dark forests

Wide-spread they stand, the Northland’s dusky forests,
Ancient, mysterious, brooding savage dreams;
Within them dwells the Forest’s mighty god,
And wood-sprites in the gloom weave magic secrets.

– Preface to published score

On the occasion of Earth Day, April 22, 1999.

A bassoonist friend of mine had the fortune to play Tapiola once. It was a run-through conducted for fun, not meant for the orchestra to perform. When I asked him how it was like, he opened his eyes wide and said it was awesome and terrifying; that the sensation of sitting in the orchestra as it weaves its way through the tone painting of the forests made one feel very small. During rests, no one dared to move or make a sound.

But Tapiola is not meant to terrify; rather, it is our sensation of something seemingly unknown, that seems to remind us that there is something in what it depicts in sound that we cannot humanly comprehend – or perhaps it is something we have forgotten.

Tapiola is an expression of the will and life that surrounds us – all around us – and yet we fail to see it because far too long has humankind lived among bloodless iron, unfeeling machines and unliving concrete; that we have forgotten how it is like to live within life, surrounded by the forests of nature’s embrace. It is this sensation of irrepressible life surrounding us that perhaps seems so strangely (ironically?) unnerving. But yet, when a human being succeeds in capturing so much of the essence of the awesomeness of nature, one cannot but feel that we somehow… know; but cannot explain.

That is the beauty of our relationship with the Earth, one which Jean Sibelius understood throughout his life, when he was chasing butterflies as a child, telling his companion what notes the birds were singing, running home to write down the smell of hemp drying in the sun, or walking amongst the ancient heritage of our forests, nature’s greatest shrine.

* * * * *

Tapiola was commissioned by the American conductor Walter Damrosch (1862 – 1950) in a telegram on 4th January 1926, generally considered the final year which Sibelius completed any major published work. Indeed, with the destruction of the Eighth Symphony in the 1940s, Tapiola is the last of his symphonic essays we can hear.

Sibelius made sketches for Tapiola before leaving for a visit to Italy in March and April 1926, where he also worked on it. Some material is apparently derived from a sketchbook dating back to 1914. In late August 1926, the score was finished, and Sibelius sent it to his publisher Breitkopf & Härtel. On 17th September, however, the self-critical composer, as usual, asked to make some cuts to the score, but unfortunately for him (and fortunately for us), the score was already engraved for publication. Sibelius was particularly concerned about Tapiola because for the first time he would not be present during the work’s rehearsals or performance – and hence he would not be able to make any amendments to the score.

At any rate, when Sibelius finally got a look at the score, he did not in fact, make any major changes. Breitkopf & Härtel asked the composer to explain the title of the symphonic poem, to which the composer provided the following quatrain:

On metsät Pohjolassa sankat, tummat,
ne ikisalat, haaveet hurjat loi.
Asunnot Tapion on siellä kummat,
haltiat väikkyy, hämyn äänet soi.

This was later translated into English (at the top of this article), French and German, with the approval of the composer, and prefaces the score.

Damrosch was also to become the appreciative dedicatee of the work. After the premiere, played with the New York Symphonic Society Orchestra, he wrote to Sibelius in 1927, saying,

“I consider Tapiola to be one of the most original and fascinating works from your pen. The variety of expression that you give to the one theme in the various episodes, the closely-knit musical structure, the highly original orchestration, and, above all, the poetic imagery of the entire work, are truly marvellous. No one but a Norseman could have written this work. We were all enthralled by the dark pine forests and the shadowy gods and wood-nymphs who dwell therein. The coda with its icy winds sweeping through the forest made us shiver.”

Tapiola is a being of layers. In it, Sibelius’ pedal points hum like the rotation of the Earth through deep space; different levels of the orchestra glide, float, pulsate and undulate with mysterious purpose. A tone-picture of the forest rises from the depths of the damp earth to the frozen cold floor, to the gnarled stems of the time-aged trunks, the branches stretching and moving ever-so-slowly through the centuries, the choral rustle of leaves, the icy air wafting through them; even the sound of infrequent shafts of dim sunlight streaming through the giant canopy, the echo of mysterious voices as they fade and dissipate – all these can be heard in Tapiola.

At the height of this magical invocation, forest spirits flit through the darkness, nymphs float sensuously by while wood sprites cast sorcerous trails of glitter through the dream-laden air. Deep inside all this, the invisible eyes of trees, of their deity – Tapio – peer unseen. Listen, listen carefully, beneath the distant gleeful laughter of the sprites and the ancient groan of the growing woods – you will hear the very forest breathe.

