Works for choir and orchestra

In addition to Kullervo Jean Sibelius wrote about fifteen works for choir and orchestra. They vary from run-of-the-mill pieces to original and masterly works such as The Origin of Fire. Between the 1890s and the 1920s choir singing took on a very patriotic tone in Finland, and this is reflected in Sibelius's compositions. The choirs were made up of amateurs; they wanted a programme which was easy enough but also solemnly patriotic. This was especially the case with works which the choir performed with an orchestra.

Cantata for the Graduate and Master's Degree Ceremony of 1894

For soprano, baritone, mixed choir and orchestra; words by Kasimir Lönnbohm (= Leino).Completed in 1894; first performance in Helsinki, 31st May 1894 (Aino Ackté, Abraham Ojanperä; the Symphony Choir [?], Orchestra of the Helsinki Orchestral Society [?] under Jean Sibelius). Arrangement for mixed choir (Festive March) 1896.

In the spring of 1894 Jean Sibelius acted as a substitute for the music teacher Richard Faltin at the University of Helsinki. His duties included composing a Degree Ceremony Cantata for the University. Kasimir Leino was responsible for the text, which was clumsy and sentimental in tone. According to Leino, Sibelius actually forced him into such clumsiness – or at least this is what he told his younger brother, the poet Eino Leino, who was studying at Hämeenlinna High School. Eino Leino recorded his brother's account as follows:

"My brother Kasimir had written some kind of festive poem for him. - [Sibelius:] Here I need aa–aa–aa. There I need ee–ee–ee. Or else I'll write the music to an ad in [the newspaper] Hufvudstadsbladet.
My brother Kasimir was furious.
– An impossible man! he yelled.
– Definitely, I admitted with a good conscience."

At the rehearsal the young Aino Ackté, the future star soprano, was surprised at her "unmelodic" part and the "harsh discords" in the orchestra and the choir. However, this romantic and fragmentary cantata is not really an experimental work. It lasts over 20 minutes but does not come anywhere near the originality of Kullervo.

Indeed, there are passages in the work which from today's perspective represent Sibelius at his most banal. In historical terms the work does have some value, and for a listener with a sense of humour much amusement can be gained from it. The Festive March at the end of the work was published separately without orchestral accompaniment. Thus, the composer saved from the work whatever could be saved.

Coronation Cantata

Cantata in honour of the coronation of Tsar Nicholas II for mixed choir and orchestra; words by Paavo Cajander. Completed 1896; first performance in Helsinki, 2nd November 1896 (Symphony Choir [?], Orchestra of Helsinki Philharmonic Society [?] under Jean Sibelius). Has also been performed without choir: Kröningsmarsch (Coronation March). Arrangement for children's choir (Hail, O Princess), 1913?

In Finland the coronation of Tsar Nicholas II was celebrated very late. According to Aino Sibelius, neither the composer nor Paavo Cajander took the task very seriously, and the salutation to the prince at the beginning of the work may be deliberately ambiguous.

The first public performance went off very badly, since one of the musicians was drunk. Later, Robert Kajanus referred to this fiasco when he sent in his application for the post of music teacher at the University of Helsinki. Kajanus was eventually appointed to the post, and Sibelius felt that the job had been stolen from under his nose .

The handling of the choir in the Coronation Cantata is more varied than in the cantata of 1894. In the second movement there is a fugal episode which brings to mind Sibelius's intensive studies under Albert Becker in Berlin six years earlier. It was this very passage that went wrong in the first public performance because of the drunkenness of one of the musicians.

Once again the work is quite extensive: the performance takes about 17 minutes. But the cantata was completely forgotten after the first public performance and it was not performed again until the 1990s.

Song to Lemminkäinen

Op. 31 no. 1 Laulu Lemminkäiselle (Song to Lemminkäinen) for male choir and orchestra; words by Yrjö Veijola. Completed 1896 (?); first performance in Helsinki, 12th December 1896 (Helsinki Student Singers, Orchestra of the Helsinki Philharmonic Society under Jalmari Hahl).

