Tolkien, Sibelius and the Kalevala's_Daughter

Last night, I had the pleasure of hearing this piece performed by the Cleveland Orchestra. Stirring and beautiful:

Thanks! That’s some great music. Although my family’s heritage, from Sicily, is pretty much the polar opposite of Finland in Europe, I love the Finnish language, music, mythos, and everything. Partly because of the Tolkien tie-in, but basically on its own merits.

One of the conlangs I’ve been developing is of Ural-Altaic derivation and as such draws on Finnish considerably, since of all languages Finnish has remained so close to Proto-Uralic. I’ve rather ambitiously begun translating the Kalevala into my conlang directly from the original Finnish, keeping to the original trochaic meter because its stress patterns on the first and odd-numbered syllables match those of Finnish. Interestingly, doing so caused me to find a special archaizing literary register for my conlang distinct from its usual prosaic syntax. With this I can only glimpse what an adventure making Quenya epics must have been for Tolkien.

Mieleni minun tekevi, aivoni ajattelevi
Meni örö kitetelwe, meni awïta bodulwa

lähteäni laulamahan, saa’ani sanelemahan,
calolyam mü dolukadhï, kabayam mü pöjekedhi,

sukuvirttä suoltamahan, lajivirttä laulamahan.
shayar bertin furatkadhï, veylü bertin dolukadhï.

Some noticeable cognates include minun=meni=‘my’; aivot=awïta=‘brain’; laulu=dolu=‘sing’; virttä=berti=‘hymn’.

Nobody ever mentions the reindeer in the room, which is that Elias Lönnrot and Jean Sibelius were both ethnically Swedish. No matter; they did justice to the indigenous Finno-Ugric Uralic material, just as Lönnrot’s work invigorated Longfellow, Sibelius, and Tolkien.

It is no coincidence that the Karelian progressive folk musicians Värttinä led by Mari Kääsinen were hired to compose music for The Lord of the Rings. They sing a lot of mythic material from the Kalevala and similar texts of folk magick, so they were the perfect choice. I like to think if their strains and chants ever reach the Halls of Mandos, J.R.R. would be gratified to hear them.

It’s widely known by now that Lönnrot did not just collect and compile the Kalevala, he assembled it like an archaeologist reassembles a vase that was found broken in 1,000 pieces. Like any art restoration when original material is missing, you have to fill in with your own material as best you can.

Lönnrot in a real sense composed the *Kalevala *as an integrated corpus of texts for the first time. After gathering the raw materials, he still had to form a composition, just as Bartók collected thousands of folk songs, analyzed them in depth, and composed new musical works out of selected folk melodies, with the application of a little musical spackle appropriate to the source materials, to hold them together. Lönnrot pieced together his own new compositions with the application of his own textual spackle.

In this way Lönnrot functioned as what Tolkien termed a subcreator, which curiously is how Tolkien saw his role in fulfilling his artistic vision. Another area of Bartók’s composing was entirely newly invented works, like the 6 string quartets, that did not reuse any actual folk material, but which were inspired and invigorated by having closely studied the source material. To those who think Tolkien stole materials from Norse sagas and Finnic runos, I say the Silmarillion and Lord of the Rings were of this type of composition. Entirely newly made of new materials, but inspired and invigorated by the spirit of the source works.

I keep referring back to Bartók because he was what got me started in Ural-Altaic studies when I was a young piano student working through Mikrokosmos.

On the basis of your liking Pohjola’s Daughter (I do, too), I recommend investigating Sibelius’s symphonic suite Kullervo, Op. 7, also inspired by the Kalevala.

If you’ve read Tolkien’s The Silmarillion or Narn i Chîn Húrin you will note some interesting thematic correspondences.

In any case, the music is fabulous. Kullervo was the piece that made Sibelius internationally famous, although himself did not think much of the piece and actually suppressed performances of it in his lifetime. It’s terrific nonetheless.

I’ve been a big Sibelius fan for a long time, especially the symphonies. I love all seven!

I hesitate to correct you on anything to do with language, Johanna, since I know you are quite expert on such things. However, why do you mention Ural-Altaic? It’s generally accepted that the Uralic and Altaic families can’t be combined into a single one. Also, do you have a citation for the claim that Finnish is closest to Proto-Uralic? A general rule that I find useful is any claim that a particular modern language or dialect is closest to an earlier form is probably incorrect:–Altaic_languages

Heck, as long we’re sharing tone poems, one of my favorites of all time from any composer is Sibelius’s En Saga, Op. 9. It’s not officially about any specific saga, but to my ear of course it has something to do with the Kalevala, how could it not? Wonderful piece.

This performance probably remains my favorite (Herbert von Karajan/Berliner Philharmoniker), although there are other good ones out there.

Thanks, all. Johanna, this might also interest you:

I know well your general rule and your faithfulness to it, Wendell. I would have been disappointed had you not brought this challenge.

So in subcreating my a posteriori* conlang, I get to play with it. I never made any assertion that Ural-Altaic is “a thing” in the world in an objective sense. All I’m doing is 1) creating a mashup drawn from 50% Uralic and 50% Altaic source matter; 2) once it’s well blended and has, out of that, developed a grammar and word derivation scheme of its own, then comes the stage of deriving new patterns of word formation from within its own resources, creating locutions that do not directly necessarily match any in the actual source languages. Though they occasionally do. As to why I would ever want to do such a thing… it just seemed like a fun adventure in conlanging, something I could really get behind, given the many typological affinities to be found between Uralic and Altaic, explained as areal features (and therefore superficial), it means the two families play quite happily together—yet with a certain tension imposed by their expected underlying disunity. Makes work on it appealing for my brain. Makes it interesting.

