The Wood Nymph

This article is about the musical composition. For the silent film, see The Wood Nymph (film).
The Wood Nymph
Tone poem by Jean Sibelius

The composer in 1891
Native name Skogsrået
Catalogue Op. 15
Period Late Romantic
Composed 1894
Duration 22 minutes
Date 17 April 1895 (1895-04-17)
Location Helsinki, Finland
Conductor Jean Sibelius
Performers Helsinki Orchestral Society

The Wood Nymph (Swedish title: Skogsrået; subtitled ballade pour l'orchestre), Op. 15[lower-alpha 1], is a programmatic tone poem for orchestra composed in 1894 and 1895 by the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius. The piece, which premiered on 17 April 1895 in Helsinki, Finland, with Sibelius conducting, follows the Swedish writer Viktor Rydberg's 1882 poem of the same name, in which a young man, Björn, wanders into the forest and is seduced and driven to despair by a wood nymph (skogsrå). Organizationally, the tone poem consists of four informal sections, each of which corresponds to one of the poem's four stanzas and evokes the mood of a particular episode: first, heroic vigor; second, frenetic activity; third, sensual love; and fourth, inconsolable grief. Despite the music's beauty, critics have faulted Sibelius for over-reliance on the source material's narrative structure.

Unpublished until 2006, The Wood Nymph was forgotten for most of the 20th century, with the exception of a single performance in 1936. Six decades later, Finnish musicologist Kari Kilpeläinen found the lost manuscript among the University of Helsinki Library archives, a discovery that "caught Finland, and the musical world, by surprise".[2] Osmo Vänskä and the Lahti Symphony Orchestra subsequently gave the piece its modern day "premiere" on 9 February 1996. Although the score had been unavailable for sixty years, its thematic material had been known in abridged form via two other Op. 15 iterations: a piece for solo piano; and a more substantial melodrama for narrator, piano, two horns, and strings. Sibelius likely arranged the melodrama from the tone poem, although he claimed the opposite. A typical performance of the tone poem lasts about 22 minutes, some 11 minutes longer than the melodrama.



Sibelius admired Rydberg and often set his poetry to music, including the melodrama Snöfrid, Op. 29, and the War Song of Tyrtaeus.[3][4][5] The poem Skogsrået was first published in 1882, and in 1883 Sibelius's future friend, the artist Akseli Gallen-Kallela, illustrated it. In 1888 or 1889, about the time the two met, Sibelius first set Skogsrået for voice and piano. This setting is musically unrelated to Sibelius's 1894-5 treatment.[lower-alpha 2][7][1]

Rydberg in 1876

Although the origin of the tone poem remains obscure, it is likely that The Wood Nymph gradually evolved out of music for a verismo opera that Sibelius had planned but never realized. The libretto, as related in a letter from Sibelius, dated 28 July 1894, tells the story of a young, engaged student who, while traveling abroad, meets and is attracted by an exotic dancer. Upon his return, the student describes the dance and dancer so vividly that his fiancée concludes he has been unfaithful; the opera ends with a funeral procession for the student's fiancée (the letter is unclear as to her cause of death). Furthermore, in a letter from 10 August 1894, Sibelius informs his wife, Aino, of a new composition "in the style of a march". Veijo Murtomäki argues that Sibelius readily adapted his previous musical ideas to the plot of Skogsrået: the march became Björn's theme from the first section of The Wood Nymph, the protagonist "tak[ing] himself off (abroad)" became the frenetic chase of the second, the unfaithfulness with the dancer became the seduction by the evil skogsrå in the third, and opera's funeral procession became the despair of Björn in the finale.[8]

While both tone poem and melodrama would emerge from this material, it is not clear which musical form Sibelius initially used to tackle Rydberg's poem. In the 1930s, Sibelius claimed he had first composed the melodrama (premiered on 9 March 1895 at a lottery ball benefiting the Finnish Theatre), only to realize subsequently that "the material would allow a more extensive treatment" as a symphonic poem. Scholars, however, have disputed this chronology, arguing that, given the premiere of the tone poem a mere month later, it is "improbable, if not totally impossible" that Sibelius could have expanded the melodrama so quickly. Sibelius probably "compressed" the earlier tone poem, eliminating bridges and repetitions, to produce the streamlined melodrama.[9][8][10] The manuscript of the melodrama has far fewer corrections than the manuscript of the tone poem, which supports this view.[1] Sibelius also arranged the conclusion for solo piano.[lower-alpha 3][7]