The Song to Lemminkäinen is one of Sibelius's musico-erotic outpourings. For several minutes the male choir, in full testosterone-charged mode, strives to reach "the golden mound of love". Tawaststjerna considered the piece to be little more than hack work, but the musicologist Veijo Murtomäki has pointed out that the song is exactly the same as the first version of the (later omitted) coda melody in Lemminkäinen's Return.

Cantata for the Graduate and Master's Degree Ceremony of 1897

A cantata for soprano, baritone, mixed choir and orchestra; words by Aukusti Valdemar Forsman (= Koskimies). Completed 1897; first performance in Helsinki, 30th May 1897 (conducted by Jean Sibelius). Only the choir score has survived. (Arrangements: see unaccompanied choral works op. 23.)

Sibelius's Degree Ceremony Cantata from 1897 forms a more harmonious whole than similar earlier works, at least to judge by the surviving choir score. The critic of Päivälehti praised it for its simplicity, lucidity and warmth. "No one can now claim that this music is incomprehensible! It is as easy to understand as a Finnish folk song," wrote Merikanto, who apparently forgot to sign his review. The following pieces, taken from the cantata, were later arranged for mixed choir:

No. 1 Me nuoriso Suomen
No. 2 Tuuli tuudittele
No. 3 Oi toivo, toivo sä lietomieli
No. 4 Montapa elon merellä
No. 5 Sammuva sainio maan
No. 6a Soi kiitokseksi Luojan
No. 6b Tuule, tuuli, leppeämmin
No. 7 Oi lempi, sun valtas ääretön on
No. 8 Kuin virta vuolas
No. 9 Oi kallis Suomi, äiti verraton

Many of the pieces continue to be performed. Soi kiitokseksi Luojan (Sing out and praise the Lord) is perhaps the best known of Sibelius's songs in a devotional vein.


Op. 28 Sandels, improvisation for male choir and orchestra;words by Johan Ludvig Runeberg. First version 1898; first performance in Helsinki, 16th March 1900 (Sällskapet Muntra Musikanter, Orchestra of the Helsinki Philharmonic Society under Gösta Sohlström). Final version: first performance in Helsinki, 14th December 1915 (Sällskapet Muntra Musikanter, Helsinki City Orchestra under Georg Schnéevoigt).

Sandels was composed in 1898 for a composition contest organised by the Swedish-speaking choir Muntra Musikanter. Sibelius won the prize, but in his review in Päivälehti Oskar Merikanto clearly stated that the improvisation was "nowhere near the best of Sibelius's works". Nevertheless, he considered it "captivating and funny".

"I have had much grief both with my fantasia and with Sandels," Sibelius complained, although he noted that the concert had been a great success. Sandels was one of the characters in Runeberg's Fänrik Ståhls sägner (The Tales of Ensign Ståhl ). Erik Tawaststjerna found Sibelius's composition "surprisingly tame" considering that Runeberg's poem had been Sibelius's favourite reading in his early youth.

Muntra Musikanter wanted to keep Sandels in their repertoire, and Sibelius revised it in 1915 for a joint concert of the choir with Helsinki City Orchestra.

The Song of the Athenians

Op. 31 no. 3 Atenarnes sång (The Song of the Athenians) for boys' choir and male choir unison with orchestra; words by Viktor Rydberg. Completed 1899; first performance in Helsinki, 26th April 1899 ("boys' choir", Akademiska Sångföreningen, Orchestra of Helsinki Philharmonic Society under Jean Sibelius). Arrangement for boys' choir, male choir and piano with harmonium ad lib. 1899; arrangement for piano (with text) 1899.

The Song of the Athenians was Sibelius's first protest composition. It was written in direct opposition to the "February Manifesto" issued by the Emperor of Russia in 1899. The manifesto aimed to restrict the autonomy of the Grand Duchy of Finland.

The work immediately became one of the symbols of resistance, and for the first time the controversial composer became a national hero in his homeland. The opening words of the song, "Härlig är döden, när modigt i främsta ledet du dignar, dignar i kamp för ditt land, dör för din stad och ditt hem" ("It is sweet to die a hero in the front line, fighting for your country and tribe!") even sparked armed resistance. Ernst Lampén left a description of the effect of the song:

"When I heard The Song of the Athenians for the first time, I would have liked to walk down Aleksanterinkatu to the rhythm of a hexameter. For many days my heart was beating nothing but dactyls and spondees. But this time I was not the only one. Rumours about the song spread around the town like wildfire. The Swedish words had to be translated into Finnish. Our poets put pen to paper, and several translations were published in no time. Soon all the little schoolboys and students could sing the song."

