The Bard – An Inktroduction

Time came when winter touched his locks
And age paled his cheeks;
And so once more he took his lyre
And plucked sonorous chords – and died
Rendering up his soul to the spirit from which it came…

J.L. RUNEBERG (1804 – 77)

OF ALL the pieces of music by Sibelius which have touched me, The Bard is probably the most… poignant. Although many are familiar with the monumental creations comprising the symphonies, and respect and love them as I do, The Bard seems to remain perched aside, distant in its high precipice, quietly existing without the fame of its seven great brothers.

Barden, or “The Bard”, Op.64, is an 8-minute tone poem written in 1913 and revised the following year. Of all of Sibelius’ tone poems, this is the only one not relating to a specific myth. In fact, no exact meaning is specified for the reference and the composer’s source of inspiration remains uncertain. He even denied any reference to the poem of the same name by his favourite poet, Johan Ludvig Runeberg (1804-77). And yet, the sheer power of expression evoked is undeniable – it is as if the essence of myth itself has been distilled and cast into pure music. As if the expressive, legend-weaving qualities of the symbolic bard – singer of ballad, transmitter of myth – has been captured here.

(see also The Bard – Performance by the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra with Paavo Berglund )

The work is scored for 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 3 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, tam-tam, harp and strings, with the primary voices being the clarinet, strings and harp.

But no giant, outpouring Romantic utterance is this, just the complete opposite. In The Bard, Sibelius employs his trademark concentrated atmosphere and his greatly condensed orchestration with breathtaking effect. The tam-tam sounds once near the end, so quietly you will miss it if you don’t listen for it – and the result is spine-tingling.

A passage from The Bard

Despite the size of the orchestra, at no point does there exist a real full tutti. At no point does there even exist a single melody. The Bard begins with a three-note ascending motif on the clarinet, echoed first by the harp, then the strings (in the example, it is in the violas). This gentle gesture, as of the Bard brushing his hands across his lyre, is the principle theme in the entire work. Listen and you will hear it drifting, rippling and echoing throughout the entire piece. The effect is like listening to the sound of a plucked string reverberating and fading away, again and again, powerfully depicted by the openly resounding spread chords of the harp. As the “theme” echoes in the airy chamber of sound, it is as of distant memories swimming faintly through the misty corridors of some mythical past.

The tone poem lives and breathes in pure atmosphere, infinitely sad, with but the faintest whiff of hope, of yearning memory, of some thing lost long ago. The poetry of the music is age old, yet its feeling is powerfully charged, hauntingly intense… but all is quiet… so quiet, so very sad. Nothing, absolutely nothing in all of Sibelius’ output compares with The Bard – it is a one-off creation, a unique individual in his entire oeuvre.

There is one buildup, to one single climax. In the last third of the piece, it is again the same rising motif which urges the orchestra towards its one final breath of all-consuming utterance. Like winds blowing from far far away, in a grand chorale of pedals, a solemn-heroic choir of brass intone the soul of The Bard. In this single brass chord, imitating the Scandinavian longhorn, the lur, some of the instruments play their one and only note in the whole work. Such is the intense concentration of the music and the composer’s vision.

…A window seems to open to reveal a glimpse of infinity, broad and grand. A sliver of white light gleams momentarily at the edge of darkness. Then all slips away into quiescence… Wistfully, with heartbreaking tenderness, sadness itself caresses the dusk with one final sigh of life. Soft strings sigh… sigh… fade… And dies…

I am left only to quote again Runeberg’s poem, in spirit, if not in reference:

The Bard

Time came when winter touched his locks
And age paled his cheeks;
And so once more he took his lyre
And plucked sonorous chords – and died
Rendering up his soul to the spirit from which it came…

J.L. RUNEBERG

SIBELIUS The Bard – Selected Recordings:

Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra conducted by Neeme Järvi
BIS-CD-384 [61:11] full-price
With Spring Song, Autrefois, Presto jousiorkesterille and the Suites “chevaleresque”, “mignonne”, “champêtre” and “caractéristique”.


Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra conducted by Paavo Berglund
EMI Classics Forte CZS5 69773-2 2 discs [66:23 + 77:14] budget-price
With Luonnotar, Pohjola’s Daughter, En Saga, Spring Song, The Swan of Tuonela, Lemminkainen’s Return and incidental music to King Christian II, Pelleas et Mélisande, Kuolema and Swanwhite.


Helsinki Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Okko Kamu
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON Double (French) 447 358-2 2 discs [77:57 + 78:32] budget-price
With Finlandia. En Saga. Four Lemminkainen Legends. Valse Triste. Tapiola and Grieg: Peer Gynt Suites Nos.1 & 2. Sigurd Jorsalfar Suite.

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Leon

Leon is Singapore's resident champion of Jean Sibelius.

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