Islossningen i Uleå älv (The Breaking of the Ice on the Oulu River), Op. 30, for narrator, male choir and orchestra, was first performed at a lottery soirée arranged by the Savo-Karelian Students’ Association in Helsinki on 21st October 1899; Sibelius himself conducted the Philharmonic Society orchestra, and the narrator was Axel Ahlberg. As so often, Sibelius had completed the score at the last moment, and neither the narrator nor the choir had much opportunity to learn the piece. Islossningen is a setting of a Swedish-language poem by Zachris Topelius; the poem dates from 1856 and, as it had originally been written in honour of Tsar Alexander II, did not attract the attention of the Russian censor. Nevertheless, in the political climate of 1899, there can have been little doubt as to its intended patriotic message – especially as the first performance was followed by a performance of Song of the Athenians, given in classical costume.
Stylistically, Islossningen is closely related to Finlandia, and it is reasonable to assume that Sibelius worked on the two scores simultaneously: one might even speculate that he used Islossningen as a testing ground for some of the motifs and sonorities in Finlandia. The narrator appears at the beginning and end, his words sometimes separated by dramatic chords, sometimes supported by the merest whisper from the orchestra. The choral writing is often in unison, while the orchestral writing contains characteristic brass fanfares, a brief but expressive cello solo, murmuring string tremolos and syncopated accompaniment figures. Sibelius marked the fair copy of the score ‘To be revised’ – but never found time to do so.
© Andrew Barnett 2014