The composer himself was annoyed that the first public performance of his first symphony was almost overshadowed by the ecstasy produced by the song. The Song of the Athenians became an emblematic melody for Finns, and its position remains very strong in the national mythology.

The Breaking of the Ice on Oulu River

Op. 30 Islossningen i Uleå älv (The Breaking of the Ice on Oulu River), improvisation for narrator, male choir and orchestra; words by Zacharias Topelius. Completed 1899; first performance in Helsinki, 21st October 1899 (Axel Ahlberg, "male choir", Orchestra of Helsinki Philharmonic Society under Jean Sibelius). Arrangement of part of the work for children's choir (?, Nejden andas) 1913.

The Breaking of the Ice on Oulu River was Sibelius's next explicit protest composition after The Song of the Athenians. Sibelius composed it for a lottery organised by the Savonian-Karelian Students’ Association. This work, too, was written against Russia, which was aiming to restrict the autonomy of the Grand Duchy of Finland in accordance with the February Manifesto. The censors were now on the alert, but Topelius had originally written the text in honour of Tsar Alexander II, so the Russian governor-general, Nicholas Bobrikov, could not ban the performance of the work. In the new political situation the Finnish audience easily recognised the spirit of protest it embodied.

According to Sibelius the work was written very quickly, and he considered "trimming" the score as late as the 1940s.

The work does not belong to the central output of Sibelius, but it is interesting in the way it anticipates Finlandia in the dramatic brass chords and in the hymn of the middle episode. The part of the narrator and the loud notes on the brass give rise to a very interesting rhythm, although the pathos of the narrated text may disturb the modern listener.


Op. 29 Snöfrid, improvisation for narrator, mixed choir and orchestra; words by Viktor Rydberg. Completed 1900; first performance in Helsinki, 20th October 1900 ("Mixed choir", Orchestra of Helsinki Philharmonic Society under Robert Kajanus). Final chorus with different words (Ylistys taiteelle; words by Volter Kilpi): first performance in Helsinki, 9th April 1902 (Katri Rautio, "choir", Orchestra of Helsinki Philharmonic Society under Robert Kajanus)

Snöfrid is a kind of turning point in Sibelius's output. He composed it very quickly in the autumn of 1900. "I wrote Snöfrid more or less at one sitting after I came home from three days of lively celebrations," he recollected later.

Snöfrid is based on a poem by Viktor Rydberg. The forces required for the piece consist of a narrator, a choir and an orchestra. The first public performance was at a lottery on 20th October 1900, the profits from the lottery being intended to cover the losses incurred by the orchestra's journey to Paris. In 1915 Hanna Stenius recollected the atmosphere at a rehearsal for Snöfrid:

"The master sat down at the piano and said he was sorry that he could not play the piano and that his 'pianistic defects continually run riot'. We sang - Sipan wanted to change one phrase here and another there and to perform them in quite a special way. We were joyful and happy. We felt a breath from higher worlds sweeping over us!"

Päivälehti reported the event in an unsigned review:

"However, the most glorious piece of the whole evening was the last work in the programme, Sibelius's latest composition, a melodrama set to the words of Viktor Rydberg's "Snöfrid". Hopefully this melodrama will not meet the fate of so many of Sibelius's compositions, i.e. that we never hear them again. Many of these occasional works by the same master are such pearls and treasures of our music that they should not be allowed to disappear after the festive hubbub of a single night. This most recent of Sibelius's products marks a concrete advance in every respect, both as regards its warm, harmonious atmosphere and the use of visual arts and choir. The work as a whole makes such a warm, heart-felt impression and feels so lucid and inspired that it is indisputably one of Sibelius's masterpieces. Hopefully it will soon be performed again."

Snöfrid appeared quite often in concert programmes until the 1920s, after which it slowly began to fall into oblivion. The beginning of the work is splendid in its tempestuousness, and so too are first bars of the choir. To the ear of the modern listener the narration sounds pompous, but much is saved by the interesting surging figures in the orchestral accompaniment.

