Subscription Concert No.842 A Series

Sibelius: Kullervo, op.7

Ⅰ Allegro moderato     Introduction
Ⅱ Grave                       Kullervo’s Youth
Ⅲ Allegro vivace           Kullervo and His Sister
Ⅳ Alla marcia               Kullervo Goes to Battle
V Andante                    Kullervo’s Death

Jean Sibelius: Born in Hameenlinna (formerly Tavastehus), Finland, December 8, 1865; died Jarvenpaa (near Helsinki), September 20, 1957

Kullervo is one of the most extraordinary and ambitious works to come from the pen of a composer still in his mid-twenties. Not only is it a magnificent achievement in itself, but it marks Sibelius’ first major orchestral composition, and the one that was to remain the longest in his entire catalogue as well. It was the work in which he for the first time became “Sibelius,” it was a triumphal success, and it set him on his course to becoming a national hero ? Finland’s first composer of international stature. The work defies categorization. Sibelius himself referred to it at different times as a symphonic poem and a symphony. It has elements of both, as well as of secular cantata. Kullervo’s closest comparisons can be found in Berlioz’ Romeo and Juliet and Liszt’s Dante and Faust Symphonies.

This was also Sibelius’ first work inspired by Finland’s national epic, the Kalevala, from which he forged a melodic and rhythmic style in music based on the poem’s narrative style. (All Finnish names are accented on the first syllable; Sibelius is not a Finnish name; rather, it is of Swedish origin.) Later Kalevala inspired works include A Song for Lemminkainen, Luonnotar, Pohjola’s Daughter, and the four components of the Lemminkainen Suite, which includes the well-known Swan of Tuonela. “The popularity of the Kalevala,” writes annotator Ralf Hermans, “was a manifestation of the resistance movement that had arisen in the arts against Russification tendencies, a war waged with weapons gained from the national culture.”

Sibelius first encountered the Kalevala in Swedish translation in grade school, but the epic made its real impact on him when he began rereading it in the original Finnish while studying in Vienna. Another stimulus came from a singer named Larin Paraske, whose dramatic performances of rune-songs handed down by oral tradition made a deep impression on Sibelius and gave him additional insight into the nature of Kalevala verse. “Through her,” writes Hermans, Sibelius “found the authentic mood of ancient Finland and the Kalevala, and thus the appropriate spirit for the work he had in progress.”

Still further impetus to set parts of the Kalevala to music came from Sibelius’ fiancee, Aino Jarnefelt, whose family was in the vanguard of those seeking to proudly elevate Finnish to the level of the national language, thus replacing other languages in use at the time by the educated and elite (Swedish, German and Russian). Finland, we must remember, had been under Swedish domination from the twelfth century to the nineteenth, when it became a grand duchy of Russia in 1809. Finns were clamoring for a country of their own, with their own language, and Sibelius helped the cause along in writing Kullervo.

The first performance was given by the Helsinki Symphony Society on April 28, 1892 with the composer conducting. The work was given a few more times over the next year or so, but then Sibelius withdrew it and did not allow further performances during his lifetime, for reasons not entirely clear.

Kullervo is one of the main heroes of the Kalevala. His exploits are described in Cantos XXXV and XXXVI. Of the score’s five movements, lasting some 75 minutes in performance, only the third and fifth employ voices. The expansive Introduction, laid out in sonata form, serves to instill a sense of drama, fate, and epic grandeur over the scene about to unfold. The first theme is presented initially in the woodwinds and horns, then in the strings ? a proud, noble, wide-arching subject befitting a hero. Other themes follow, but the “hero” theme is never far away. In its final appearance it is heard grandly proclaimed by the full orchestra fortissimo.

The narrative begins with the second movement, entitled “Kullervo’s Youth.” Formally it is laid out as a theme and variations. Sibelius saw the theme as a lullaby that increases in emotional intensity. To the eminent Sibelius biographer Erik Tawaststjerna, “the main idea, somber in tone and relentless in its onward tread, has an air of foreboding that through its dark coloring and dissonant harmonies senses both Kullervo’s tragic fate and his heroic stature. … Like the great runic singers, Sibelius varies his main theme on each occasion it recurs, but none of the transformations is far-reaching, although they signalize the technique of metamorphosis that he achieved in his maturity.” The events of Kullervo’s childhood are learned from Canto XXXV in the Kalevala. It is not a pretty story: As a young boy, Kullervo saw his family slaughtered by his uncle Untamo. Kullervo was sold into slavery. He escaped, but only to a life of poverty and misery, and he vowed to wreak revenge on Untamo and his kin. The cradle song gently hummed to the child in the opening bars becomes, near the end of the movement, a battle cry of awesome power. Twice we hear a contrasting episode, lighter in color and tone (woodwinds), that suggests perhaps Kullervo’s experience as a herdsman.

The third movement, “Kullervo and His Sister,” forms the crux of the tale. It is the longest movement by far (nearly 25 minutes), and is the only one to employ the solo soprano and baritone. The male chorus, which serves as objective commentator or narrator in the manner of a Greek chorus, makes its first entrance here. The movement has been compared to an extended operatic scene. Kullervo is returning home by sleigh after having paid his father’s taxes. He encounters a young maiden, whom he succeeds in seducing after three attempts (in the Kalevala it is three different maidens). She resists violently until he offers her treasure. They make love, then, following an orchestral interlude of passionate intensity, proceed to indulge in pillow talk. Herein they relate their separate, unfortunate life stories, and in so doing, realize to their horror that they are brother and sister. To crashing chords in the orchestra, Kullervo roars his furious lament.

In the next movement, Kullervo sets off to do battle with his nefarious uncle who has caused him a lifetime of grief and tragedy. March tunes and rhythms prevail. “In delight to war he hastened,” we read in Canto XXXVI. “… rushing through the glens and forests, blowing war upon his bugle.” Having succeeded in his mission, Kullervo travels homewad.

In the final movement, we again find Kullervo in tragic circumstances. The opening is dreamy, ghostly. Bits of melodic material from previous movements waft about as if in remembrance of things past. Kullervo’s dog leads him to the spot where he had ravaged his sister. Here, in deepest woe, he falls on his sword. The music is haunting in its monumentality and grim intensity. In the final pages, Sibelius provides a fitting tribute to the dead Kullervo by bringing back, one last time, the noble “hero” theme that was introduced in the score’s opening bars.

Robert Markow's musical career began as a horn player in the Montreal Symphony Orchestra. He now writes program notes for orchestras and concert organizations in the USA, Canada, and several countries in Asia. As a journalist he covers the music scenes across North America, Europe, and Asian countries, especially Japan. At Montreal's McGill University he lectured on music for over 25 years.

Program notes by Robert Markow

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