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JEAN SIBELIUS (1865-1957)

The Captive Queen (Vapautettu kuningatar), Op. 48 (1906)

Napoleon's victory at the Battle of Friedland in 1807 was a significant triumph for the French Empire during the Napoleonic Wars (1803-15). The Russian army’s defeat acquiesced Russian Emperor Alexander I to sign the Treaty of Tilsit. As a result, peaceful relations between Russia and Sweden hinged upon the Swedish adoption of the Continental System, Napoleon's foreign policy against the British Empire. The Swedish monarch, King Gustav IV Adolf, detested Napoleon. Britain was a strong Swedish ally, and so by geography, Finland was forced into a geopolitical rock and hard place; enter the Finnish War (1808-09).


Gustav IV Adolf would be the last Swedish monarch to rule Finland. Imposing military sanctions, Russia invaded Finland in 1808. To suppress anti-Russian sentiment, Alexander I established Finland as an autonomous region of the Russian Empire, the Grand Duchy of Finland. While Finnish laws seemingly remained unchanged in the short term, Russification was unavoidable. 


By the 1830s, Finnish nationalism rallied in the Fennoman movement, a revolution kindled by literature and the push for Finnish language representation. The publication of the Kalevala, a compilation of epic poetry taken from Karelian and Finish oral folklore, united Finns and propelled nationalism into the 1840s and 1850s. Finnish senator Johan Vilhelm Snellman (1806-81) was a champion of the Finnish language and a founder of Finnish cultural identity. His efforts to call for language recognition gained traction during the Crimean War (1853-56); a time that saw heavy censorship and publication of newspapers limited to the Swedish and Russian language. With the First World War and the collapse of the Russian Empire, Finnish independence brought an end to the Grand Duchy in 1917.


Finnish art, music, and subject matter, in addition to language, experienced widespread visibility. By the 1880s, Finland had founded its premier music conservatory (Helsinki Music Institute) and professional symphony orchestra. Jean Sibelius was a student of that conservatory (now known as the Sibelius Academy), and in establishing Finnish national identity, the music of Sibelius is an institution. 


Russian restrictions intensified at the turn of the century under Russian governor-general Nikolai Bobrikov. Resistance escalated in kind. In 1899, Sibelius set Paavo Cajander's (1846–1913)  IIsänmaalle (To the Fatherland) in response to the February Manifesto, a Russian imperial proclamation revoking Finland's autonomy. Many Finns emigrated to escape suffering under Russian imperialism; this displacement is expressed in Sibelius's 1904 setting of Juhani Aho's Veljeni vierailla mailla (My Brothers Abroad). In 1902, the composer's Tulen synth (The Origin of Fire) with text settings from Kalevala is often interpreted as an anti-Russian assertion.


As a quinquagenarian, Sibelius composed Vapautettu kuningatar (The Captive Queen) for Snellman's centenary birth celebration in 1906. The single-movement ten-minute cantata sets words by Cajander. The ballad was published in 1881 to celebrate Snellman's 75th birthday. Cajander's liberation of a captive queen is allegorical to Finnish protest and struggle for independence. The work was premiered under a neutral title Siell' laulavi kuningatar (There Sings the Queen) to skirt Russian retaliation. 


Characteristic of Sibelius, the music is deftly scored, rhythmically crisp, arctic cold and bold in color. The orchestra sets the atmosphere, illustrating the action of Cajander's tale. Sibelius utilizes a four-part chorus, first in groups, then together. “Aye, a royal princess, born and bred was she in days of old” sings the whole chorus for the first time. If there is metaphor in orchestration, this is the awakened Finnish consciousness.  The Captive Queen premiered in Helsinki on May 12, 1906, with the composer conducting the symphony chorus and orchestra of the Philharmonic Society. The score calls for two flutes, two oboes, clarinet, bass clarinet, bassoon, four horns, two trumpets, two trombones, timpani, percussion, mixed chorus (SATB), and strings.

Jean Sibelius was born on December 8, 1865, in Hämeenlinna, Grand Duchy of Finland, and died on September 20, 1957, in Järvenpää, Finland.

© Notes by Michael-Thomas Foumai

The english prose translation of Cajander’s text is printed below.  

Note: When sung in english, the lyrics differ from the prose translation.


On the hilltop lay a castle, looking down into the valley,
But, like the dreary and desolate grave, it was lifeless:
It’s iron gates were locked, from there no light could be seen,

Just the guards in its tower, as silent as ghosts.

Sometimes in the calm of night, when the sun had left the land, 

It was as though a tender and gentle song thence came;
It was said that a queen sings there,
But no one knew who she was and where she was from.
She was rumored to be the country’s proud ruler,
Her beauty was fabled across land and sea;

But once, when morning dawned, she was missing...
The lord of the castle watched over his prey, night and day. 

Only when the guards were asleep and the calm night fell, 

Would the queen’s heart beat more freely,
She sang to the night of her sorrow,
Of her lost beauty and hopes. 

There once came a young man, arriving at the castle,
And the songs he heard from the castle were familiar to him. 

He had such a strange feeling in his heart
With fire in his breast he sang once more,

He returned to his country and sang to his people.
And it was as though a warm breeze now passed over the land, 

The prince of poets was inspired to take up his kantele again.
A tune, never before heard, danced forth from its strings,
Its luster and love struck powerful, life-giving emotions.
Who could resist their charms? Who could remain unmoved? 

Whose sword and spear could stay unsharpened?
But the queen in the castle sang of her distress;
Her liberator was still absent; would he ever come? 

Oh, he’s coming, he’s coming! The hero made haste,
Daylight sparkled from his helmet and moonlight from his sword: 

He called out to his people!

‘The mother of our country must be saved; who will follow me?’ 

‘It’s in vain, what’s gone is gone!’ He merely forged ahead.
‘Oh, you hasten to your demise!’ He did not look back. 

He climbed the hill, and arrived at the castle,
The hero rushed in with the strength of a hundred men. 

Already the iron gates burst open, the mouth of the grave opened, 

Its guards were shaken like a tree in a storm.
The leaves and branches bent, the trunk crashed down;
The hero advanced as if through a fallen forest. 

‘And now, mother you are free! Come to the daylight,
Now the long night is over! Your eyes start to sparkle anew 

And woe betide anyone who touches a hair on your head!’ 

And he led the queen out from the castle into the open.

Towards them a throng was already rushing joyfully.
And, it seemed, the tender and gentle song was heard again. 

But it was the morning song; the night had passed forever. 

- Paavo Cajander (1846–1913) 


Take solace in the harmonious sound of symphonic voices, celebrating imperishable resilience in the face of oppression. Your Hawaiʻi Symphony Orchestra and Oʻahu Choral Society join forces with conductor Joshua Habermann, soprano Martina Bingham, mezzo-soprano Maya Hoover, tenor Michael St. Peter and baritone Leon Williams, in Mozart’s eternal Requiem in D minor, and the Hawaiʻi premiere of Jean Sibelius’s epic cantata for Finnish independence, The Captive Queen at the historic Kawaiaha'o Church.

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