The suite is one of Sibelius's earlier works and remains one of his most popular. He held the Karelia province in particular affection. In earlier years he had found stimulus in its folk music, and later he was to spend his honeymoon there.
The rough-hewn character of the music was deliberate: the aesthetic intention was not to dazzle with technique but to capture the quality of "naive," folk-based authenticity. Historical comments have noted the nationalistic character of the music.
The suite is scored for 3 flutes (3rd doubling piccolo), 3 oboes (3rd doubling english horn), 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 5 horns in F and E, 3 trumpets in F and E, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, triangle, tambourine, strings. Ralph Wood has commented on the role of the percussion in this composition.
The movements in this suite are all borrowed from the Karelia Music tableau music he was commissioned to write in 1893 for the Viipuri Student's Association for a "lottery to promote the education of the people of Vyborg Province" in the Imperial Alexander University in Viipuri, Karelia. The tableau music was premiered 13 November 1893 with Sibelius conducting. However, the behaviour of the audience was far from ideal. As Sibelius noted later,
You couldn't hear a single note of the music — everyone was on their feet cheering and clapping.
The poet Ernst Lampén agreed with Sibelius, as he noted,
The noise in the hall was like an ocean in a storm. I was at the opposite end of the hall and could not distinguish a single note. The audience did not have the patience to listen and was hardly aware of the music. The orchestra was actually there, behind the pillars. I thrust my way through the crowd and managed to reach the orchestra after a good deal of effort. There were a few listeners. Just a handful.—Ernst Lampén, 
Because of the somewhat embarrassing reception, Sibelius subsequently compiled a "Concert Suite" of three pieces from the pageant's incidental music (an overture was published separately as Op. 10).
The suite is in three movements:
- Intermezzo, the only "original" movement of the suite. Sibelius borrowed the brass theme in the middle of Tableau 3 and made it into its own movement. The Intermezzo is a jaunty Allegro march-like theme, the orchestra portraying the atmosphere of marching contingents.
- Ballade, "sung" by a bard (on cor anglais), reflecting the mood of a fifteenth-century Swedish king, Karl Knutsson, reminiscing in his castle whilst being entertained by a minstrel.
- Alla Marcia, an exhilarating march, originally incidental to Tableau 5½ and is practically the same as the original, except for some minor chord changes.
Completions of the original complete score
Two composers have reconstructed the complete music to Karelia. Kalevi Aho's completion was released in 1997 in a recording with the Lahti Symphony Orchestra conducted by Osmo Vänskä. Jouni Kaipainen's completion was recorded for a 1998 release with the Tampere Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Tuomas Ollila. The complete music consists of an Overture and ten pieces, and runs about 44 minutes, as opposed to the suite, which lasts about twelve minutes.
The original movements are as follows:
- Tableau 1– A Karelian home. News of War (1293)**
- Tableau 2– The founding of Viipuri Castle**
- Tabelau 3– Narimont, the Duke of Lithuania, levying taxes in the province of Käkisalmi (1333)**
- Intermezzo (I)*
- Tableau 4– Karl Knutsson in Viipuri Castle (1446)*
- Tableau 5– Pontus De la Gardie at the gates of Käkisalmi (1580)**
- Intermezzo (II) (Originally titled Tableau 5½) – Pontus de la Gardie's March)*
- Tableau 6– The Siege of Viipuri (1710)**
- Tableau 7– The Reunion of Old Finland (Karelia) with the rest of Finland (1811)**
- Tableau 8– The Finnish National Anthem**
*denotes that this movement has been released before. **denotes that this movement is new to the Karelia suite.
- Lyle, Watson (1927). "The "Nationalism" of Sibelius". The Musical Quarterly 13 (4): 617–629. doi:10.1093/mq/xiii.4.617. Retrieved 2008-03-23.
- Wood, Ralph W. (1942). "Sibelius's Use of Percussion". Music & Letters, 23 (1): 10–23. doi:10.1093/ml/xxiii.1.10. JSTOR 728570.
- sibelius.fi's description of the suite.
- inkpot.com's description of the suite.
- Brian Wise's description from Allmusic
- Sibelius – Karelia, complete score, BIS Records. http://www.bis.se/index.php?op=album&aID=BIS-CD-915 Retrieved 2012-02-24.
- SIBELIUS, J.: Karelia / Press Celebrations Music (Tampere Philharmonic), Naxos.com. http://www.naxos.com/catalogue/item.asp?item_code=ODE913-2 Retrieved 2012-02-24.
- [http://www.archive.org/details/SibeliusSymphonyNo.1 Alla Marcia from Karelia Suite conducted by Robert Kajanus