Luonnotar is based on Finnish mythology, the words coming from the Kalevala. The text is from the first part of the Kalevala and deals with the creation of the world. Luonnotar is the Spirit of Nature and Mother of the Seas. Setting music to Finnish texts was relatively new to Sibelius, as his first language was Swedish and most of his earlier settings had been to Swedish texts.
In 1894, Sibelius had the character of Luonnotar in mind when writing sketches for an opera. The early drafts of his orchestral tone poem Pohjola's Daughter were called Luonnotar. An 8-bar sketch later used in the work was written as early as May 1909. However, his main work on the score was done in the summer of 1913, between his Fourth and Fifth symphonies. He sent the score to Aino Ackté on 24 August, and they rehearsed it together on 3 September, a week before the premiere in Gloucester.
The first performance in Finland was in January 1914, again with Aino Ackté, the conductor being Georg Schnéevoigt.
The piece takes only about 10 minutes, but has been avoided by many singers because of its formidable challenges. It has a very high tessitura: the vocal range required of the soprano is from B to C flat. There are leaps and drops of almost an octave, sometimes within a single word. The work is often described in terms such as "fiendishly difficult to perform", "the cruel demands made of the soloist" and "the cruelly taxing nature of the solo part".
Elisabeth Schwarzkopf sang it in Helsinki in 1955, saying it was the "best thing she had ever done in her life". Other singers who have sung Luonnotar include Susan Gritton who has sung the piece in staged performances at the English National Opera and with the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra under Edward Gardner, Gwyneth Jones, Elisabeth Söderström, Soile Isokoski, Taru Valjakka, Phyllis Curtin, Mari-Ann Häggander, Karita Mattila, Phyllis Bryn-Julson, and Dawn Upshaw.
On 28 November 2008, the English National Opera preceded its production of Ralph Vaughan Williams's one-act opera Riders to the Sea with a performance of Luonnotar staged by Fiona Shaw with Susan Gritton as the soprano soloist.