* * * * *

“Ernest Newman heard in Tapiola‘s monothematic plan an attempt to portray the infinite variety of life in the forest, all of which springs from a common source.” (Goss)

This makes the perfect description of both the music and its inspiration, nature. Just as all of nature’s children come from the same source, Tapiola‘s growth stems from just a few, or just one motif. The relationship between all the material is so close that scholars are hard-pressed not to call the symphonic poem monothematic. And yet, like nature, what we hear is truly the “infinite variety of life”; indeed, of Life itself.

Sibelius scored the work (“Tondichtung für große Orchester” – “Tone Poem for Large Orchestra”) for a normal large orchestra including cor anglais, bass clarinet and contrabassoon; but the sound that he produces from these resources is completely original. Tapiola has astounded musicians and scholars alike with its out-of-this-world soundscape. The strings alone seem to keen and moan, tremoring with irresistible life, reaching out from the darkness with their living wood. The woodwind and brass exchange breaths seamlessly, one voice floating or melding into the other. The sound of their long pedals seem to merge with those of the strings. Motifs drift into the darkened woods, echoing among the trees, while a particularly memorable episode has the piccolo and flute whistling towards and past the enthralled listener. Surely, these must be the “wood sprites weav[ing] their magic secrets.”

Jean Sibelius, Photo by Yousuf Karsh (1949)

With its ominous, undulating pulsating, Tapiola inevitably gives the impression that its tempo is slow. But in fact, the range of the symphonic poem’s tempi is quite varied, from Largemente to Allegro. But even more amazing is how different layers of the orchestra actually move at different tempi at the same time, creating the sensation of drifting tendrils of air.

Despite all this, Tapiola is movement become stillness. Unlike the Seventh Symphony, Tapiola creates a deep sensation of stasis – or rather, breathing stasis. The feeling of eyes following you, or of the ground rising and falling beneath you as the earth breathes, is vividly, sometimes even frighteningly portrayed. Sibelius often composed at night and once commented: “A fearful thing, this eternal stillness.” (Goss)

After an intense storm of terrifying string tremolandi, the strings, as in the Seventh Symphony, climb up to the soaring heights, singing the intensity of life, then slowly descend… Darkness – or is it light? – begins to close over the forests. The journey through the Earth’s living wood and sap, having been in a minor key, now reveals a long sustained chord of B major, extending serenely over the horizons.

As early as 1931, the American critic Cecil Gray wrote of Tapiola: “Even if Sibelius had written nothing else this one work would be sufficient to entitle him to a place among the greatest masters of all time.” In a way, Sibelius did compose nine symphonies, if you count Kullervo or the Lemminkäinen Legends as the first, with the seven thereafter, and Tapiola, dark brother of the Seventh Symphony, as the last completed symphonic work.  No two are alike.

* * * * *

In this day and age, when the destruction of the environment is bemoaned publicly and yet  corporations and governments all over the world drag their feet to resolve our excesses once and for all – Tapiola, in its vast tone of indifferent stillness,  seems to reflect nature’s defiant knowledge that whatever damage we do to her we ultimately do to ourselves.

And yet, we cannot forget that this music comes from a human hand and ear. Are we not part of nature herself? In the breathing of Tapio, do we not feel the same inhalation and exhalation of our very own lives? Or in the broad pedals, do we not feel the same vibrations in our body?

Widespread they stand, the Northland’s dusky forests. Ancient, mysterious, brooding savage dreams. The dreams may be savage because they are the prophetic nightmares of a future without the protection and sustenance of nature. A nightmare that we brood now, a very very real brooding – as I type, the forests are burning again. Right this very moment.

Within them dwells the forest’s mighty god, and wood-sprites in the gloom weave magic secrets. There is so much we still do not understand: if nature is the religion that gives us life, so Tapio is the mighty god. As we destroy nature, so we destroy our own lives. If we continue to destroy, then it is true: wood-sprites will weave in the gloom we will never light, weaving secrets we will never discover or appreciate, magic we will never experience. We are terrified by the living intensity of Tapiola because we have forgotten we are alive.

Listen to Tapiola; listen to this music, the voice of nature – and hope that the final sounds we hear on this ravaged Earth is indeed the serenity of life irrepressible.