The musicologist Veijo Murtomäki argues that the figure of Snöfrid, who resists temptations, shows that Sibelius wished to free himself from the shackles of the "Wood Nymph", i.e. his own erotic irresponsibility, for the sake of his native country. In this sense Snöfrid may be a key work of the transition period.

The Origin of Fire

Op. 32 Tulen synty (The Origin of Fire) for baritone, male choir and orchestra; words from Kalevala. First version 1902; first performance in Helsinki, 9th February 1902 (Abraham Ojanperä, "Jubilee Choir", Orchestra of Helsinki Philharmonic Society under Jean Sibelius). Final version 1910, piano score 1910.

The Origin of Fire was Sibelius's contribution to the opening of the National Theatre in 1902. It is definitely one Sibelius's best works for choir and orchestra since Kullervo, which had been completed ten years earlier.

The 47th rune of Kalevala stirred Sibelius's patriotic feelings. It mentioned a dark night, which could be understood to reflect the feelings of the people under the rule of Governor-General Bobrikov. The rune ends with a description of the origin of fire. This was seen to symbolise the awakening of the people.

The first public performance on 9th April 1902 was only part of a very long Christmas programme. Päivälehti published the lyrics of the work the following day, commenting only that "the magnificent work made a powerful impact on the audience"..

The work remained in the repertoire and was performed regularly in Finland in the years that followed. Sibelius understood the value of his work and revised it eight years later. The dark and severe composition shows considerable skill in the baritone, choir and orchestral parts, although Erik Tawaststjerna thought their were some stereotypical elements in the solutions the composer arrived at. The work shows a side of Sibelius that combines patriotism with real compositional interest.

Impromptu Opus 19

Op. 19 Impromptu for female choir and orchestra; words by Viktor Rydberg; Finnish translation by Severi Nuormaa (Pojat ja neidot, armas on elämä [Lads and maidens, life is sweet]). First version 1902: first performance in Helsinki, 8th March 1902 ("Female choir", Orchestra of Helsinki Philharmonic Society under Jean Sibelius). Final version 1910: first performance in Helsinki, 29th March 1910 ("Female choir", Orchestra of Helsinki Philharmonic Society under Jean Sibelius). Piano score 1910.

Impromptu was performed for the first time at the same concert as the second symphony, since Sibelius wanted to present only new pieces. The composer prepared his work in 1910 at the same time as The Origin of Fire.

In the music there is a reminiscence of the early string trio in G minor. The composer was interested in the way Viktor Rydberg treated the motifs of Classical Antiquity, but the work does not represent Sibelius at his most personal, and it is very rarely performed nowadays.

Har du mod?

Op. 31 no. 2 Har du mod? (Have you courage?) for male choir and orchestra; words by Josef Julius Wecksell. Completed in 1904; first performance in Helsinki on 8th February 1904 ((Sällskapet Muntra Musikanter, the orchestra of Helsinki Philharmonic Society under Jean Sibelius). Piano score 1904. Revised version for piano (with text) 1911-12.

This very short march song for the choir Muntra Musikanter is patriotic and four-square in its musical treatment. The work bothered Sibelius so much that he revised it in 1911.

The Liberated Queen

Op. 48 Vapautettu kuningatar (The Liberated Queen), ballad for mixed choir and orchestra; words by Paavo Cajander. Completed 1906; first performance in Helsinki, 12th May 1906 (Symphony Choir, Orchestra of Helsinki Philharmonic Society under Jean Sibelius). Arrangement for male choir and orchestra 1910; first performance 28th November 1913 (Choir of the Students’ Union, "orchestra", conducted by Heikki Klemetti).

This work was Sibelius's contribution to the centenary of the statesman J.V. Snellman. The cantata was performed for the first time under the deliberately misleading title of Siell' laulavi kuningatar (There the Queen is Singing). The text is easy to interpret as an allegory of "Queen" Finland, who has been partly liberated from the oppression of Russia by the November Manifesto of 1905.

The Liberated Queen is a typical Sibelius cantata: striking in places, but clearly a minor work. It was quickly forgotten, perhaps partly because it was only a small part of the programme for the Snellman festivities. According to Robert Layton it bears a strong resemblance to the material for the second symphony.

