Dan Bickel investigates the work’s epic background

The Kullervo Symphony, an early composition by Jean Sibelius, is a five-movement work for soprano, baritone, male choir, and orchestra. The premiere took place on 28 April 1892 in Helsinki and was both a great success and a breakthrough for Sibelius in establishing his career as a composer. It also came at a time when Finland was trying to gain independence from Imperial Russia and critics praised the work for its strong nationalism based on the Finnish language national epic, The Kalevala, and for evoking the melody and rhythm of Finnish runic singing. However, subsequent performances received only lukewarm reviews. Sibelius withdrew the manuscript and it wasn’t revisited until 1958, the year after his death.

The Kalevala is the national epic of Finland and a central part of Finnish culture. It is based on oral folklore compiled by Elias Lönnrot during long trips as a district health officer in Karelia and elsewhere in eastern Finland. The Kalevala was first published in 1835 and comprises 50 runes, telling the story of the Finnish people from the beginning of the world to the end of pagan times. It relates the adventures of several main characters and involves 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.

During the 1890s, Sibelius was associated with the nationalistic-cultural group Nuori Suomi, or Young Finland, promoting Finnish distinctiveness, free from the cultural dominance of Sweden and Russia. The Finnish painter Akseli Gallen-Kallela was a founding member of the group and enjoyed a friendship with Sibelius. Although both men were born to the Swedishspeaking ruling class, they spoke Finnish and made a point of adopting the Finnish culture, and landscape for their work. The Kalevala proved to be the ideal focus for their nationalistic and artistic feelings.

The Kullervo Symphony is based on the tragic story of Kullervo, a troubled character who is vengeful and angry. Raised as a prisoner of his father’s murderer, Kullervo survives all attempts to kill him and ruins every task he is given. Sold into slavery and tormented by his master’s wife, the Maiden of the North, Kullervo arranges for her to be eaten alive by wolves and bears. He runs away, meets a girl and abducts her. She turns out to be his own sister, and when she finds she was seduced by her own brother, she commits suicide from shame. Kullervo becomes mad with rage, destroys the clan of his father’s murderer using his magical powers, and then commits suicide by falling on his sword.

Like much of his output, the music Sibelius composed for these Kalevala episodes is strong and elemental, evoking the primeval boreal landscapes of Finland. His music is an essential part of Finnish cultural heritage. Interestingly, the author of The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien, was strongly influenced by The Kalevala during his undergraduate days at Oxford, and some of the themes from the Finnish epic ended up in his own work. And a book published posthumously, The Story of Kullervo, is a collection of several manuscript texts by Tolkien, including a prose version of the Kullervo cycle and essays on The Kalevala.

Kullervo’s Curse by the Finnish painter Akseli Gallen-Kallela from 1899. It depicts a scene from The Kalevala in which Kullervo curses beasts from the woods to attack his tormentor, the Maiden of the North.
History and Art Collection / Alamy Stock Photo