Jean Sibelius wrote The Bard in 1913, when he was entering the late period of his compositional life. The work has little by the way of orchestral fireworks; while there is power, this is no showpiece. It is instead a work of surprising introspective depth in its short running time (about seven minutes, give or take, depending on the conductor). The mood is hushed and meditative, and somehow manages to stay hushed and meditative, even when it does crescendo toward the end.
The inspiration for this work isn’t easy to tease out. Some think it was perhaps a movement from another larger work that Sibelius decided to hold back; some have suggested a particular poem as an inspiration, which apparently the composer himself denied. There does not seem to be any direct literary inspiration to The Bard, nor does the work suggest a pastoral inspiration from the natural landscapes of Sibelius’s beloved Finland.
Perhaps Sibelius meant the work to be mainly abstract, only giving it a name out of habit…or perhaps he meant it to be more of a work of feeling than to have any particularly strong connection to some extramusical source of meaning. I don’t know, but I do know that The Bard is mystically effective in suggesting the kind of wisdom that one would expect from the itinerant poets of old. It may take a few listens to penetrate into the heart of this work: it’s not a piece that leaves a particular tune or melody lingering in the ear, like Finlandia, but its mood is what lingers. And that is almost precisely Sibelius’s point.
Here is The Bard.