episode 14 (if the horn call is counted as the first episode) Swanwhite revives the prince, and the music gives the scene a religious atmosphere. Some time after the first public performance Sibelius wrote organ part for the end of the incidental music, to emphasise the religious atmosphere.
The premiere was on 8th April 1908 at the Swedish Theatre in Helsinki. Sibelius conducted the thirteen musicians of the theatre orchestra. The pseudonymous critic "V" of Helsingin Sanomat wrote that the incidental music was better than the music of King Kristian II, Pelléas and Mélisande and Belshazzar's Feast. "Hardly anything else can stand comparison with Svanehvit [Swanwhite] in delicacy and poetic beauty," the writer commented. The play was a tremendous success despite an increase in the ticket prices. It quickly returned to the repertoire at the end of 1908.
In 1908 Sibelius also prepared an orchestral suite from the music. He condensed and combined the pieces to form a suite of seven parts, although the suite did in fact include most of the material of the incidental music. Sibelius planned the suite for a slightly larger orchestra: now he could use a French horn quartet, a harp and castanets.
Sibelius performed the suite, or parts of it, from time to time in his concerts. The charming suite does not contain great dramatic contrasts. It has more of a fairly-tale atmosphere and it is altogether sweeter than the dark music he wrote for Pelléas.