In Finnish mythology, Luonnotar is the female spirit of nature, and the daughter of the heavens. Also known as Ilmatar, she is at the center of the creation story which is told in Cantos 1 of the Kalevala, the Finnish national epic.
Lonely and bored, Luonnotar floats aimlessly for centuries in a vast, celestial void, before dropping into the primal ocean. Following a mighty tempest, the goddess’ boredom is alleviated when a duck swims by and perceives her to be a small island, safe for nesting. At the end of the third day, Luonnotar feels burning pain. Her convulsing knee throws the duck’s newly laid eggs into the water where they shatter. Their fragments are transformed into the bountiful Earth, the sun, moon, and stars.
This creation myth is the subject of Jean Sibelius’ single-movement tone poem, Luonnotar, Op. 70, completed in 1913, and scored for soprano and orchestra. It begins with the quiet fluttering of wings, reflecting “the shimmering stirrings of ever-growing possibility.” (James Hepokoski) Harp glissandi and a timpani roll depict the approach of the furious tempest. With dissonances and an ominous ostinato, Luonnotar is filled with primordial mystery. The pain and terror of birth gives way to its ultimate triumph and joy.
Sibelius wrote this music for the Finnish operatic soprano, Aïno Ackté, who gave the premiere in September of 1913 at the Three Choirs Festival in Gloucester, England. Upon receiving the score, she wrote to the composer, “Luonnotar is brilliant and magnificent…It has swept me off my feet – but at the same time, I am frightened that I will not be equal to its demands, for it is madly difficult and my otherwise sure sense of pitch may fail me.”
This recording features the Finnish lyric soprano, Soile Isokoski, with Neeme Järvi and the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra:
- Sibelius: Luonnotar, Op. 70, Soile Isokoski, Neeme Järvi, Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra Amazon
Featured Image: “Ilmatar” (1860), Robert Wilhelm Ekman