Jaeger March

Op. 91a Jääkärien marssi (The Jäger March) for orchestra with male voices ad lib. Arrangement of the original work for male choir and piano (1917). Completed 1918. First performance in Helsinki, 21st April 1918 (Helsinki City Orchestra under Robert Kajanus).

After a long break The Jäger March marks a new blossoming in Sibelius's compositions for choir and orchestra. The composer had not needed to think of pieces of this kind when he was planning works for international distribution in the early 1900s. However, Finland's independence and the Civil War, which ended in the victory of Sibelius's side in the spring of 1918, occasioned a great demand for new patriotic festivities. Works for choir and orchestra came into fashion again.

Sibelius could not foresee this development when "in a mood of high patriotism" he composed a march song for the Finnish Jägers (soldiers undergoing military training in Germany) to lyrics by Heikki Nurmio. Initially he made an arrangement for male choir and piano.

At this stage the composer could not know that the Finnish Jägers would turn their weapons against the Red Guards on their return from Germany. The original idea had been to receive military training for a fight for freedom against the Tsar's Russian troops. This plan materialised, but to the sorrow of many Jägers and the composer they also had to fight against their own countrymen.

The versions for male choir and for piano had begun to spread even before the outbreak of the Civil War in January 1918. The festive orchestral version was needed immediately after Helsinki was liberated – though battles were still being fought elsewhere when the parade to celebrate the seizure of Helsinki was held on 14th April 1918. About one week later Helsinki City Orchestra gave a concert as a tribute to the officers of the German armed forces. The composer's daughter Katarina did not like the German-Finnish festivities.

"It felt like sacrilege when they played the Jaeger March. The Jaeger March, the most sacred thing to me in this world. No - for me it is at its loveliest when Papa plays it at home in the dim light of the drawing room. It also offended me that it was repeated - ordered again. Papa doesn't play it that often."

The Jäger March became the triumph song of "White" Finland. Sibelius had now consolidated his position as a national hero and national symbol. Henceforth Finnish critics treated him even more respectfully. Anyone who mocked Sibelius also mocked the young state and its army.

Oma maa (My Own Land)

Op. 92 My Own Land, cantata for mixed choir and orchestra; words by Kallio (pen name of Samuel Gustaf Bergh). Completed 1918; first performance in Helsinki, 24th October 1918 (Kansalliskuoro [National Choir], Helsinki City Orchestra under Armas Maasalo).

Sibelius wrote the cantata My Own Land at Lapinlahti Mental Hospital in Helsinki, after fleeing the violence of the Red Guards and coming to the place where his brother, Professor Christian Sibelius, was working. Armas Maasalo left an account of the background to the commissioned work.

"Kansallis-Kuoro, of which I was the director, was preparing to celebrate its tenth anniversary in 1918 and decided, despite the troubled times, to turn to Jean Sibelius in order to have something new and interesting for the concert (...) a couple of weeks later, when a familiar voice told me on the phone that the commissioned work was completed, I was extremely surprised. Especially when the maestro, with a twinkle in his eyes, asked whether I would have time to come and meet him and take a look at the work. It was not a very long way, since he did not mean Järvenpää but Lapinlahti Hospital. He was not ill, but for reasons of security - in those days many well-known citizens had been taken prisoner by the Red Guards - Robert Kajanus had forced him into a sleigh late one evening and driven him to the capital, to the hospital where Janne's brother Christian was the medical superintendent. Here I met the composer, who was in high spirits and clearly pleased with his situation. The score was on the table. He asked me to take a look at it and said that the quiet surroundings beside a large cemetery had been beneficial for his work. 'I have no instrument at my disposal here, but that does not matter,' he added."

The cantata My Own Land was completed on 20th March 1918. maaliskuuta. Sibelius was certainly inspired by the information that the end of the Red Guard was close, and indeed the tone of the work is confident and free from the most defiant patriotism. It is as if Sibelius was already trying to lead the divided nation towards a more moderate future. The words praised the natural environment of the homeland in a general sense.

The first public performance was in October 1918. The critics made routine comments on the work. Despite its nationalistic content My Own Land has delighted a number of foreign scholars. In Robert Layton's opinion the work deserves to be performed more often, even outside Finland.

