About this Recording
8.553756 - SIBELIUS: Kullervo, Op. 7

Jean Sibelius (1865-1957)
Kullervo, Op. 7


"The more I immerse myself in the fate of Kullervo, the smaller I feel…", wrote composer Jean Sibelius to his fiancée Aino Järnefelt, while working on the tone-poem Kullervo in the winter of 1891-92. This work for soloists, male voice choir and orchestra was the first extensive work of a composer whose career was to rest squarely on symphonies and symphonic tone-poems.

Johan Julius Christian (Jean) Sibelius was born in Hämeenlinna, Finland, on 8 December 1865. Swedish was the language of his childhood home, but he received his schooling in Finnish. Perhaps this was what enabled him later to assume a significant role as the uncontested master of Finnish national music; he contributed in a major way towards creating a new national identity for the tiny nation that had long been a part of Sweden and was then annexed to the Russian Empire.

Having initially studied in Helsinki, Sibelius went abroad for further studies. Having heard in Berlin a performance of the Aino symphony by Robert Kajanus, a composer better known later as a conductor, Sibelius realized the potential offered a composer by the Finnish national epic, the Kalevala, and how rich in musical content its material was. It was then that he conceived of the idea of a large orchestral work based on the epic. Thus, in Berlin, Sibelius entered the world of traditional Finnish culture and liked what he saw.

On his second study trip, now to Vienna, Sibelius heard Bruckner's Third Symphony and was greatly impressed; signs of this are discernible in Kullervo. He spent much of his time in Vienna studying the Kalevala and improving his command of Finnish. It is an interesting detail that Sibelius also auditioned for the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra — he had always dreamed of a career as a violinist. Unfortunately, his nerves got the better of him at the audition, and he nearly fainted. This experience showed him that he would never become a violin virtuoso as he had wished, and after that occasion he redirected his energy into composing. Through the essential Finnishness that he had discovered while in Berlin and Vienna, Sibelius was getting ready to sketch the Finnish national tradition in rather fierce and in some respects primitive strokes in Kullervo. He already had a main theme on his return from Vienna, and he continued work on the composition in Finland.

Having returned to Finland, Sibelius sought a deeper knowledge of his national culture. To acquaint himself with traditional runo singing, he met folk-singer Larin Paraske, who made an indelible impression on him. Through her, he found the authentic mood of ancient Finland and the Kalevala and thus the appropriate spirit for the work he had in progress. The Kalevala was very much a current topic in Finnish art at the time; for example, painter Akseli Gallen-Kallela was working on his Aino triptych. The popularity of the Kalevala was a manifestation of the resistance movement that had arisen in the arts against Russification tendencies, a war waged with weapons gained from the national culture. Kullervo progressed slowly but surely, and its influences included not only Finnish folk-music and the cadences of the Kalevala metre but also the Wagnerian concept of translating mythology into music. It is illustrative of the importance of being Finnish to Sibelius that when he married Aino, née Järnefelt, in summer 1892, they went on a combined honeymoon and folk-music collection trip to the Lieksa and Koli regions in Karelia. Sibelius was following the then current spirit of Karelianism, continuing his exploration 'on location' in the country of the Kullervo story.

Kullervo was first performed in Helsinki on 28 April 1892, with Sibelius himself conducting. In the Päivälehti newspaper published on the same date there was a preliminary review stating: "Sibelius takes us to quite new regions, to unknown keys. He brings the most beautiful pearls of our national epic before our eyes and caresses our ears with Finnish strains that we immediately identify as our own, even though we have never heard them before. Cold shivers go down one's spine upon hearing the mighty torrent of music; one feels transported to another world with weird harmonies and peculiar melodies weaving all around. Amazed, we gaze at one another and whisper: 'Marvellous!' Truly, this is music that we have not heard before. Finnish music undoubtedly has its future in Mr. Sibelius."

The concert was a roaring success. After the première, Kajanus presented Sibelius with a laurel wreath with a blue and white ribbon that bore the words: "This way therefore leads the pathway, Here the path lies newly opened" from the Kalevala. This proved true. Kullervo was performed several times in 1892 and 1893, but later Sibelius forbade any further performances of Kullervo as well as two movements of his Kalevala-based Lemminkäinen Legends, possibly because of negative criticism of the latter, but possibly also because the works were so powerfully 'Finnish' — he perhaps feared that they would not be understood abroad. The result of all this was that Kullervo was not heard again until a performance conducted by Jussi Jalas in 1958, a year after Sibelius' death.

