This is one of Sibelius' earliest orchestral works, and it brims with youthful energy. It is also a highly atmospheric work, clearly evocative of the composer's beloved Finland -- its people, proud history, countryside and landscapes. The title (Swedish, rather than Finnish, meaning "A Fairy Tale") suggests it is a programmatic work, and indeed there does seem to be a musical "story" present; the composer, however, never identified any specific extra-musical inspiration.
Sibelius wrote the work at the suggestion of conductor Robert Kajanus, who wanted a composition that would have wide appeal; in completing it Sibelius drew on themes from an unperformed and unpublished octet for strings and winds he had written in Berlin. At its February 16, 1893, premiere in Helsinki (led by the composer), En Saga was not a success, suffering as it did from a lack of formal organization. Sibelius' 1902 revision, however -- coming, perhaps not insignificantly, directly after the composition of his Symphony No. 2 -- overcame these difficulties, and is now regarded as one of his finest orchestral works.
The work begins mysteriously, the music seeming to awaken and gather momentum, as strings swirl and woodwinds bark and chirp. This gives rise to a lively rhythmic theme of characteristically Sibelian character; there is something both mournful and proud in the melody -- simple, yet striking. This theme is the first of three that, by development and interaction, become the de facto "characters" in this musical tale; they each struggle to maintain hold on the music as becomes more conflicted, eventually rising to a violent climax. Eventually, the musical conflict is resolved, and only the solo clarinet -- accompanied by gentle strings -- is left to witness the end.
Throughout En Saga Sibelius puts the woodwinds front and center, often using their dissonant punctuations to herald the beginning of a new section or idea. The color and character of these woodwind passages are perhaps the most identifiably Scandinavian musical feature of the score. While there are influences here of Rimsky-Korsakov and other Russian composers, En Saga must be regarded as one of the composer's most individual and satisfying early works. A typical performance lasts from about 17 to 20 minutes.