Nymfen by the Norwegian realist painter Hans Heyerdahl, c. 1890

The tone poem premiered on 17 April 1895, at the Great Hall of the University of Helsinki, with Sibelius himself conducting the Helsinki Orchestral Society; the programme also included, among other pieces, the tone poem Vårsång (Spring Song) and selections from the Karelia Suite. A repeat performance was given two days later. Despite its positive reception, The Wood Nymph would only be played another five times in Sibelius's lifetime: twice in Turku on 29 and 30 November 1897; twice in Helsinki at the premiere of his Symphony No. 1 on 26 and 30 April 1899; and, after a 37-year hiatus, once in Helsinki on 27 October 1936. Sibelius, who was in his seventies and had retired to Ainola, was not present for this final performance, although he appears to have personally selected The Wood Nymph for the program;[2] Georg Schnéevoigt, who cut the score extensively in order to fit the performance into the radio broadcast's allotted time, conducted the Helsinki Philharmonic, with President Pehr Evind Svinhufvud, Prime Minister Kyösti Kallio, and Marshal Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim in attendance.[9]

After 1936, The Wood Nymph again disappeared from the repertoire. The work was "rediscovered" six decades later by manuscripts expert Kari Kilpeläinen, who had been cataloguing the various papers and scores the composer's family had deposited in 1982 at the University of Helsinki Library archive. A subsequent inspection of the manuscript by Fabian Dahlström "caught Finland, and the musical world, by surprise": the tone poem, 22 minutes in length and scored for full orchestra, was far more than the melodrama "recast without the speaker" many in the Sibelius establishment had assumed it to be.[2] The Wood Nymph received its modern day "world premiere" on 9 February 1996 by the Lahti Symphony Orchestra, with Osmo Vänskä conducting. Vänskä had received permission from Sibelius's family to perform the work.[11] Out of necessity, Vänskä supplemented the manuscript—full of edits and, thus, "very difficult to read" in isolation—with notes from the 1936 performance.[12] In 2006, Breitkopf & Haertel published the first edition of The Wood Nymph.[13]



In 1893, Sibelius had expressed his belief in the necessity of poetic motivation in music in a letter to the poet J. H. Erkko, "I believe that music alone, that is absolute music, can not satisfy. It awakens feelings and states of mind but always something unsatisfied remains in our souls..."[1] In The Wood Nymph, Sibelius adheres closely to the narrative structure of Rydberg's poem, so much so that at the 1895 premiere, audience members were provided with copies of the source material, indicating the centrality of Rydberg's plot to the performance.[14][9] Due to its programmatic qualities, musicologists commonly describe the The Wood Nymph, although in one movement, as consisting of four informal sections or "dramatic tableaux", each of which corresponds to one of the poem's four stanzas:[15][9]

  1. Alla marcia
  2. Vivace assai—Molto vivace
  3. Moderato
  4. Molto lento

First section

Björn, "a big and handsome lad", is announced by a heroic brass fanfare. His strength and good looks have angered "the wicked elves", and on his way to a feast one summer evening, he is entranced by the "singing" woods. The opening music, "breezy" and triumphant in C major, recalls the Karelia Overture, Op. 10 (not to be confused with the Karelia Suite, Op. 11) which Sibelius had written in 1893,[14] and betrays no sign of Björn's impending fate. Björn's theme is recapitulated at the end of the second section.

