“I have found my old self again, musically speaking. Many things are now clear to me: really I am a tone painter and poet. Liszt’s view of music is the one to which I am closest. Hence my interest in the symphonic poem,” Sibelius wrote to his wife from Munich on August 19, 1894. He had resolved that symphonic music containing a poetic or picturesque idea would be his domain. Although he later developed into a composer primarily of absolute music, he never lost interest in the symphonic poem.
To express a poetic or picturesque idea in music does not mean that the work should necessarily have a program. A name can define the music’s character and expression and is not an irrelevant programmatic appendage, but it does not fix the listener’s imagination to any detailed course of events either. Liszt was interested in the possibilities of associative hearing and wanted to give a musical expression for basic ideas and themes of the European cultural heritage. This line of thinking — which Sibelius shared—lies behind Liszt’s Orpheus, and is the key for understanding Sibelius’s tone poems as well.
The name Pohjola’s Daughter hints at the episode from the Kalevala which tells about Väinämöinen and a maiden from the north, Pohjola’s daughter, with whom the old hero falls in love. Although the work’s name refers to a definite passage in the Kalevala, it would be useless to try to reconstruct the plot from the music. There isn’t any. The music, although evoking the mood of a series of events which had taken place in a mythical past, evolves according to strict musical principles, which are very typical of Sibelius tone poems in general.
The work opens with a slow introductory section (Largo) containing three short motives. The intermediary motif is enigmatic in the sense that it is never heard again in the work. It could be called an empty paradigm.
What follows the introduction is a plain and straightforward sonata movement with three thematically important areas, first presented at Moderato (a), Largamente (b) and Tranquillo molto (c). The most important and dynamic role in the development is played by the short brass fanfare (b) and its derivatives. The first main theme (a) is completely subordinate in the development; its second arrival marks the beginning of the recapitulation. The lyrical third idea (c), which has been associated with the “daughter of the heavens,” again is remarkably static in character; it does not undergo any real development. In the recapitulation the themes appear in the same order as in the exposition. But the recapitulation also contains one surprise: a stepwise phrase first in the clarinets and then in the strings, which seems to come out of nothing. A second (almost) empty paradigm.
Liner notes for the recording Sibelius, Symphony No. 5, Pohjola’s Daughter. Esa-Pekka Salonen, Conductor, and the Philharmonia Orchestra, MK42366 (1986).