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.

Jean and Aino: In the very trees of Ainola

When Jean Sibelius and Aino Järnefelt first chanced upon each other, their eyes locked for so long that she faltered. He was visiting her family flat in Helsinki and was providing, with her brother Armas, musical accompaniment to a pantomime being put up by the ladies of the house. So intense was Jean’s blue-eyed gaze that Aino could not go on with her part. Thus began the relationship of “the prettiest girl in Finland” and her greatest composer. Continue reading Jean and Aino: In the very trees of Ainola

For the coming generations – the birth of a national composer

Siitäpä nyt tie menevi, ura uusi urkenevi.

“From here today the path is going, a bright new star the way is showing.”

Thus were these words written on a celebratory wreath presented to Sibelius by the eminent conductor and his close friend, Robert Kajanus, on the premiere of the Kullervo Symphony, in 1892.

Sibelius was born in a Finland that had yet to fully call itself a nation. At that time, it was part of the Russian empire. His coming was timely, for the yearning for independence would soon need a voice, the hand of a great composer and the song that would awaken Finland.

The fact is, the Finnish people have never had a lack of tradition nor culture – at that time it was, perhaps, simply not given the chance to shine. A few decades before Sibelius’ birth, Elias Lönnrot had compiled the Kalevala, the single greatest collection of Finnish ancient literature – a gathering of epic poetry from Finnish and Karelian oral folklore and mythology, which has played an enormous role in the rebirth of Finnish national identity.

When Sibelius met Kajanus in Berlin, he heard the premiere of the latter’s Aino Symphony, also based on the Kalevala. Elliot Arnold eloquently describes Sibelius’ reaction in his book “Finlandia: The Story of Sibelius”:

“It was a never-to-be-forgotten experience for Sibelius. He sat in the great music hall and something awakened in his soul. He was in Berlin, yes, but listening to that music he was again tramping in the forest lands of his beautiful Finland, was again standing at the edge of a lake seeing the setting sun redden the water.

The music stirred him like nothing else he had ever heard. It seemed as though the very roots of his being were being summoned to life, as though everything that had gone into him, in his blood and his body and his heart and his brain, were awakened from a slumber.”

Finland awakes.

“No music had ever done this to him. Nothing had ever before touched the racial stream that now tore through his veins. He wanted to scream. His skin tingled. Tears filled his eyes. This was Finland and this was music.

He met Kajanus and breathed his appreciation. He tried to explain this new excitement, this home-love, this patriotism he had never known before. He knew he was a Finn. He knew he had to say things that only a Finn could say. He felt a wild love for Finland which was built on something infinitely more vast than love of landscape.”

Kullervo Goes to War, by Akseli Gallen-Kallela
Kullervo Goes to War, by Akseli Gallen-Kallela (1901)

Kullervo caused a stir. Granted, not everyone in the audience was impressed nor understood what this new work was doing. It was big, it was brazen and it was loud. It had a choir, a male chorus singing about snow and blue socks, seduction and shame, abject tragedy, the grim disdain of a sword and ultimately, heart-rending death. Above all though, it had the sounds and rhythms of Finnish runes. Whether the audience realized or admitted it, there was a latent sense of familiarity. When Kajanus presented the wreath to Sibelius, the audience seemed to realize…

This is their sound.

A Japanese composer once said, “I wish to evoke the melodies not yet sung but which dwells in us, the Japanese people. ” By adopting rhythms and modes from Japanese poetry and  music, “I intend to reveal our collective unconscious as a nation.” (Akira Ifukube)

The audience cheered. Over the course of the next 30 years or so after Kullervo, that was what Sibelius did for the Finnish musical psyche. With the poetry of the Kalevala compiled, words from the landscape, Finland now had a new musical champion who would go on to evoke melodies not yet sung as a nation.

While musicians like Kajanus had already begun writing such melodies, Sibelius went deeper. Cultural identity goes even further than words, runes and heroes. One universal quality of any cultural mythology is a connection to the natural universe. From creation myths to magic blessings, nature is a vital force of power, inspiration and conviction. As I have written about concerning Tapiola – Sibelius’ music is not so much about man’s perception of, or his feelings about nature, but man’s place within the vastness of nature. We are but tiny tiny beings within her great inexplicable beauty.