{  <<
   \new Staff  \relative c'{  \set Staff.midiInstrument = #"french horn"  \tempo "Alla marcia" \clef bass <e c>2--^"Trombones" \mf <c g>4 \tuplet 3/2 { <c g>8 <c g> <c g> } <f a,>4-. <c f,>2 <c f,>4  <e c>4-. <c g>4-. <d b>4.-- <c a>8 <c a>1 } 
   \new Staff \relative c { \clef bass  \set Staff.midiInstrument = #"trombone"  \clef bass <c>2-- <e,>4 \tuplet 3/2 { e8 e e } f4-. a2 a4  c4-. e,4-. f4.-- a8 a1 } >> }

Original Swedish English translation[16]

Han Björn var en stor och fager sven
med breda väldiga skuldror
Med smärtare midja än andre män
slikt retar de snöda huldror.
Till gille han gick en höstlig kväll,
då månen sken över gran och häll,
och vinden drog
med hi och ho
över myr och skog,
över hult och mo;
då var honom trolskt i hågen,
han ser åt skogen och har ej ro,
han skådar åt himlabågen,
men träden de vinka och nicka,
och stjärnorna blinka och blicka:
gå in, gå in, gå in i vinande furumo!

Bjorn was a big and handsome lad
With broad massive shoulders,
And a slenderer waist than other men.
This provokes the wicked elves.
To the feast he went one autumn evening,
When the moon shone over spruce and hob,
And the wind blew
With hi and with ho
Over marsh and forest,
Over wood and plain;
Then he was bewitched in mind:
He sees the forest and feels unquiet,
He sees the celestial arc,
But the trees they wave and nod,
And the stars blink and look:
Go in, go in, go into the singing woods!

Second section

Björn "willingly and yet forced", plunges deep into the magical Nordic forest and is enchanted by evil, mischievous dwarves, who "knit a web of moonbeams" and "hoarsely laugh at their prisoner". Considered by some critics to be the tone poem's most striking section,[7][17] the "proto-minimalist" music in A minor is at once hypnotic and delightfully propulsive: Sibelius repeats and reworks the same short motif (belonging initially to the clarinets) into a rich woodwind tapestry, quickening the tempo and adding off-beat horns and pulsating trombones, to produce what Murtomäki has described as a "modal-diatonic sound field".[18]

    \relative c'{  \set Staff.midiInstrument = #"clarinet"  \tempo "Vivace assai"  \clef treble a8[^"Clarinet" a8 c8. b16] a8[ a8 r8 a8]~ a8[ a8 c8. d16] e8[ a,8 r8 a8]~ a8[ a8 c8. b16] a8[ a8 r8 a8]( fis8[) fis8 gis8 a8] b8[ a8] r8}

Original Swedish English translation[16]

Han går, han lyder det mörka bud,
han gör det villig och tvungen;
men skogens dvärgar i kolsvart skud,
de fara med list i ljungen
och knyta ett nät af månens sken
och skuggan från gungande kvist och gren,
ett dallrande nät
i ris och snår
bak vandrarens fjät,
där fram han går
och skratta så hest åt fången.
I hidena vakna ulv och lo,
men Björn han drömmer vid sången
som runt från furorna ljuder
och viskar, lockar och bjuder:
gå djupare, djupare in i villande furumo!

He walks, he obeys the commandments dark,
He does so willingly and yet forced;
But forest dwarves in garb so black,
Are cunning in the heather
And knit a web of moonbeams
And the shade of swaying twigs and branches,
A trembling network
In the undergrowth and thickets
Behind the wanderer's footsteps,
As he goes on,
And so hoarsely they laugh at their prisoner.
In their dens wake wolf and lynx,
But Bjorn dreams, listening to the song
As around him the pines sigh
And whisper, luring and inviting him:
Go deeper, deeper into the boundless woods!

Third section

The theme of a mortal man (in this case the sleeping Hylas), seduced and doomed by a supernatural female is an enduring theme in folklore and art.

