'Kullervo Goes To War' - A study by Akseli Gallen-Kalella


Symphonic Poem for Soprano, Baritone, Male Chorus and Orchestra, Op.7

An Inktroduction by the Inkpot Sibelius Nutcase™

Sibelius in 1920

Imagine for a moment you live in a country completely unknown for any significant, original musical culture other than, say, an ancient heritage comprising folksongs passed down through the ages. Then suddenly, within some humble concert hall, a local composer conducts a work which somehow creates a single spark of cultural identity which flares and explodes an entire nation’s soul into the being of cultural self-awareness.

Before Sibelius lit this spark, Finland was not much more than an autonomous Grand Duchy controlled by Tsarist Russia. Swedish was the language of the elite, not Finnish. On April 28, 1892, less than 4 weeks after completing the score, Kullervo was premiered under the 26-year-old composer’s own baton. During rehearsals, Sibelius faced an unfriendly orchestra filled with Germans, as well as a choir of mixed Swedes and Finns. By the sheer power of his personality and will, and armed with the ability to speak all three languages, Sibelius eventually won them over.

Kullervo was played to a packed hall, filled with many Finnish nationalists (known as the Fennoman). The work was an instant and phenomenal success whose scale and nation-binding force was unprecedented. Even in Europe, only Berlioz, Bruckner and Mahler (whose 2nd Symphony, the “Resurrection”, was completed in 1894) were known to have achieved such an epic scale of musical expression then.


Cover from F.P. Magoun translation of The Kalevala, Harvard UP

Kullervo did not succeed merely because it was good music, with its Romantic touches, but because it was above all Finnish – Finnish in its mythical roots, in its rawness of utterance, in its evocation of an ancient memory which seemed all but lost until in the same century, Elias Lönnrot (1802-1884) gathered together the Finns’ literary epic, the Kalevala, from ancient poetry collected in Karelia, in eastern Finland. A nation suddenly realised it had an epic history rooted in the powerful and mysterious memory that is myth.

Kullervo is cast in five movements, lasting over 70 minutes, and illustrates Cantos 31-36 of the Kalevala. The orchestral “Introduction” is a tragi-heroic movement designed as a general musical description of Kullervo. It opens with a broad, expanding curtain of brooding grandeur and mystery before a sweeping melody of understated majesty ascends through the vast rivers of the music, driven by the composer’s distinctive sense of forward movement. Near the end, a Slavic-flavoured theme on strings, punctuated by flute flutterings, strongly evokes the sense of a primordiality strangely familiar even to a modern westernized listener. A final fanfare on the brass based on the opening melody suddenly breaks off into a quieter recollection on the woodwind, which fades away into…

'Kullervo Cursing' by Akseli Gallen-Kallela, 1899
'Kullervo Cursing' by Akseli Gallen-Kallela, 1899

“Kullervo’s Youth” – the second movement of the work, another song of brooding, but quieter, melancholic, like the old king reminiscing in his castle in the “ballade” of the Karelia Suite. It has been called Tchaikovskian in spirit, but I beg to differ, for it seems to me distinctive enough. It has a pulse that has less consistency than Tchaikovsky’s music, but at the same time it is much more evocative of some kind of identity other than emotional pathos.

Perhaps it is the undercurrent of sadness in the opening string theme, or is it the loneliness, as if somehow prophetic of Kullervo’s future? The birdcries on woodwind? A certain yearning look across some snow-covered landscape? Tchaikovsky’s Romanticism sings about himself; Sibelius’ Kullervo is the perpetuating recollection of a people’s existence.

The 25-minute third movement is the heart of Kullervo where the choir and vocal soloists first appear. It begins with an energetic introduction on strings depicting Kullervo riding a snow-sledge across the lands on his way home. Over a chugging string ostinato, the all-male choir enters solidly singing a description of Kullervo:

Kullervo, Kalervon poika,
sinisukka äijön lapsi,
hivus keltainen, korea,
kengän kauto kaunokainen,
läksi viemähän vetoja,
maajyviä maksamahan.
Kullervo, Kalervo’s offspring,
with the very bluest stockings
And with yellow hair the finest
And with shoes of finest leather
went to take in the taxes
to pay in the tithes.

Nevermind that these lines seem simplistic and benign, for the music is powerful: the choir sings mostly in unison, achieving a chant-like rawness which is very direct in its communicative evocation of that primal harkening we associate with myth. Add to this a relentless five-beat ostinato maintained by the orchestra, the work is as original as it is rooted in the past. Even more ingenius is the fact that it is written in 5/4 time (another famous example is “Mars” from Holst’s The Planets), which takes into account the Finnish language’s predominant first-syllable emphasis. The choral setting cleverly shifts rhythm according to the words, alternatively accenting the first, third, fourth and even the fifth beat.

The story here in Canto 35 is a tragic one: Kullervo comes upon a beautiful maiden on his journey and seduces her. On asking of each other’s ancestry, they discover to their horror that they are siblings. The vocal sequences between choir, soprano and baritone are operatic in character and display Sibelius’ considerable potential in this area. Kullervo’s sister kills herself in despair, and in the concluding section of the movement, to the accompaniment of the heavy pounding of orchestral sforzandi, Kullervo curses himself, as depicted by the painting “Kullervo Cursing” (1899) by Gallen-Kallela (above).