* * * * *

“Even if Sibelius had written nothing else
this one work would be sufficient to entitle him to a place
among the greatest masters of all time.”  – Cecil Gray
* * * * *


  • Goss, Glenda Dawn. Jean Sibelius and Olin Downes: Music, Friendship and Criticism. Northeastern UP: Boston, 1995. ISBN 1-5555-3200-4
  • Layton, Robert. Sibelius (Master Musicians Series). Schirmer: New York, 1992. ISBN 0-0287-1322-2.
  • Rickards, Guy. Jean Sibelius (Phaidon 20th Century Composers). Phaidon: London, 1997. ISBN 0-7148-3581-1. Reviewed here.


  • Lahti Symphony Orchestra conducted by Osmo Vänskä  (1997 recording)
    BIS CD-864 [68:16] full-price. With Symphonies Nos. 6 & 7.
    Also available on Complete Symphonies Box Set (BIS CD-1286/88), the Complete Sibelius Edition Vol.1 Tone Poems (BIS CD-1900/02) and The Legend of Jean Sibelius (BIS CD-1557/58)
  • Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Leif Segerstam
    ONDINE ODE 852-2 [69:34] full-price
    With Lemminkäinen Legends, Op.22.
  • Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Herbert von Karajan (1984 recording)
    DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 413 755-2 [43’25”] full-price.

Also available as DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON Masters 445 518-2 [61’11”] mid-price.
With Nielsen: Symphony No.4

  • Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Herbert von Karajan (1964 recording)
    DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON The Originals 457 748-2 2 discs [75’41″+73’26”] mid-price.
    With Symphonies Nos. 4-7 and The Swan of Tuonela.  In some recordings, the background noise from the orchestra actually contributes eerily to the forest sounds. In Karajan’s 1964 recording here, I can almost hear episodes of dripping water and a bird suddenly calling out from nowhere – none of these are of course in the score.

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Leon is Singapore's resident champion of Jean Sibelius.

19 thoughts on “Tapiola”

  1. Being somewhat “finish” myself, tapoila is religion to me.Does it make sense to others.Who will read this? In my youth I had problems with tapiona – not so “storm und drang” you know!Yes, someone is looking at you when listening to the music.I can feel that now. Staffan

  2. I’ve always liked Paavo Bergland’s rendition of “Tapiola” with the Bournemouth Symphony on EMI. It was originaly paired with the 7th Symphony and “Oceanides.” The finest single Sibelius recording I’ve ever heard. These tone poems, at present, unavailable

  3. Great news! Above I had lamented the non-availability of Bergland’s “Tapiola” and “Oceanides” with Bournemouth. These have now been issued on CD: EMI 7243 5 74200 2 0. Also included on this 2 CD set is Bergland’s first “Kullervo,” Karelia Suite, Scenes Historiques Suite No.1, Finlandia, and the two Serenades Op.69 with Ida Haendel. NOW, if they can just get around to issuing the Violin Concerto…..!

  4. There’s also an interesting account by Sir Thomas Beecham with LPO, reissued by Allegro (although this is an old recording of Tapiola, it shows this conductor’s abilities). That’s a low price, import cd – – coupled with a nice reading of Sibelius’ Second Symphony.

  5. I’ve heard that Sibelius composed a little played tone poem called Luonnotar and that it’s one of his best. Does anyone know anything about Luonnotar? What recordings are recommended? Thanks for any information on this.

    1. It is for voice and orchestra, not a song as it goes way beyond the boundaries of a single song. more like a tone poem for voice and orchestra. It is one of Sibelius most original creations and deserves to be much better known.

  6. I am an Italian pyrographer living in Brazil long ago;I was very,very happy to discover this wonderful article about the Finnish Genius,whom I love deeply.De fact ,I introduced,for my article and conferences,Jan Sibelius here,by this way divulgate the World of Tapiola and Kalevala of our Sibbe.If you want visit my web site, please : http://www.adrianocolangelo.com.br Best wishes and my deeper regards.Adriano Colangelo

  7. Speaking of Paavo Berglund, I like his Sibelius 7th with the Goteborg from the early ’80s better than all others, including his own later versions. But I think it’s out of print.

  8. Thank You Inkpots for the very interesting articles on Jean Sibelius’ music. The only comment I would like to make is it would be far easier for older eyes if you would lighten up the background colors. It was a tireing task to read thru the dark greens of Finland”s beautiful forests! I have bookmarked your site, so you shood take heed! Thank You very much!

