About this work
Although Breitkopf & Härtel published the bulk of Sibelius' output until World War I, Robert Lienau in Berlin issued the orchestral music composed between 1903 and 1909. This notably fertile period included two tone poems: Pohjola's Daughter and Night Ride & Sunrise. From the very start, Pohjola's Daughter proved the more popular. Although Sibelius wanted to call it "Väinämöinen" (the protagonist's name) and later "The Adventure of a Hero," Lienau insisted on Pohjola's Daughter. And so it appeared in 1906, with a seven-stanza preface from Runo 8 of The Kalevala, Finland's national folk epic.
"Väinämöinen, old and truthful/Rides his sleigh and travels homeward/From the dark realm of Pohjola/From the land of gloomy chanting/"Hark! What sound?" He glances upward/Up above there on a rainbow/Sits and spins Pohjola's Daughter/In the airy blue so radiant/Thrilled and drunken with her beauty/Come down here to me, O fair one/Thus he pleads. Coy, she refuses/At his new plea, her demand is/You must conjure from my spindle/What I've long desired: a vessel. Show to me your wondrous powers/Then most gladly I will follow/Väinämöinen, old and truthful/Toils and shapes and seeks...but vainly/Ah, the proper incantation/Never will it be discovered!/Full of anger, sorely wounded/Since the fair one has renounced him/To his sleigh he springs...and onward!/But once more his head he raises/Never can the hero falter/All his grief is put behind him/Gentle tones from his remembrance/Bring him hope and lighten sorrow."
In The Kalevala, however, the maiden is far more demanding: she wants a horsehair evenly split by a knife without a point. Being a magician (born old, like Merlin later on), Väinämöinen does so easily. Next, as asked, he ties an egg into an invisible knot, peels birch bark from a rock, and breaks a fence rail cleanly from an iceberg. Finally, during the boat's building, a "demon" deflects the old man's ax, causing it to gash his knee. Bleeding profusely, unable to remember a healing incantation, Väinämöinen quits Pohjola to seek help.
Pohjola's Daughter is the most depictive tone poem of Sibelius' career, albeit in sonata form. The development section deals with the aged magician's frustrated efforts to build a boat from the splinters of a spindle, but doesn't include the wound. The music is thematically integrated to an extraordinary degree, evolving from a slow recitative for solo cello and a subsequent wind motif derived from that, until, as it began 12 minutes earlier, Pohjola's Daughter quietly ends on a unison B flat in the low strings. It bears noting that Sibelius specified two piston cornets and two trumpets, one of his rare requests for the mellower sound of cornets and one widely ignored by conductors.