'Kullervo Goes To War' - A study by Akseli Gallen-Kalella
'Kullervo Goes To War' - A study by Akseli Gallen-Kalella

The fourth movement begins in a contrastingly cheery mood, as “Kullervo Goes to War” (left, as depicted again by Gallen-Kallela) against his uncle Untamo, who has done evil to his family. He bids farewell to his family and “went to war making music/ to a fight making merry”, so goes Canto 36. Scored for orchestra only, the music is colourful with periodic outbursts of brass and percussion.

The final movement ends the story in grief, as choir and orchestra sing of “Kullervo’s Death.” Kullervo receives news that his entire family has died, and he proceeds to destroy his uncle’s village. The choral text begins where Kullervo chances upon the islet where he seduced his sister. Filled with remorse, he askes his sword whether it will take the life of a guilty man. The sword replies by asking why it shouldn’t since it has already taken the lives of the innocent. With this Kullervo impales himself on his own blade.

“Kullervo’s Death” is an emotional crescendo, an exercise in torment by guilt, the final stages of misery and horror leading to suicide – all expressed in music. As Kullervo’s sword judges him guilty, the choir sing – both as fierce jury and solemn, reminscing funeral procession; Sibelius revives earlier themes throughout the movement and ultimately, the fate-laden brass theme from the “Introduction” makes an apocalyptic reappearance in raging Wagnerian form as the choir proclaims the Kullervo’s doom. The wheel has come full circle.

In a manner of speaking, so did Kullervo itself. Despite its successful premiere, the ever self-critical Sibelius  withdrew it from the world, and only allowed the third movement to be performed in celebration of the centenary of the publication of the Kalevala in 1935. The symphonic epic was not performed in its entirety until 1958, the year after the composer’s death. Although it received its first recording only in 1970 under Paavo Berglund, the work has steadily grown in popularity, both in the concert hall and on record.

"The Forging of the Sampo" by Akseli Gallen-Kallela, 1893
"The Forging of the Sampo" by Akseli Gallen-Kallela, 1893

Kullervo should appeal to anyone with an interest in late-Romantic choral works of non-sacred, mythological theme (there aren’t that many), or Nordic mythology. Those tired of hearing Latin, English, Italian, German and other common “choral languages” should hear this prime example of the very unique tongue that is Finnish — a language that seems wrought from the dusky and mystical majesty of the land itself, yet teeming with the shimmering glow of its a thousand lakes.

After the premiere, Sibelius’ friend and conductor Robert Kajanus presented a laurel wreath to the young composer. On it was prophetically inscribed these words from the final lines of the Kalevala:

This way therefore leads the pathway,
Here the path lies newly opened
(for more versatile singers,
for more abundant bards,
among the youngsters rising,
among the people growing.)



RIKARDS, Guy. Jean Sibelius. Phaidon Press (20th Century Composer Series). ISBN 0-7148-3581-1


EMI Matrix CDM5 65080-2

Saarinen/Hynninen. State Academic Male Choir of the Estonian S.S.R. Helsinki University Male Choir
Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by PAAVO BERGLUND. Recorded in 1985
EMI Matrix CDM5 65080-2
[71’46”] mid-price. Full libretto included.

Kostia/Viitanen. Helsinki University Male Choir. Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra
EMI Forte CZS5 74200-2
[71’45”] budget-price. NO libretto included.

Rusanen/Ruuttunen. Laulun Ystävät Male Choir. Turku Philharmonic Orchestra
conducted by JORMA PANULA. Recorded in 1997
NAXOS 8.553756
[72’34”] budget-price. Full libretto included.

Kullervo - LSO - Colin DavisMartinpelto/Fredriksson. London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus
conducted by Sir COLIN DAVIS. RCA Victor Red Seal 09026-68312-2
2 discs [137’50”] mid(?)-price. Full libretto included.

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Leon is Singapore's resident champion of Jean Sibelius.

9 thoughts on “Kullervo”

  1. The selected reviews of Sibelius’s Kullervo symphony are very helpful indeed, however, I find only the Naxos one is still available in market. There is a recent recording made by the Finnish conductor Jukka-Pekka Saraste with FRSO in 1996 (Finlandia 0630149062 and Finlandia 3984213482), which is most available in market. And I think there is also a recording by Neeme Jarvi under BIS label still available in market. As I don’t know much about music myself, it would be great if the Inkpot can also review these 2 recordings in the future.

  2. There is also recording of Sibelius “Kullervo-symphony” by Esa-Pekka Salonen, Los Angeles Philharmonics and Helsinki Universiy Choir. Soloists Jorma Hynninen (best of all Kullervos) and This recording is outgoing from SONY.

  3. To the best of my knowledge, Finnish language is of finno-ugeric linguistic root,more closely related to hungarian but not to japanese.

  4. For the Belgian Radio I have compared all available versions from the Kullervo. Best version of all was the new Recording from Paavo Järvi and the Stockholm Philharmonic. Virgin 545292

  5. The best recording I have heard (and am lucky to own), is actually the first ever recording of this monumental work by The Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Paavo Berglund. I don’t know if it is still available, although you may find it in second hand record stores. Well worth hearing.

  6. In my small collection on Sibelius I have four different cds of Kullervo -from Saraste, Panula, Salonen and Vanska. Although all of them are excellent, if not first-rate performances, my best pick is Vanska (Lahti S.O., BIS import cd)

  7. According to the BBC, on CD review, the Bournemouth Recording was proven to be the best, but I found the Paavo Jarvi and Stockholm Philharmonic (especially the National Male Chorus of Estonia) to be utterly compelling, so that is what I decided on.

  8. I found a recording by London Symphony under Sir Colin Davis in the eMusic selections.. I also have a general question… Any resource where we can find the ENglish translations of the texts of Sibelius songs and esp. choral works?

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