Fantasia and the Swan of Tuonela

What has Jean Sibelius got to do with Walt Disney? It seems in December 1940, Disney approached Sibelius to propose featuring The Swan of Tuonela in the famous animated film Fantasia. Although by that time, Fantasia was already running in the theatres for a month, Disney already had plans to continually revise and improve the film – an approach that would surely have received more than a few approving nods from Sibelius!

Throughout 1941, story material was developed based on the addition or substition of new pieces of music, including Wagner’s The Ride of the Valkyries, Weber’s Invitation to the Dance, Rimsky-Korsakov’s Flight of the Bumblebee and Debussy’s Clair de Lune.

Disney acting out a scene in The Sorcerer's Apprentice for Taylor and Stokowski.
Disney acting out a scene in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice for Taylor and Stokowski. Picture from wikipedia.

On 9 December, 1940, a day after the composer’s 75th birthday, a letter arrived from the Walt Disney production company, bearing the Fantasia title decorated with cartoon characters. The message it carried was from John C. Rosen of Disney, who described Walt Disney as being a long-time admirer of Sibelius’s music. Although The Swan of Tuonela is not under copyright protection the United States, he added, Mr Disney did not want to proceed with using it in the film without the composer’s blessings.

Swan of Tuonela by American painter, Lorena Bowser
Swan of Tuonela by American painter, Lorena Bowser (Fine Art Studio 111)

Rosen explained the film’s intention to depict the “awe and reverence” for the souls of the departed on its journey through Tuonela, accompanied by the beautiful and majestic Swan. He assured the composer that each scene in the film would be as faithful to to the spirit of Finnish mythology, and will be accompanied by corresponding verses from the Finnish national epic, Kalevala.

The letter was accompanied by a note of support from the Finnish Ambassador to the US, Hjalmar Procopé , who said the project would be of great significance to the promotion of Finnish culture.

Sibelius’s interest in the matter is only known from the fact that he contacted his publisher, Breitkopf & Härtel, about it. I say “only” because – alas, in the end, nothing came of it. Perhaps the composer’s interest was piqued because of the involvement of Leopold Stokowski and the Philadephia Orchestra in Fantasia – the very same musicians who made the first recording of The Swan of Tuonela in 1929.

In any case, the proposal did not come to fruition. Any correspondence between Breitkopf & Härtel and the composer regarding the project has not survived, and thus we do not know exactly why it was rejected or not taken up.

Could it have been indeed a copyright issue? Considering the potentially huge earnings a film of Disney’s stature could earn, did Breitkopf & Härtel desire a cut … which Sibelius might have felt too awkward to ask of the Americans? Did Sibelius perhaps feel that a “cartoon” was not befitting his “serious” music? I speculate.

I leave you with this animation-style YouTube video of The Swan of Tuonela, featuring the classic Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic.If it had been featured in Fantasia, it might have looked something close to this.

This article is adapted from “Sibelius ja Hollywood” by Sibelius scholar Glenda Dawn Goss.

The Swan of Lorena

Amidst the thunder and lightning of the night last, I raced with the forces of nature to bring an emblem of tranquility, the national bird of Finland, into being. Not ten minutes before, my house had suffered an electrical outage, a blackout. The lightning was keen, and the thunder brazen enough to stir both my sleeping girls awake. My littlest one sought my arms for comfort, as white flashes burst across the drenched sky. When my wife finally took over, I waited and listened to the thunder. Five, six minutes passed.

I had to do it, it has to be tonight. I turned main power back on, rebooted my computer and quickly downloaded the final image file. Anxiety tinged my fingers as I hurriedly logged into this website’s control panel and uploaded the new header. It was over quickly. I opened a new tab on the browser and hit my “DoH” bookmark.

Server down. How could this be? Surely, the lightning gods aren’t that busy? Quickly I attempted to load the site on my iPhone instead. Unable to reach server. It was not to be tonight. With the rain subsiding, pelting quietly on cold windows, I went to bed.

But come morning, I find it is there. It is Dust of Hue‘s new header image. The Swan is gliding serenely as the site greets me. Did my Swan ask that I wait, last night, while she calmed the heavens? She glides knowingly, snow-quiet, unaffected by storm of sky nor of heart, exuding pure tranquility.

The Swan of Lorena
The Swan of Lorena

Around the end of March 2012, my very dear friend Lorena asked that I accept a gift of some sort, a piece of art that she would paint herself. I did not want to refuse, but I also did not want to impose. But later, it occurred to me that, instead of a painting bound for a wall, I could really use a proper header image for Dust of Hue, and I suggested this.

We eventually went through a number of design ideas. There were forests, sunrises, portraits of Sibelius, butterflies – but, in the way fate often plays with me – the first one is often the right one. And in this case, the first one is based on a painting depicting the Swan of Tuonela, after Sibelius’ tone poem of fame. To be precise, it is Lorena’s Photoshop composition of two artworks – detail from “Swan of Tuonela” (watercolor) and “New Bones” (collograph) – a larger detailed version can be seen here.

The waters in the original composition is much darker, befitting the Tuoni river in Tuonela, the Underworld of Finnish mythology, resting place of the dead. The Swan of Tuonela, the second part of the four-movement Lemminkainen Suite, or Four Legends from the Kalevala, Op.22, depicts the graceful Swan who presides over the river. The work beautifully fuses in sound, the image of the swan played by the dream-laden cor anglais solo, undulating over the haunted and otherworldy waters of the river Tuoni.

Lorena’s composition sets the swan, radiantly sublime, against the still gloom of the dimmed waters. The half-conscious shades and white ripples seemingly reach and sigh for her touch.

Together, over the months of April and May, we went through several versions of the Swan – not so much the swan herself, but trying to fit the surrounding waters to my website’s stark white background. Also, we worked on the title “Dust of Hue”. Lorena obliged and showed me many different fonts and variants, but tellingly, the one that spoke to me most was the one done in her own handwriting.

For more information about the artist, Lorena Bowser, please visit:

Among her many talents, she combines two that are most significant to this writer, her love of music and painting – the result takes the form of wonderful, contemporary portraits of Jean Sibelius and Ifukube Akira. Do you have a favourite composer she could paint as a commission for you? Imagine owning in your own home a new, colour portrait of a famous composer close to your heart. If you ask me, it is creating and being part of the composer’s history.

Like how, with this new header, I seek to bring a little more colour and visualized reality to the music and history of Jean Sibelius. In the mysterious river waters of her soul-searching repose, through the silvery lines of her noble glides, this Swan of Lorena.