In Where Rivers and Mountains Sing, Theodore Levin and Valentina Süzükei describe a musical technique called sound mimesis, the act of intentionally re-enacting and re-presenting a sound from our environment. Jean Sibelius’s tone poem, The Swan of Tuonela, is a musical depiction of a scene from the Kalevala epic of Finnish mythology. The scene takes place in the underworld (Tuonela), where a mysterious swan presides over the treacherous Tuoni River. Sibelius mimetically represents the swan with the cor anglais, which floats above the rest of the orchestra throughout the piece. Although this mimetic technique differs greatly from the Tuvan sound mimesis described in Levin’s book, Sibelius’s piece flawlessly combines the image of a swan with the ominous and haunted atmosphere of the underworld.
Levin and Süzükei describe mimesis as the act of imitating sounds from one’s environment. However, they are also certain to differentiate between mimicry, imitation, and mimesis. Mimicry is described as “an attempt to render as exact a duplicate as possible.” Imitation is the act of copying a phenomenon, but not to the literal extent of mimicry. Conversely, mimesis “adds a representational dimension to imitation.” Mimesis has a complex metaphoric basis. It involves copying a sound from one’s environment, but it also involves imbuing that sound with one’s own personality and style. In fact, not only sounds, but also places and inanimate objects can be represented through mimesis (Levin, 2006).
In the Kalevala epic, Lemminkäinen, the hero, hopes to win the hand of the Mistress of Pohjola in marriage. In order to prove his worth, he agrees to complete two daunting tasks: to hunt and kill the Elk of Hiisi, and to shoot the Swan of Tuonela with his crossbow. After an arduous hunt, Lemminkäinen kills the elk and proceeds onward into the depths of Tuonela. But before he can shoot the spectral swan, he is murdered by Märkähattu, a herdsman that he had earlier betrayed. By virtue of a magical item, Lemminkäinen’s mother is immediately alerted to the fact that her son has been slain. She hastens to Tuonela, where she finds her son dead on the banks of the Tuoni river.
It is this scene of lamentation that Sibelius chose to illustrate in his tone poem. Later, Lemminkäinen’s mother asks a tiny bee to bring a drop of honey from heaven itself, which she uses to coax her son back to life.
There are two mimetic qualities that are quite prominent in The Swan of Tuonela: the cor anglais’s extended solo is representative of the swan, while the recurring minor-major seventh chord (a minor triad with a major seventh) is representative of Tuonela itself and the scene that is taking place. Just for clarification, the “cor anglais,” or English horn, is a member of the oboe family. However, it is pitched a perfect fifth lower than the oboe, and its tone quality is a bit more nasal.
In Where Rivers and Mountains Sing, Levin describes how mimesis is often used in Western music:
Overall, the mimetic tradition in Western art music focuses mainly on abstractions independent of time and place. With the exception of opera and explicitly programmatic works, specific places are rarely represented, while representations of affective states and human attributes typically do not invoke sonic models drawn from real life; rather, they rest on formal or expressive semantic conventions that have evolved within music itself.
Levin, Where Rivers and Mountains Sing, p.77
While the cor anglais used in the piece does actually sound like a typical swan-call, the musical evocation of time and place are mere “musical abstractions”. Most of the piece is written in the minor mode, which tends to create an atmosphere of melancholy and loneliness. Frequently, Sibelius adds a major seventh on top of the minor triad in order to create a minor-major seventh chord. This hints at a sense of mystery, perhaps reminiscent of the ghostly swan that floats nearby as Lemminkäinen’s mother is bent over with grief. At one point in the piece, a tritone (augmented forth) is repeated amongst the instruments as the strings tremolo in the background, creating extreme tension and anxiety. However, as the above quotation makes clear, a minor chord is not necessarily a musical embodiment of sadness; it is simply a convention that has evolved within Western music over time. Yet, this does not remove the mimetic quality of the chord. Our Western ears may have been conditioned to hear certain chords in certain ways; nevertheless, the music still evokes a sense of place in our minds – namely, the bank of the Tuoni River.
As previously mentioned, the mimesis in Sibelius’s piece differs greatly from the mimesis of the Tuvan throat singers. After all, The Swan of Tuonela is a purely Western classical piece, while Tuvan songs such as Running Horse, Wounded Bear, and Camel Gait are very folksy and somewhat improvised. In these Tuvan songs, rhythmic patterns are representative of steps, but the melodies and harmonies are (seemingly) independent of that which is being mimicked. Additionally, while the cor anglais sounds quite akin to the call of a swan, throat singing does not sound like “two lovers riding horseback,” or “a running horse.” Instead, the songs are highly metaphorical and stylized. It is not the throat singing that is mimetic, but rather, the overall mood and tempo of the song. Also, an orchestra, which is made up of many different instruments, is much more versatile than a single throat singer and a single accompanying instrument. Therefore, it is not surprising that Sibelius had the power to be mimetic in more than one way.
While the Tuvan throat singers primarily used rhythm and dynamics to represent the sounds of their environment, Sibelius used chords and instruments. This only proves that sound mimesis is a broad and accessible feat of music. By writing a variety of minor chords, as well as an extended solo for the cor anglais, Jean Sibelius was able to re-create a spectacularly tangible scene from Finnish mythology.Tags: album, baroque, best classical music, cd, classical, classical music, classical music cds, classical music composer, classical music Mozart, classical music online, classical piano music, composers, concert, General, instrument, jean sibelius, kalevala, lemminkainen, met opera, metropolitan opera, mimesis, music, opera, opera house, opera singers, piano, reviews, sibelius, sound mimesis, swan of tuonela, theodore levin, where rivers and mountains sing, World Music