I think the rule that is your leitmotif is a good general rule, but is not necessarily perfectly ironclad and absolute. I also think Proto-Uralic is a field that is still growing and has still a lot of work ahead of it. My cite for literary Finnish being closer to Proto-Uralic or, to state it more modestly, Proto-Finno-Ugric, is a pattern I have kept discerning in the aggregate of my Uralic studies: it comes in stronger or fainter depending on whose reconstructions one refers to. For example, the reconstructions posted in some of the Finnish, Estonian, or Hungarian etymologies in Wiktionary, presumably more recently worked out, provide only a modest level of discerning the nearness. On the other hand, the comparisons I find in The Uralic Protolanguage: A Comprehensive Reconstruction by Gyula Décsy (Eurolingua, 1990) give a stronger sense of the closeness of Finnish to P-U and in particular to F-U.

*Strangely, a posteriori means the opposite of “pull it out of one’s butt.”

“I think, with respect, we ought to talk about the symphony.”
“What’s that? It’s a shed. Get it away.”

I’m not comparing myself to Tolkien. His conlangs were a priori, made up out of his head. He just used Finnish, Welsh, and Hebrew as flavorings for Quenya, Sindarin, and Khuzdul respectively. Like he’s making 3 flavors of ice cream: chocolate, vanilla, and pistachio flavorings are ingredients he got in the marketplace of knowledge. But he has to supply his own cream and sugar, freezing and churning.

My work on the Uralic+Altaic conlang I mentioned has been a posteriori because everything on the base level of raw material for word derivation is taken directly from real natural languages. It was only when enough material had been gathered and processed enough, using the process I invented, that it was able to form its own second-order derivations out of itself.

So it’s a highly processed product, unlike Esperanto, where the source words are preserved as much as possible in big raw chunks within a matrix of heavy Zamenhof syrup.

My production is a sort of homemade pesto made of highly processed storebought herbs, rather than ice cream made almost entirely of homegrown ingredients and with flavors infused from bottles of flavor extract. Tolkien also made a conlang of pure a priori invention: Westron or Adûnaic, which used no flavor additives at all.

If all you’re saying is that you’re creating a conlang which assumes that Ural-Altaic was a real thing and that this conlang is derived from it, I have no objection to what you’re doing.

Dang it! And here I thought this thread would be about the music of Sibelius… (ETA: and thematic links between Tolkien and the Kalevala.)

En Saga, in contrast to Jean’s other tone poems, is titled in Swedish, and I get more of a Viking vibe from it. One of the instances when he based his work on his own ethnic heritage rather than his usual Finnic themes. It does have catchy tunes, and I’ve had a particular feel for it ever since I first heard it attending a youth orchestra concert where this girl from high school I really, really liked was playing violin in it. That was 40 years ago.

I think one Finnic rough equivalent of the Norse word saga might be the Finnish word runo. The word *runo *also carries a connotative import of sung magic spells, magic songs, which make up so much of the Kalevala.

Poe’s bells “beating time time time in a sort of runic rhyme” alludes to the latter sense of runo, I think. Rhythmically.

As much as I enjoy Sibelius’ compositions, I lack the knowledge and skill to discuss it.

But I will say I was surprised to learn just how much JRRT cribbed from the Kalevala.

For instance, here’s what Kullervo’s sword said to him when Kullervo asked the sword to slay him because he had sex with his sister, who committed suicide after:

Compare that to what Turin’s sword said to him after Turin asked it to slay him because he had sex with his sister, who committed suicide after:

A pity Howard Shore won’t be able to give Turin the Sibelius treatment. :wink:

That’s fair, but to me the music doesn’t sound Swedish at all, especially compared to the music of Swedish composers contemporary to Sibelius, like Stenhammer.

Finno-Ugric shamans sang their songs to the steady accompaniment of a frame drum, so Poe pretty much baked a steadily thudding percussive effect into the clanging stanzas of the Bells, to make it sound “runic.”

Ah, good to know, kiitos. All nationalities aside, I feel En Saga was drawn from a deeply mythopoetic sensibility in Sibelius. By the way, is the name Sibelius in any way derived from the classical name Cybele?

It’s a Latinisation of a Swedish surname, Sibbe, which was the original family farmstead in Loviisa.

It’s the 150th anniversary year of Sibelius, so if anyone’s going to be in Helsinki, I recommend the current exhibit at the Ateneum, on until March. I went last year, it’s got a lot of detail on Sibelius and his relationships with various visual artists, some of whom went in for Kalevala illustration in a big way.

As I understand his usage of the term, Tolkien would consider any human artist to be a subcreator: The distinction is between us, ourselves creations, and the one Creator.

Cool! I never made that association, but now it seems obvious. I’m a fan of Poe as well. In fact, my a cappella choir setting of Poe’s “Spirits of the Dead” is set to be premiered in April…

For sure, as one might notice in his numerous pieces drawn from mythic inspiration. Almost always the Kalevala, of course, but here’s one short rarely performed piece that I just heard for the first time, drawn from Greek myth: Pan and Echo, Op. 53a. It’s beautiful!

Of course you hear that “mythopoetic sensibility” cropping up in Sibelius’s Symphonies as well, not just his tone poems, and even in his superb Violin Concerto, Op. 47, especially the last movement.

I did some more investigating into En Saga, and apparently Sibelius commented that the original inspiration for the title was more from Icelandic Eddas than the Kalevala. It’s also apparently semi-autobiographical: “En Saga is the expression of a state of mind. I had undergone a number of painful experiences at the time and in no other work have I revealed myself so completely. It is for this reason that I find all literary explanations quite alien.” (Cite: Erik W. Tawaststjerna (trans. Robert Layton): Sibelius, Volume I: 1865–1905. University of California Press (1976), p. 130.)