Kullervo, Op. 7 is a monumental symphony the first movement of which is dominated by extensive arcs that convey a sense of drama and fate. The Kullervo theme is lucid and impressive, creating a frame-work for the tragic tale. The opening movement, for orchestra alone, reflects a Brucknerian approach, although Tchaikovskian influences are also detectable. The second movement, Kullervo's Youth, presents the novice orchestrator Sibelius at his best: the rich, crisp orchestration and the variation schemes derived from runo singing keep the listener captive. The music conveys the events of Kullervo's tempestuous youth as if the listener were there himself.

The third movement, Kullervo and his Sister, highlights the dramatic qualities of the work: the rhythms and discords in the music support the drama of the sister's extensive monologue and the following lament of Kullervo, the climax of the work. The fatal encounter between Kullervo and his sister is sketched in music before the listener's very eyes, and Kullervo's anguished cry from the depths is piercingly evoked. The fourth movement, Kullervo Goes to War, is martial battle music coloured with folk-music allusions. However, it is also a light-hearted introduction to the sombre fifth and the last movement, Kullervo's Death, in which the work grows more serious. Finally, the music subsides: Kullervo has fallen on his own sword. In conclusion, the listener returns to where he started: the main theme of the first movement rounds off the work.

Kullervo, a symphonic poem for orchestra, vocal soloists and choir, was seen and can still be seen as a patriotic Finnish work arousing national emotion: it was a boost to the ideology of Finnish nationalism in the difficult years of oppression. Kullervo is also an impressive evocation of the natural environment so beloved by the Finns: the wafting trees, the rippling waters, the spirit of the wilderness. Perhaps its melancholic approach reflects one side of typically Finnish view of life. Most significantly, however, for all its slight immaturity and coarseness, Kullervo is also musically important: it spurred Sibelius on to join the select ranks of the few notable composers for orchestra. Above all, Kullervo was the first extensive Finnish composition of all time, and it has been cited again and again as the origin of Finnish music and the Finnish musical idiom. Kullervo was like a mountain that Sibelius had to climb in order to see beyond it all the opportunities open to him as a composer.

© 1996 Raif Hermans



'We must now begin to create a new renaissance here in our small country, i.e. new strength, life and a new world.'
(Akseli Gallen-Kallela 1894)

Finnish culture flourished in the last decades of the nineteenth century. In retrospect, these years have been called the 'golden age' of the arts in Finland. Inspired by national romanticism prominent in Europe, Finnish artists began to seek the roots of national culture and its authentic expressions. A circle devoted to developing and creating Finnish culture emerged among the young Finnish artists of the day. Known as 'Young Finland', this group included Jean Sibelius (1865-1857) and Akseli Gallen-Kallela (1865-1931) and became a leading influence on cultural policies around the turn of the century.

The sources of national culture, language, history and art, were discovered in myths preserved as oral tradition, which were combined to create the Kalevala epic. The most compelling interpretations of the tales of the Kalevala are to be found in Jean Sibelius's compositions and Akseli Gallen-Kallela's paintings. Sibelius and Gallen-Kallela inspired each other to work with Kalevala themes in music and painting respectively.

Akseli Gallen-Kallela's earliest studies for the theme of Kullervo going to war, from the Kalevala, are from 1894. The legend of Kullervo tells of the fate of an unlucky and tempestuous adventurer:

Kullervo is raised by his uncle, who claims to have killed all the other members of his family. Vowing revenge, Kullervo is sold as a slave to a farm, where he slays his wicked step-mother and her livestock. Kullervo goes on to wander, until he suddenly comes to his old home. Unwittingly, he seduces his sister, who kills herself upon learning that Kullervo is her brother. Kullervo sets out to revenge himself upon his uncle, whom he blames for the misfortune of his family. After returning from war and having slain his uncle's family and destroyed his property, Kullervo finds his own family dead and finally kills himself.

The tragic tale of Kullervo found a convincing interpreter in Akseli Gallen-Kallela, who depicted with verve and empathy this figure rushing from one misfortune to another. Kullervo Goes to War was finally executed in 1901 as a fresco for the Music Room of the Old Student House in Helsinki.

© Gallen-Kallela Museum, Espoo, Finland

Akseli Gallen-Kallela: Kullervo Goes to War
study, tempera on paper; 1890s-1901
69.5 x 55 cm; Gösta Serlachius Art Museum

Main collections of works by Akseli Gallen-Kallela:
Gallen-Kallela Museum, Espoo, Finland
Gösta Serlachius Art Museum, Mänttä, Finland
The Finnish National Gallery Ateneum, Helsinki, Finland
Turku Art Museum, Turku, Finland

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