The Oceanides (Finnish title: Aallottaret, translated to English as Nymphs of the Waves or Spirits of the Waves; original working title Rondeau der Wellen; in English, Rondo of the Waves), Op. 73, is a single-movement tone poem for orchestra written in 1913–14 by the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius. The piece, which refers to the nymphs in Greek mythology who inhabited the Mediterranean Sea, premiered on 4 June 1914 at the Norfolk Music Festival in Connecticut with Sibelius conducting. Praised upon its premiere as “the finest evocation of the sea … ever … produced in music”, the tone poem, in D major, consists of two subjects, said to represent the playful activity of the nymphs and the majesty of the ocean, respectively. Sibelius gradually develops this material over three informal stages: first, a placid ocean; second, a gathering storm; and third, a thunderous wave-crash climax. As the tempest subsides, a final chord sounds, symbolizing the mighty power and limitless expanse of the sea.
Stylistically, many commentators have described The Oceanides as either an outright example of Impressionism or somehow derivative of that art movement. Others have countered that Sibelius’s active development of the two subjects, his sparing use of scales favored by Impressionists, and his prioritization of action and structure over ephemeral, atmospheric background distinguish the piece from quintessential examples, such as Debussy’s La mer.
Aside from the definitive D major tone poem, two intermediate versions of The Oceanides survive: the first, a three-movement orchestral suite that dates to 1913 (movement No. 1 lost); and the second, the initial single-movement “Yale” version of the tone poem, in D♭ major, which Sibelius dispatched to America in advance of his journey but revised prior to the music festival. The Oceanides thus stands alongside En saga, the Lemminkäinen Suite, the Violin Concerto, and the Fifth Symphony as one of Sibelius’s most overhauled works. The suite and Yale version, never performed in the composer’s lifetime, received their world premieres by Osmo Vänskä and the Lahti Symphony Orchestra on 10 September and 24 October 2002, respectively. A typical performance of the final version lasts about 10 minutes, some 3 minutes longer than its Yale predecessor.