We look at the Kalevala

Written by Dan Bickel

During the 1890s, the young Jean Sibelius was associated with the nationalistic-cultural group Nuori Suomi, or Young Finland, which promoted Finnish distinctiveness free from the cultural dominance of Sweden and Russia. The Finnish painter Akseli Gallen-Kallela was a founding member of Nuori Suomi and enjoyed a creative friendship with Sibelius. Although both men were born into the Swedish-speaking ruling class, they both spoke Finnish and made a point of adopting the Finnish language, culture, and landscape as the basis for their work. The national epic of Finland, the Kalevala, thus proved to be the ideal focus for their nationalistic and artistic feelings.

The Kalevala is based on oral folklore compiled by Elias Lönnrot during long trips as a district health officer in Karelia and elsewhere in eastern Finland. It was first published in 1835 and was instrumental in the development of the Finnish national identity, which ultimately led to Finland’s independence from Russia in 1917. The Kalevala comprises 50 runot, or cantos, telling the story of the Finnish people from the beginning of the world to the end of pagan times. The verses were often sung accompanied by a kantele, a zither-like instrument, and relate the adventures of several main characters, involving conflict, kidnapping, seduction and magical spells. The protagonists of these stories often have to accomplish feats that are unreasonable or impossible, leading to tragedy or humiliation.

Sibelius based many of his works on Kalevala themes. Kullervo, one of his early works, is a large choral symphony in five movements. It is based on the troubled character Kullervo. He is vengeful and easily flies into a rage. After unwittingly seducing his long-lost sister, he overcome with remorse and commits suicide.

The Lemminkäinen Suite was composed in the early 1890s as part of a proposed Kalevala-based opera entitled The Building of the Boat. Though the opera was never f inished, the music was turned into an orchestral suite of four symphonic poems that recount the adventures of Lemminkäinen. In the first, Lemminkäinen and the Maidens of Saari, Lemminkäinen sails to an island where he seduces many women. Lemminkäinen in Tuonela has our hero in Tuonela, the land of the dead, to shoot the Swan of Tuonela in order to be able to claim the daughter of Louhi, mistress of the Northland, in marriage. However, Lemminkäinen is killed and his body is dismembered and tossed into the river. When Lemminkäinen’s mother learns of his death, she travels to Tuonela where she recovers his body parts and reassembles him, restoring him to life. The most popular of the four symphonic poems is The swan Of Tuonela, which paints an image of the mystical swan swimming serenely on the waters of Tuonela.

Sibelius’ interest in the Kalevala continued into the 20th century. In 1906, he composed the tone poem Pohjola’s Daughter in which the old, white-bearded Väinämöinen tries to entice a beautiful girl from Pohjola to join him, but she sets him a number of difficult tasks, such as tying an egg into invisible knots and building a boat from fragments.