It is a nature that would inspire Sibelius throughout life, from the time he tried to match piano tones to the colours of the stripes under his mother’s square piano, to transcribing the smell of drying hemp and flax into music; he distilled Finland’s snow and lakes into symphonies, cast the text of the Kalevala into song, and bade orchestras intone the voice of forest gods. It seems Sibelius did not so much see the world as a painting, with eyes; but he saw the world as a symphony, with his ears.  Finland became his orchestra and stage, and the world began to listen to her.

One hundred and forty-six years ago today on December 8, 1865,  Jean Sibelius was born. Along with Lönnrot, Kajanus and many others, their birth would shape the rebirth of Finland. On December 6, 1917, Finland declared independence.

Sibelius Monument
Sibelius Monument - photo by Daniel Aragay (proteusbcn, Flickr)

….Be not thus, my worthy people,
Blame me not for singing badly,
Unpretending as a minstrel.
I have never had the teaching,
Never lived with ancient heroes,
Never learned the tongues of strangers,
Never claimed to know much wisdom.
Others have had language-masters,
Nature was my only teacher,
Woods and waters my instructors.
Homeless, friendless, lone and needy,
Save in childhood with my mother,
When beneath her painted rafters,
Where she twirled the flying spindle,
By the work-bench of my sister,
In the cabin of my father,
In my early days of childhood.

Be this as it may, my people,
This may point the way to others,
To the singers better gifted,
For the good of future ages,
For the coming generations,
For the rising folk of Suomi*.

The Kalevala – Epilogue (trans. John Martin Crawford)

*Suomi is Finnish for Finland

 

Kullervo – 1972 and 1985 Recordings by Berglund

Kullervo, op.7
recorded in 1985.
EEVA-LILSA SAARINEN mezzo-soprano
JORMA HYNNINEN baritone
State Academic Male Choir of the Estonian S.S.R. · Helsinki University Male Choir · Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by PAAVO BERGLUND

EMI Matrix CDM5 65080-2
[71:46] mid-price. Libretto included.


Kullervo, op.7
WORLD PREMIERE RECORDING (1970)

RAILI KOSTIA soprano
USKO VIITANEN baritone
Helsinki University Male Choir
Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra
conducted by PAAVO BERGLUND
Also includes: The Oceanides, Karelia Suite, Scènes historiques – Suite No.1, Tapiola, Finlandia, Serenades Nos.1 & 2.

EMI Forte CZS5 74200-2
[147:55] budget-price. Libretto NOT included.

At long last, EMI has reissued the legendary world-premiere recording of Sibelius’ Kullervo Symphony, made in 1970 by Sibelius scholar and conductor Paavo Berglund. Though the music was composed and first performed in 1892, over one hundred years ago, 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, when the composer himself was 60 years of age.

Finnish conductor Paavo Berglund
Finnish conductor Paavo Berglund

Since then, Sibelius’ choral symphony was not performed in its entirety until 1958, the year after his death. It was only finally recorded for the first time ever in November 1970. Paavo Berglund (left) recorded it again in June 1985 with EMI Records, in a much-acclaimed performance. But it is this 1970 world-premiere which many Sibelius fans have been waiting for.

Now, in what seems to be a double-dose of celebration for these fans, EMI has not only released John Barbirolli’s beautiful cycle of the symphonies, but also this – I must confess at having scoffed and cursed at EMI’s many strange policies regarding the circulation of their recordings. For now, I must issue my heartfelt thanks.

So how does this “new”, older, Kullervo compare to the 1985 recording? As with Berglund’s Bournemouth cycle of the symphonies , it is at least revelatory, to say the least. The performance sounds matured and well-prepared – which is a major point considering that this is the world-premiere recording of a rarely-encountered piece of music at that time. On first impression, it is also clear that the 1985 recording is much better, with finer details and crisper colours; the strings are richer, the brass mellower, the rhythms and figures sharper.

In terms of interpretation, both versions exhibit very fine stature, with the later one sounding more sure of itself, not surprisingly – as if it has grown up. This is not to say that the earlier recording is unsure, but rather it has a greater impression of exploration – which is exactly what the classical recording world was doing then with Kullervo.

And what an impression it must have received – 78 years after its debut performance, Berglund’s reading does more than ample justice to this majestic score. The impact of the unraveling introduction, the tragic-heroic brass outcries, the pathos of the singers, the chanting chorus – surely, it is not hard to imagine the impact which Sibelius wrought on the Finnish world of music during his time.

