The pieces in this suite are drawn from several independent works he wrote in 1893 for a patriotic historical pageant to be presented by students of the University of Helsinki in Viipuri, Karelia, in the south-eastern corner of Finland. Sibelius subsequently compiled a "Concert Suite" of three pieces from the pageant's incidental music (an overture was published separately as Op. 10).
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 comment has 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 suite is in three movements:
- Intermezzo, a jaunty Allegro march-like theme, depicting a procession, the orchestra brilliantly portraying the atmosphere of marching contingents. The piece was used in the UK as a title theme for the long-running ITV current affairs programme This Week and was used in 1975 to begin the broadcasting day of New Zealand's Television One.
- 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 a tableau depicting a castle siege.
The suite is one of Sibelius's earlier works and remains one of his most popular.
Sibelius 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.
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.
- Lyle, Watson (1927). "The "Nationalism" of Sibelius". The Musical Quarterly 13 (4): 617–629. Retrieved 2008-03-23.
- Wood, Ralph W. (1942). "Sibelius's Use of Percussion". Music & Letters, 23 (1): 10–23. JSTOR 728570.
- 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.