Björn encounters and is seduced by a beautiful wood nymph (skogsrå). The sensual, midsummer-night music in C-sharp major is "bathed in an erotic afterglow";[17] a solo cello cantilena, joined by horn and pizzicato strings, representing the nymph's erotic advances. "Who could resist," Glenda Dawn Goss has written in mock defense, "her [the nymph's] throaty solo cello voice, her sensuously swaying movements, a white limb glimpsed, honey-smooth, beneath a moon-white gown, a sweetly heaving breast?"[19]

    \relative c'{  \set Staff.midiInstrument = #"cello"  \tempo "Moderato" \time 3/4 \clef bass \key e \major gis2(^"Cello solo"_\markup { \italic { dolcissimo } } gis8 gis8 ais4) bis2 cis2( cis8 cis8 bis4) b2~ b2.~ b4 b2  ais2( ais8 ais8 bis4) cis2 dis2( cis8 dis8 bis4.)( cis8 dis8 eis8) fis2( dis4) fis2( dis4) gis2( fis8 eis8 dis2 eis8 fis8)  gis2( fis8 eis8 dis2 eis8 fis8) gis2( dis4 gis,2.) }

Original Swedish English translation[16]

Nu tystnar brått den susande vind,
och sommardäglig är natten,
och vällukt ångar från blommig lind
vid kärnens sovande vatten.
I skuggan hörs ett prasslande ljud:
Där böljar en skär, och månvit skrud,
där vinkar en arm,
så mjäll och rund,
där häves en barm,
där viskar en mund,
där sjunka två ögon i dina
och leka så blå en evig tro,
att alla minnen försina;
de bjuda dig domna och glömma,
de bjuda dig somna och drömma
i älskogsro i vyssande sövande furumo.

Now the whistling wind goes silent,
And summer sweet is the night,
Fragrance rises from lime blossom
By the pool of sleeping water.
In the shadow, he hears a rustling sound:
And moon-white robes billow,
There waves an arm,
So fine and round,
There a bosom moves
There whispers a mouth,
There two eyes look into yours
And pretend eternal faith,
So that all memories flee;
They invite you to go numb and forget,
They invite you to fall asleep and dream
In loving peace in the lulling, soporific woods.

Fourth Section

Having lost any hope of earthly happiness (in Swedish folklore, a man who succumbed to the skogsrå was doomed to lose his soul),[7] Björn despairs. The music mutates from the erotic C-sharp major to a dark and mournful "funeral march" in C-sharp minor.[20] As the undulating, "aching" violin theme crashes against the brass, Björn is left with "inconsolable grief", obsessed with the memory of the skogsrå. "Hardly ever has music been written," wrote the music critic of the newspaper Uusi Suometar following the 1899 performance, "which would more clearly describe remorse."[21]

{ \new PianoStaff <<
   \new Staff \relative c { \key e \major \time 3/2 \clef treble \tempo "Molto lento" \set Staff.midiInstrument = #"strings" r2\mp^"Strings" cis'2.( c4 b16) r4. b16( e4 b2 cis4 dis16) dis4. fis16 gis2 gis2 ~  
            gis4 gis2 gis2 gis4 
  \new CueVoice { \set Staff.midiInstrument = #"oboe"
    \stemDown dis16_"Oboe" dis4. fis16 gis2 gis2
   \new Staff \relative c { \key e \major \time 3/2 \clef bass  \set Staff.midiInstrument = #"strings" \override Staff.NoteSpacing.stem-spacing-correction = #1.8
  \override Staff.StaffSpacing.stem-spacing-correction = #1.8  <gis' e gis, cis,>16 <gis e gis, cis,>4. <gis e gis, cis,>16 ~  <gis e gis, cis,>1 <b gis e b e,>16 <b gis e b e,>4. <b gis e b e,>16 ~  <b gis e b e,>1  <bis gis fis gis, dis>16 <bis gis fis gis, dis>4. <bis gis fis gis, dis>16 ~  <bis gis fis gis, dis>1 <bis gis fis gis, dis>16 <bis gis fis gis, dis>4. <bis gis fis gis, dis>16 ~  <bis gis fis gis, dis>1 } >> }

Original Swedish English Translation[16]
Men den, vars hjärta ett skogsrå stjäl,
får aldrig det mer tillbaka:
till drömmar i månljus trår hans själ,
kan han ej älska en maka.
De ögon blå i nattlig skog
ha dragit hans håg från harv och plog,
han kan ej le
och fröjdas som förr,
och åren de se
inom hans dörr,
men finna ej barn och blomma;
han vesäll åldras i öde bo,
kring härden stå sätena tomma,
och väntar han något av åren,
så väntar han döden och båren,
Han lyss, han lyss med oläkeligt ve till suset i furumo.

