The Oceanides

Op. 73, Jean Sibelius

In 1914, Jean Sibelius came for his first and only time to the United States via the ocean liner Kaiser Wilhelm II. The year before, the Yale professor, Horatio Parker, had commissioned a set of songs for use in American schools. The composer accepted, and he produced not only three songs, but also the tone poem Oceanides.

In the United States, he was grandly feted, visited Niagara Falls and the northeast, enjoyed many dinners at Delmonico’s, met George Chadwick, Walter Damrosch, and Olin Downes, and conducted the premiere (of a recent revision of Oceanides) on June 1914, dedicated to Americans Mr. and Mrs. Carl Stoeckel. The reaction was wonderful; Olin Downs wrote that it was “the finest evocation of the sea that has ever been produced in music.  [Sibelius] holds himself closer to the coastline of tonality than does Debussy [in La Mer] and suggests by doing so, a picture of limitless and eternal power.”

The composer was well read in the Classics, enchanted by ancient Greek myths, gods, and goddesses, and this interest was referenced in Oceanides. Curiously, the title of Opus 73 in his diary used only the Finnish word Aallottaret: “nymphs of the waves.” (This is the title used in the original Yale version of this work).

But the Greek influence was nonetheless active. Sibelius’ tone poem references the many daughters of Oceanus (in Greek mythology, the Titan god of the sea, usually represented with a serpentine fish tail instead of legs) and the many forms of water, which circle the earth. His daughters were conceived with his sister, Tethys, and they became “lesser goddesses” and nymphs of rivers, lakes, spring, rain, etc. Eventually, Oceanus and Tythys divorced, per order of Zeus, because of their high fertility! In fact, the ancient Greek epic poet Hesiod wrote in his Theogony (which in part describes the origins and genealogy of the gods), “There are three thousand graceful-ankled Oceanids (nymphs) widely scattered. They serve the earth and the depths of the waters every-where alike, shining Goddess-children.” (Translation by H.G. Evelyn-White) Also in his work, Oceanus is first described as the river, which encircles the earth, and supports everything on the earth.

The tone poem begins quietly, sostenuto assai, with muted timpani and paired flutes in high registers, “playing” on top of the waves. Muted violins sing a jaunty syncopated melody, which will recall throughout. The mood is light-hearted, congenial, and engaging. Notice the prominence of two harps: these will add extensive coloration throughout Opus 73.  Gradually, the depth and power of the ocean is represented mid-point via churning celli, more rumbling timpani, somber winds, shuddering divided violins, and ominous brass (trombones and horns.)  An enormous climax moves to the forefront as the ocean swells and surges, revealing its immense power, then relaxes (marked allargando un poco) at the conclusion.

This is the ISO’s first performance of The Oceanides.

© Marianne Williams Tobias, Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, 2016

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