The heart of the work, Kullervo and his Sister, receives fine performances on both recordings. The choral entry on both are fascinating. The later 1985 version has more kick, more energetic drive, sharper-toned strings, even more heroic atmosphere. But listening to the 1970 version, I find it refreshing in its certain youthfulness, its smooth delivery backed – on both recordings – by the foot-tapping pulse of the bass line. At the same time, the relatively inferior 1970 recording only brings into sharp contrast the details of the 1985 version. In any case, what satisfies me about Berglund’s way with the work is how he brings so much underlying energy to the music, despite its fairly moderate pace and the simplicity of the devices Sibelius used to constuct the music. If like me, you should grow to like this music, I assure you, you will be memorising the first six lines of the chorus in no time – such is the heroic momentum of the Helsinki University Male Choir (and company).

The baritone employed in 1985, Jorma Hynninen, is a highly experienced Kullervo. With a much darker voice, his rendition is somewhat more “Wagnerian” in style, certainly more dramatic and dynamic. However, Usko Viitanen’s contribution to the world-premiere is quite excellent, sung with much emotional power and sincerity. His is a more noble Kullervo, perhaps, more meditative. His anguish at the realisation of his incestuous deed has a tragic dignity; but in Hyninnen, the sense of horror mixed with guilt is stronger, the emotions of the story more visceral.

The soprano part of Kullervo isn’t exactly a particularly “visual” experience, consisting quite a bit of “wandering”. It’s emotional message is either underplayed or subtle, depending on your perspective. The main chunk, in which the sister reveals that her father is the same as Kullervo’s, simultaneously describes both her contented youth and her admission of guilt – The part is rather hard to pull off satisfactorily if only because Sibelius’ musical-emotional dynamics here are rather subtle.

Kullervo Goes to War, by Akseli Gallen-Kallela
Kullervo Goes to War, by Akseli Gallen-Kallela (1901)

Of the sopranos on record, Raili Kostia gives an adequate reading in 1970. But Eeva-Lilsa Saarinen’s interpretation in 1985 is more multi-dimensional, depicting the scenes more distinctly. In the passage where Kullervo’s sister defiantly rejects him in fast, semi-stuttering fashion (“Päästa pois minua tästä”), Saarinen’s jittery reading is more natural than Kostia’s rather more rigid, almost straight-staccato rendition.

One interesting difference is in the final chords – the earlier version is actually much more angry and defiant of tone, which I find much more appropriate to Berglund’s smoother, less-sharp 1985 interpretation. In any case, both orchestras in both records are absolutely splendid. However, in terms of vocal soloists, the 1985 version is superior.

Berglund’s 1970 rendition of the fourth movement, Kullervo goes to War, is absolutely spectacular stuff – the volatile energy and pure living imagery the Bournemouth musicians conjure is a splendour to behold – watch out for the brass, how they fanfare at each other with pinpoint staccato and confidence; or the collective chirps of the woodwinds, the fluttering winds – this so much makes me want to ask Sibelius what he was picturing in his mind when he wrote this. This is an all-out amazing journey all Sibelians must hear, right up to the shattering trumpet blasts of the heroic conclusion (don’t miss that!). The best Kullervo goes to War I’ve ever heard.

By contrast the later version of this movement is taken slower – 10’01” versus 8’52”. The pace is thus slower, and the old recording even matches the newer one in sound quality. Without a doubt, in this case, the earlier 1970 performance wins hands down.

Kullerov, Kalervo’s offspring,
Grasped the sharpened sword he carried,
Looked upon the sword and turned it.
And he questioned it and asked it,
And he asked the sword’s opinion,
If it was willing to slay him. …

“Wherefore at my heart’s desire
Should I not thy flesh devour,
And drink up thy blood so evil?
I who guiltless flesh have eaten,
Drank the blood of those who sinned not?”

The Kalevala
excerpts from Cantos 35 & 36

The finale, Kullervo’s Death, is spectacularly well-performed in both recordings. The 1970 version, however, has more emotional depth – I find myself sympathising with it more even as in the past I have sympathised most with Berglund’s 1985 version. It seems as if, as we follow the two recordings towards the end of the music, Berglund’s 1970 performance shows more and more of its true mettle.

In the final analysis – the 1985 version is a better recording, has better soloists; but the 1970 version has stronger conclusions; in both cases, orchestral support is beyond reproach – these are two fantastic orchestras at work here, and Berglund deserves to have both recordings lauded.

Kullervo

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. Continue reading Kullervo