But the heart stolen by a wood nymph,
Is never returned:
His soul lusts for the dreams of moonlight;
He can not love any human wife.
The blue eyes in the nighttime forest
Draw his mind from the harrow and plow,
He can not smile
And rejoice as before,
And the years come in
Into his door,
But he has no wife and children;
He grows sad and old in his empty home,
Around the hearth stand empty seats,
And he waits for any year,
He waits for that of death and the funeral bier,
He listens, he listens with endless woe to the sigh of the woods.


Although well received upon its premiere, critical opinion as to the merit of The Wood Nymph has varied. Following the 1895 premiere, Oskar Merikanto, writing in Päivälehti, praised Sibelius for having "masterfully" recreated Rydberg's plot with the use of "unique and fascinating colors",[9] while critic Karl Flodin complained in Nya Pressen that the piece was "unquestionably too long".[9] Modern day opinion has been similarly equivocal. While conceding that The Wood Nymph contains "some splendid melodic ideas" and "luxuriant scoring", Erik Tawaststjerna has characterized the work as the "experiment" of a composer "still trying to find his feet as a tone-poet", suggesting that Sibelius is too dependent on the source material's narrative structure.[22][lower-alpha 4] Murtomäki, though praising the piece for its "unforced freshness of vision and tonal audacity" and "well elaborated, original and inventive characters", agrees with Tawaststjerna that The Wood Nymph is too episodic in construction:

As a whole, Skogsrået is not a highly unified organism like Sibelius’s subsequent large orchestral works: the four Lemminkäinen legends and the first two symphonies...The formal problem is that the links are, for the most part, missing; Sibelius simply juxtaposes different formal sections without connective elements smoothing over the junctures. In view of his later mastery of the "art of transition," achieved by subtly overlapping different textures and tempos, in Skogsrået Sibelius is sill at the beginning of his development.[23]
Erik Tawaststjerna, musicologist, friend and biographer of Sibelius

Guy Rickards, concurring that the piece "never quite escapes a dependence on the verses", has echoed Tawaststjerna in wondering what might have been had Sibelius returned in his maturity to The Wood Nymph, as with En saga.[24] Finnish composer Kalevi Aho's response has been similar, calling the piece "an interesting work" in need of "more polishing".[18] Finnish conductor Osmo Vänskä, however, has championed the ballad. "It's a tremendous piece," Vänskä has said in interview. "He [Sibelius] never managed to revise it, but nothing is wrong with the music. Sibelius never forbade performance of The Wood Nymph."[12] Stylistically, scholars have detected in The Wood Nymph the influence of Richard Wagner.[25][14][18] Murtomäki, for example, discerns the "erotic harmonic vocabulary" of Tristan und Isolde in the third section and the "motive of the forbidden question" from Lohengrin in the funereal march from the finale.[26] In light of Sibelius's "Nietzschean response"[14] to Wagner's operas (initially enamored, Sibelius by July 1894 had repudiated Wagner's ideas as "calculated" and "manufactured"), such observations are of particular interest in that they illustrate the extent to which Sibelius, at the time of The Wood Nymph, had not yet succeeded in breaking with the German master.[27]


Sibelius in 1907

Autobiographical details

A few musicologists have speculated that The Wood Nymph is potentially autobiographical. Murtomäki, most notably, has argued that the tone poem's depiction of "a fatal sexual conjunction" between Björn and the skogsrå is a possible allusion to the composer's own youthful indiscretions. "The strong autobiographical element in Skogsrået is unmistakable", Murtomäki has written, adding that in the piece "Sibelius probably confesses an affair to Aino".[28] For Murtomäki, the balladic nature of The Wood Nymph is key, as in the genre "it was expected that the singer/storyteller/composer should reveal himself". At the time, it was common for the first sexual partners of men of Sibelius's class to be prostitutes. Murtomäki says that "In their concealed or "unofficial" sexual life, they experienced a certain type of female sexual adventurousness that their wives could not easily match." He hypothesizes that The Wood Nymph and other contemporaneous compositions were Sibelius's method of dealing with the emotional consequences of this and his guilt towards his wife Aino.[29]

