Sibelius’ Kullervo, Op.7

Kuller­vo is the dark­est char­ac­ter in the Kale­vala, the epic of Finnish mythol­o­gy that had a pro­found effect on me in child­hood. His sto­ry is told in runos 31 through 36 of the epic. Enslaved and abused as a child, Kuller­vo’s life is dom­i­nat­ed by the quest for revenge, which leads him to com­mit hor­ri­fy­ing crimes, includ­ing the rape of his own sis­ter. The most strik­ing part of the sto­ry is his death, where he asks his sword if he should kill him­self, and the sword bursts into song:

08-04-15 LISTN Sibelius’ Kullervo, Op.7Mieks’en söisi mielelläni,
söisi syylistä lihoa,
vial­lista ver­ta joisi?
Syön lihoa syyttömänki,
juon ver­ta viat­toman­ki.

Why, if I desire it,
should I not kill you,
swal­low up your wicked blood?
I have con­sumed inno­cent flesh,
and swal­lowed up guilt­less blood.”

This lit­tle sequence was bor­rowed by Poul Ander­son in The Bro­ken Sword, and by Michael Moor­cock in one of his Elric tales. Väinämöi­nen, the wise cen­tral char­ac­ter of the Kale­vala, remarks that Kuller­vo’s fate proves that chil­dren should nev­er be mis­treat­ed, since an abused child will grow up with­out wis­dom or honour.

In 1892, the young and unproven com­pos­er Jean Sibelius com­posed Kuller­vo, a sym­phon­ic poem for soloists, cho­rus and orches­tra, Op.7. Fin­land was still a provin­cial place, an unwill­ing depen­den­cy of the Russ­ian Empire, iso­lat­ed from the main­stream of Euro­pean cul­ture by its remote loca­tion and bizarre, non-Indo-Euro­pean lan­guage. It could bare­ly put togeth­er an orches­tra and cho­rus capa­ble of han­dling a work on this scale, and Sibelius demon­strat­ed extra­or­di­nary ambi­tion and chutz­pah to get it per­formed. The Finns were just begin­ning to assert their inde­pen­dence and pride. The work had strong nation­al­ist (i.e. sub­ver­sive, to the Russ­ian author­i­ties) overtones.

Sibelius was lat­er embar­rassed by the work, which he regard­ed as an ama­teur­ish youth­ful effort. It was not often per­formed in his life­time. But after his death, it was revived, as peo­ple dis­cov­ered its extra­or­di­nary vital­i­ty. Yes, it has some ama­teur­ish awk­ward­ness, but it is a hell of a spec­tac­u­lar show, and for a work by a young com­pos­er, it showed amaz­ing com­mand of orches­tral forces. There are obvi­ous bor­row­ings from the com­posers that influ­enced him as a stu­dent, espe­cial­ly Tchaikovsky, but Sibelius’ unique voice is already there. The choral pas­sages are mag­nif­i­cent, and unlike most choral inter­pre­ta­tions of epic verse, they are right-sound­ing. It is as if the runos of the Kale­vala were intend­ed, all along, to be sung this way.

I pos­sess two ver­sions, one direct­ed by Paa­vo Berglund, which I first heard when I was dis­cov­er­ing Sibelius, as a teenag­er. Anoth­er ver­sion, direct­ed by Jor­ma Pan­u­la, is not quite as good, but quite accept­able, and avail­able on a bar­gain Nax­os cd. I regret that I haven’t heard the ver­sion by Juk­ka-Pekka Saraste, the bril­liant con­duc­tor who led the Toron­to Sym­pho­ny dur­ing the unfor­tu­nate peri­od when its finances were trou­bled and labour rela­tions went sour. I once heard him per­form Sibelius’ Fifth in a mes­mer­iz­ing, almost super­nat­ur­al per­for­mance. This is not a deep work, like the Fifth, but I imag­ine that Saraste would inter­pret it per­fect­ly. Col­in Davis, per­haps the best non-Finnish inter­preter of Sibelius, also has a version.

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