As ever, dear readers, welcome.
In our last, we had been talking about trochaic tetrameter, which, at the time, we thought sounded like the name for an exotic plant—or, possibly, an extinct bird—but is, in fact a rhythmic pattern like this:
DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM da
where a single DUM da is called a “trochee” (from 16th-century French and ultimately from Greek trecho, “to run”—so a trochee is a kind of runner)
The most familiar place to find this in English is in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s Hiawatha (1855), the opening line of which is:
“Should you ask me, whence these legends?”
Broken down, this can give you:
SHOULD you ASK me WHENCE these LEG ends
Although this was a poem based upon Native American legends, this meter isn’t Native American. It can be found in many places in the world, but Longfellow borrowed it from a German translation of Elias Loennrot’s compilation of Finnish folksongs, a collection which he called the Kalevala (which we are informed means something like “Herosland”).
We had first heard of the Kalevala not through literature, but through music, specifically that of Jean Sibelius (1865-1957).
Sibelius is the national composer of Finland and was inspired by his reading of the collection, at first planning an opera based upon some of the stories he found there, but, instead, composing four separate pieces brought together into an orchestral suite, named after a major character in the Kalevala, Lemminkainen (pronounced, roughly, LEH-min-KY-nen), the Lemminkainen Suite, Opus 22.
In this suite are musically depicted four moments from the adventures of Lemminkainen and the one which immediately caught our attention when we first heard it was the third: “The Swan of Tuonela” (pronounced TOO-uh-ne-la—in Finnish, this is Tuonelan Joutsen—TOO-uh-ne-lan YOHT-sen).
Lemminkainen is depicted in the collection as a womanizer and, to win the daughter of a powerful sorceress, Louhi, he must complete several tasks. First,he must hunt the Elk of Hiisi.
Then he had to tame the Gelding of Hiisi
(This is a painting by the contemporary artist, Michel Tamer, who, like Sibelius, has been inspired by the Kalevala. We especially like his landscapes and you might, too, at this LINK: https://micheltamerartist.com/catalog/ )
His third and final task is to shoot the Swan which swims in the river which surrounds the island of the dead, Tuonela (TOO-un-ne-la—“the land of Tuoni”, who, along with his wife, Tuonetar, are the local rulers).
And this is where Sibelius’ composition comes in, using an English horn to represent the song of the Swan.
(Oddly, an English horn isn’t a horn at all, but a woodwind instrument. Here’s a LINK so that you can hear this beautiful piece: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X3_H5YlgKFU )
Unfortunately, instead of killing the Swan, Lemminkainen is killed himself and cut into pieces which are scattered into the river. Luckily for him, his mother is alerted to what has happened by her son’s magic comb/brush, which, she has been told, will bleed if he’s in trouble. It does, and she goes in search of him, first demanding what has happened to her son from Louhi, who eventually tells her. Her quest continues until the sun pinpoints the location where Lemminkainen was killed. Getting a special rake from the famous craftsman, Ilmarinen (ILL-ma-ri-nen), she proceeds to the river and gathers up the bits of Lemminkainen’s body, then painstakingly puts him back together, finally using a drop of honey from the gods to bring him back to life.
This painting, as well as that of Lemminkainen and the Swan—and that of a very young Sibelius, are all the work of the Finnish artist, Akseli Gallen-Kallela (1865-1931),
who, among other subjects, painted a series of works based on the Kalevala. Along with Lemminkainen, and Ilmarinen, the other main male figures are Vainamoinen (VAY-neh-moy-nen) and Kullervo (KOO-ler-voh). Vainamoinen is a very interesting figure, being the first man, as well as a magician, and a singer, and also the first to use the kantele (KAHN-teh-leh), the traditional folk instrument of Finland.
This is a kind of lap harp or zither and here’s a LINK so that you can enjoy it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sC0lUR3LoOg
Besides the back-and-forth rocking and matching verses style of performing the songs from which the Kalevala came (see our last posting for more on this),
songs could also be sung or recited to the kantele, so it’s fitting that perhaps the first illustration of the Kalevala, by R. W. Ekman (1808-1873),
is of Vainamoinen playing the kantele.
Kullervo is a different sort of character entirely, being perhaps the unluckiest man in the whole Kalevala. As a child, he is seemingly the only survivor of the massacre of his family, enslaved, tormented by the wife of his owner, murderer, seducer (although unknowingly) of his own sister and the cause of her death—it seems like there’s nothing in his life worth living for.
It’s interesting that Tolkien, while an Oxford undergraduate, in 1914-1915, decided to do a version of this story, which was only published in 2010. It would have been a grim time, with the Great War going on and JRRT struggling with his original field of study, Classics, and being drawn to Germanic languages—perhaps he was drawn also to a gloomy story because he himself felt that way?
As we’re sure you can tell, there’s a great deal more to be said about the Kalevala, but we hope that we’ve given you a bit more to add to what we wrote in our last posting and we’ll close with another Gallen-Kallela painting. Vainamoinen, after many adventures, decides to leave it all behind, but he also leaves behind the kantele—so that others could then sing about him and the other heroes and villains in the story.
Thanks, as ever, for reading,
Gallen-Kallela was a really remarkable artist, who traveled to and lived in Africa and the US, as well as in his native Finland, painting wherever he went. Here’s a LINK where you can learn more about him: https://www.gallen-kallela.fi/en/ –It’s the site for his house in Finland, which looks to be both beautiful and quirky.
And here’s a painting from his time living in Taos, New Mexico.