With its focus on sexual fantasy, The Wood Nymph differs sharply from the Rydberg poem Snöfrid which Sibelius set in 1900. In Snöfrid, Gunnar, the patriotic hero, resists a water nymph's sensuous "embrace" to instead "fight the hopeless fight" for his country and "die nameless". The contrast between Björn and Gunnar, Murtomäki argues, reflects Sibelius's own personal transformation: crowned a "national hero" following the 1899 premiere of the Symphony No. 1, Sibelius wished to demonstrate that he had "outgrown his early adventurism" and learned to place country before "libertine" excess.[30] Murtomäki's conclusion, however, is not universally accepted. David Fanning, in his review of the edited volume in which Murtomäki's essay appears, has savaged as "dubious" and "tendentious" such autobiographical speculations. Per Fanning: "For Murtomäki every half-diminished chord seems to be a Tristan chord, with all the symbolic baggage that entails...Such half-baked hermeneutics baffle and alienate...enthusiasm has occasionally been allowed to run riot".[31]

Lack of publication

Why Sibelius should have failed to prepare The Wood Nymph for publication is a question that has perplexed scholars. On the advice of Ferruccio Busoni, Sibelius in 1895 offered The Wood Nymph to the Russian music publisher Mitrofan Belyayev but it was not published.[13] Murtomäki has suggested that Sibelius, despite having been fond of The Wood Nymph, was "unsure about the true value" of his output from the 1890s,[32] an ambivalence that is perhaps best illustrated by the piecemeal publication history of, and multiple revisions to, the four Lemminkäinen legends (appearing in the composer's 1911 diary under a list of works to be rewritten, The Wood Nymph, too, seems to have been scheduled by Sibelius for a reexamination, albeit one that never came to pass).[9] Scholars have offered a number of explanations as to why Sibelius may have "turned his back" on his early compositions. Perhaps, as master, he looked back on the works of his youth as technically "inferior" to his mature output; or, as evolving artist, he sought distance from passionate, nationalistic exclamations as he developed his own, unique musical style and aimed to transition from "local hero" to "international composer"; or, as elder statesman, he feared he might have "revealed himself too much" in early "confessional" pieces, such as En saga, Lemminkäinen and the Maidens of the Island, and The Wood Nymph.[33] In the absence of any new information from Sibelius's papers, however, the reason why The Wood Nymph was never published ultimately "appears doomed to remain a subject of speculation".[9]


Even after the wave of publicity that followed its reemergence, The Wood Nymph remains rarely recorded compared to other early Sibelius works. It received its world premiere in 1996 under the BIS label with Osmo Vänskä leading the Lahti Symphony Orchestra. Some musical material was unavailable until the publication of the Breitkopf & Härtel JSW critical edition in 2006 and was thus not included on prior recordings. The 1888 version for voice and piano has recorded by Anne Sophie von Otter. The 1996 Vänskä release included a recording of Lasse Pöysti narrating the melodrama. Erik Tawaststjerna also recorded the piano solo version together with the rest of Sibelius's piano transcriptions.

Conductor Orchestra Recorded Duration Available on
Vänskä, OsmoOsmo Vänskä Lahti Symphony Orchestra 1996 21:36 BIS (BIS-CD-815)
Sato, ShuntaroShuntaro Sato Kuopio Symphony Orchestra 2003 22:22 Finlandia (0927-49598-2)
Vänskä, OsmoOsmo Vänskä Lahti Symphony Orchestra 2006 21:37 BIS (BIS-SACD-1745)
Bostock, DouglasDouglas Bostock Gothenburg-Aarhus Philharmonic Orchestra 2007 21:05 Classico (CLASSCD733)
Storgårds, JohnJohn Storgårds Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra 2010 24:05 Ondine (ODE 1147-2)


  1. During the tone poem's long period of obscurity, 'Op.15' usually referred to the dramatic monologue.[1]
  2. In the collected works, it is catalogued as JS 171.[6]
  3. With the title Ur "Skogsrået" (English: From "Skogsrået").[6]
  4. Tawaststjerna, incidentally, must have been one of the very few to examine the manuscript of the orchestral version during its long obscurity.



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