Kullervo – Once and Never Again

In 1892, when he was 26 years old, Jean Sibelius unleashed something on an unsuspecting Finnish audience. It was their very own sound. For the first time ever, they heard sounds coming from an orchestra and choir that they instantly recognized as “Finnish”. Unsatisfied with the composition, Sibelius pulled it from public in 1893 after four performances. The monumental work became the stuff of legends.

In this 4-minute interview with Finnish-born conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen speaks of how he is old enough to have lived through such a time, a time when the Kullervo Symphony was a work of legend.

Sibelius pulled it from public performance because he probably felt it was not exactly “him”. He wrote it, inspired by the Kalevala legend, but it was the utterance of a composer braving new soundscapes.

Salonen talks about how the manuscript (he once conducted from a photocopy of it) is perhaps “the most illegible thing I’ve ever seen in my life.” One cannot but imagine the young Jean Sibelius, in his mid-20s, inspiration afire, searing, scribbling the score. “He was a spontaneous and volatile composer,” Salonen describes the image.

It is “Proto-Sibelius”, Kullervo. A music and a sound that struggled to be born. What it is trying to do – what Sibelius was trying to do – doesn’t quite always make it, says Salonen, but what was born was undeniably powerful.

A raw diamond, its power clear and obvious, but not refined enough for Sibelius to consider it mature, to be fit for keeps. It was a musical tremoring, a display of raw power that Sibelius unleashed once, and never again. It was a birth of a kind of sound, bloody and raw.

However, it was just the thing, this strange and primeval sound, that made it unique during its time. It was a soundscape that was not quite finished developing. But it was certainly and irrefutably – Finnish.