Jean Sibelius's Karelia Suite, Op. 11, was written in 1893 for the Viipuri Students' Association. It was premiered in the Imperial Alexander University in Helsinki, Grand Duchy of Finland, under the title Karelia Music. The suite is one of Sibelius's earlier works and remains one of his most popular.
Karelia Music was written in the beginning of Sibelius' compositional career, and the complete music consists of an Overture, 8 Tableaux, and 2 Intermezzi. The music runs about 44 minutes, as opposed to the suite, which lasts about 12 minutes.
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 piece is orchestrated for 3 flutes (3rd doubling piccolo), 3 oboes (3rd doubling english horn), 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns in F and E, 3 trumpets in F and E, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, triangle, tambourine, 2 sopranos/baritones (Tableau 1), 1 baritone (Tableau 5), SATB choir (Tableau 8) and strings.
Ralph Wood has commented on the role of the percussion in this composition.
The movements in the suite are all borrowed from the Karelia Music tableau music that Sibelius was commissioned to write in 1893. It was commissioned by the Viipuri Students' Association for a lottery to aid the education of the people of the Viipuri Province, and premiered in the Imperial Alexander University in Helsinki, Grand Duchy of Finland. The tableau music was premiered 13 November 1893 with Sibelius conducting, and the behaviour of the audience, was however 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.
23 November 1893, Sibelius conducted a popular concert that included the overture and the three movements that would become the Karelia Suite and Overture. These pieces were sold to Fazer in 1899, and the rest of the pieces that were yet to be printed, ended up in the hands of Breitkopf & Härtel in 1905. The Overture and Suite, at Sibelius' request, was published as Op. 10 & 11, respectively.
The score was at some point left in the possession of Robert Kajanus, and in 1936, Robert's wife Ella, returned it back to Sibelius. It is thought that Sibelius burned his along with his eighth symphony along with most of the Karelia Music in August 1945. Only the 1st and 7th tableaux were spared from the fire. The viola, cello and double bass parts are also missing from the 1st and 7th tableaux, and the flutes are completely missing from the 7th tableau.
The original movements are as follows:
- Tableau 1 – A Karelian home. News of War (1293)
- Tableau 2 – The founding of Viipuri Castle
- Tableau 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
The suite is in three movements:
- The Intermezzo is 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.
- The Ballade was based on Tableau 4, and is "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 is an exhilarating march, which was originally incidental to Tableau 5½ and is practically the same as the original music, except for some minor chord changes.
Completions of the original complete score
Most of the music was reconstructed from the original parts that survived by Kalevi Kuosa in 1965. The parts that didn't survive were those of the violas, cellos, and double basses. Based on Kuosa's transcription, the Finnish composers Kalevi Aho and Jouni Kaipainen have individually reconstructed the complete music to Karelia. A recording of Kalevi Aho's completion was released in 1997 in a recording with the Lahti Symphony Orchestra conducted by Osmo Vänskä, and Jouni Kaipainen's completion was recorded for a 1998 release with the Tampere Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Tuomas Ollila.
In popular culture
A sped-up version of the first Intermezzo is used by the Chilean TV station Televisión Nacional de Chile's sports area as its signature song.  Also heard as the opening bars of the broadcast version of Monty Python's "Ethel the frog". The rock group The Nice recorded an arrangement of the Intermezzo which appeared on the album Ars Longa Vita Brevis. They later recorded a live version with the Sinfonia of London, which appeared on the album Five Bridges. It was one of the 17 classical compositions used to create the title track of the 1981 Hooked on Classics project. The Intermezzo was used as the theme tune to Associated-Rediffusion's TV program "This Week".
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