Op. 64 Barden (The Bard), symphonic poem. First version 1913; first performance in Helsinki, 27th March 1913 (Orchestra of Helsinki Philharmonic Society under Jean Sibelius). Final version 1914; first performance in Helsinki, 9th January 1916 (Orchestra of Helsinki Philharmonic Society under Jean Sibelius).
The Bard is one Sibelius's finest small orchestral works. The Sibelius scholar Andrew Barnett has surmised that this could be the missing first movement of the original three-movement sketch version of The Oceanides. Erik Tawaststjerna thought that the composer was probably inspired by Runeberg's poem The Bard, although the composer himself disputed this. The working title of The Bard was probably Der Ritter und die Najade. The Naiads of course bring to mind The Oceanides.
There may well have been several extra-musical sources of inspiration. Sibelius himself associated it with the world of the Edda and the Ossianic poems and said that the composition was "something like an ancient Scandinavian ballad from the time of the Vikings".
The Bard had its first public performance on 27th March 1913 at a concert of the Philharmonic Orchestra in Helsinki. Otto Kotilainen gave an account of the work in Helsingin Sanomat:
"The work depicts the poetic inspiration of a bard, a heroic singer, delivering his heroic epic. This new composition is a veritable masterpiece, and a valuable addition to Sibelius's excellent musical output. Using a seemingly modest form the composer gives his musical ideas free rein in this brief work. The string instruments proceed through the piece smoothly and calmly like soft voices, accompanied by colourful and delicate figures from the solo harp. The composition ends with a powerful and extensive build-up from the brass. Besides displaying masterly compositional skill, the work has a strange, rich colouring. The piece was performed twice and the audience was highly enthusiastic."
Nowadays the final build-up of The Bard is very rarely made to sound "powerful and extensive". The chords on the harp give the work a somewhat mystical and nostalgic atmosphere. The music is rich in detail and seems like a study in tone colour. The thematic material gradually emerges more clearly in the Largamente episode. After a short climax we hear a philosophical epilogue, with material related to the introduction.
Erik Tawaststjerna made a surprising connection concerning The Bard, writing that "there was a touch of Anton Webern in Sibelius". Erkki Salmenhaara wrote admiringly, "The form advances as a free poem, like something dimly visible in the distance, containing references, whispers, and small emphases."
In its enigmatic way The Bard continues to haunt concert programmes and its subtlety always intrigues the audience.