  9. I came upon the beautiful Tapiola web page and appreciation/explication while putting our guidebook to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula online. Our Copper Range is perhaps THE Finnish-American heartland. “Tapiola” is the name of one among the dozens and dozens of small farming communities established by Finns delighted to get out of the mines. I had to write something about Tapiola because there’s a little restaurant there in the former co-operative store and mill which we referred visitors to. Their menu said that Tapiola meant “home of the forest king.” Was there a Sibelius connection? I Googled “Tapiola” and “Sibelius” and came upon this enchanting site, all the more wonderful because it comes from a place so very distant and different from the northern forests of Finland or Michigan. I love the anonymous sincerity of the Sibelius Nutcase’s reviews. All art should come such a place. THANK YOU for sharing your ideas with the rest of us. I hope that some people who only want a drive in the country and a piece of pie will want to listen to Tapiola! To read a bit about the Michigan Tapiola, visit http://www.hunts-upguide.com, click on the Keweenaw part of the map (it’s way up, surrounded by Lake Superior), and then click on the place name “Tapiola.” It’s near “Toivola,” which means “city of hope,” At least that’s what we here think! By the way, the Finns named their town in 1893, long before the tone poem.

  10. Sibelius has filled me, my wife and daughter, and continues to do so with awe and inspiration for 50 years. His search for authentic spirituality revealed divine power in thought, notation and performance. It flowed from his pen to the score, gathered strength from interpreters, then tired him out after Tapiola. His was another example of a frustrated searcher for the source, i.e. God. Correctly dropping the deism of the creeds but moving with current of his time moving into Theism, even dalllying with forest spirits produced momentssublime and transcendent yet fell short of coming to know the personality who is the source of all the excellencies which ennoble, are loveable and well spoken of. Hopefully he will return via the resurrection and perhaps take up the pen but more importantly in ther ways complete his search in a world which will be more encouraging to earnest and sincere enquirers. douglas lunn.

  11. Tapiola has been, along with the whole ethos of Sibelius, the most significant and psychological influence on my own evolution as a symphonic composer since 1957 when my own First Symphony had its premiere by John Barbirolli. Tapiola remains the “Land of Heart’s Desire” for my spiritual quest, and I am now 83.

  12. Mahler is probably my favorite late romantic symphonist, but Sibelius runs a close second and I’ve long felt that Tapiola is his consummate masterpiece. Perhaps he never composed another major work because he thought he couldn’t top this great piece, which is virtually perfect in every musical respect.

    Out of my dozen or so recordings of the work, my two favorites continue to be Rosbaud’s with the Berlin and Blomstedt’s with the San Francisco. To my way of thinking, they both interpretively outstrip all of Karajan’s recordings which seem to get progressively more bland and homogenized when heard chronologically. I don’t know what happened to him beginning in the late sixties. The instruments seem to lose their individuality and the orchestra sounds like more like a huge amorphous fog rather than an ensemble. A strange aesthetic all around!

    I think Beecham’s, recorded at some Helsinki Sibelius Festival during the mid-50’s, is complete disgrace. Aside from his sometimes exciting, but overall routine treatment of the work, he destroys the scherzo section by jumping into to it so abruptly, the orchestra seems completely unprepared, those delicate sprite-evocative, tricky on-the-beat, off-the-beat triplet wind entrances are transformed into a complete mess. I know many disagreed with me on this point, but even though he might have been quite a wit and personality, his recordings betray him as a pretty mediocre conductor. I wish the late Klaus Tennstedt got a chance to record more Sibelius.

  13. Thanks for your comment, Mike!

    I think after the 1960s, Karajan’s/BPO’s sound was basically changed by the advent of digital recording. Sometimes it is good, but sometimes it doesn’t “add up”.

    It’s been a while since I heard the Blomstedt – I need to relive that recording again.

  14. I am in awe! All of this from a “simple” man who must snatch all-too-few quality moments in life from an all-too-long, city-imprisoned work day, amidst the human forest of his all-too-insensitive fellow travelers. “Alone” in the urban forest, yours is a gift that must never be lost! Keep the forests of Ainola alive, as no one brings our beloved Sibelius closer to us than you!

  15. Hi there, This is such a great article which has allowed me to understand the background, motivation and content of Tapiola. Your interpretations are almost poetic. Lovely stuff, thank you. Winston

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