Song of the Earth

Op. 93 Jordens sång (Song of the Earth), cantata for mixed choir and orchestra; words by Jarl Hemmer. Completed 1919; first performance in Turku, 11th October 1919 ("mixed choir", Orchestra of Turun Soitannollinen Seura under Jean Sibelius).

In Sibelius's mind the phrase "Åbo Akademi" (the Swedish-language university in Turku) had special significance, and he considered it an honour to be asked to write a cantata for its inauguration. However, the composing process itself turned out to be tricky.

"I wrote the Åbo Akademi cantata very reluctantly," he told Jussi Jalas in 1943. "The words (by Jarl Hemmer) did not inspire me and neither did the event itself. I only did it because I was paid to do it. The instrumentation (which included four C clarinets) was influenced by the current orchestral situation in Turku."

Sibelius was paid 6000 marks for the cantata (about 1800 euros today). The payment was sorely needed, since the war and the high rate of inflation had badly eaten into his income.

In October Sibelius conducted the first public performance of his cantata Jordens sång at the inauguration of Åbo Akademi in Turku. In the years that followed he performed the work a few times, but the critics were not particularly impressed. Nowadays the work is rarely performed, and it is often mistaken for the cantata Maan virsi (Hymn of the Earth).

Hymn of the Earth

Op. 95 Maan virsi (Hymn of the Earth), cantata for mixed choir and orchestra; words by Eino Leino. Completed January 1920; first performance in Helsinki, 4th April 1920 (Suomen laulu, Helsinki City Orchestra under Heikki Klemetti).

Sibelius promised the Hymn of the Earth to the choir Suomen Laulu to show his gratitude, since the choir had performed all his choral works for no financial reward at all.

The first public performance took place at the jubilee concert of Suomen Laulu under Heikki Klemetti. The critic Bis thought the work was a translation of Jordens Sång, and since then many people have made the same mistake.

The second performance of the Hymn of the Earth was conducted by Sibelius at Finland's first National Fair, in the grounds of the Church of St John. The composer wore a morning coat and a top hat. According to Armi Klemetti Sibelius gave very clear directions to the performers, and was an easier conductor for the choral singers than Robert Kajanus, whose vague floating gestures were hard to follow. Sibelius also conducted Jordens Sång at the fair.

Hymn of the Earth stayed in Sibelius's concert repertoire for a few years. Its festive patriotic pathos does not leave room for the composer's most personal strains. "His writing for voices in no way reflects the ground he has won elsewhere [in the 1920s]," was Robert Layton's opinion.

Väinö's Song

Op. 110 Väinön virsi (Väinö's Song), cantata for mixed choir and orchestra; words from Kalevala. Completed 1926; first performance in Sortavala, 28th June 1926 (conducted by Robert Kajanus).

In the summer of 1926 Jean Sibelius composed two works inspired by Kalevala: Tapiola and Väinö's Song. Tapiola is an original masterpiece, but this is not quite the case with Väinö's Song.

Väinö's Song was performed in Sortavala at the end of June, and it has never been in the standard repertoire. After a long interval Sibelius took up his diary: he cursed the "commissioned works" and wrote that he was drinking whisky. He returned to the hymn in his letter to Wäinö Sola in 1928: "The compositions which I have recently composed for festivities – the Degree Ceremony March, Hymn of the Earth and Väinö's Song ‧ have not been performed since, nor have I found a publisher for them."

In 1927 Sibelius was free from debt and had begun to accumulate considerable wealth. He no longer needed to write cantatas for patriotic commissions. But sadly, after this date he wrote no other orchestra works that he considered good enough.

Yet in itself Väinö's Song provides a beautiful conclusion to Sibelius's works with a Kalevala motif: he had made his breakthrough with Kullervo and Väinämöinen's Boat-ride. Once more he returned to the texts of Kalevala and "Väinämöinen, old and steadfast". In Väinö's Song there is a prayer that people "would always live well and die honourably in the sweet land of Finland, in the beautiful land of Karelia".

This was a prayer that came from the heart of the patriotic composer.Orchestral music: also see the presentations of incidental music and Kari Kilpeläinen's lists of Sibelius's compositions: orchestral works.