A guide to Sibelius’s Kullervo

A quick guide to Sibelius' choral symphony, Kullervo, based on The Kalevala, the iconic Finnish epic poem


Kullervo was the masterwork that finally persuaded Sibelius to dedicate himself to composing.

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This blazingly inventive cycle of five symphonic poems was the first of his pieces to be drawn directly from The Kalevala, an epic saga of ancient Finnish poetry handed down over countless generations and first published in 1835.

This literary fountain head inspired an outbreak of national pride among the Finnish people that would climax in their country’s freedom from Russian political dominance in 1917.

Sibelius was one of the first generation of students to benefit directly from the groundswell of Finnish nationalism. Born during the mid-1860s, at a time when most of his peers were being taught to speak Swedish and Latin, Sibelius attended a grammar school that spearheaded the move towards making Finnish the country’s primary language.

It was now that Sibelius first encountered The Kalevala, through which he not only became familiar with the stirring legends of his ancestors, but also the natural cadences and melodic profiles of the Finnish language.

Slowly but surely, he became convinced it was possible to create a body of work that would take established genres in hitherto unexplored directions, fired by his country’s cultural heritage, primeval landscapes and extreme night-and-day cycle.

Although The Kalevala had already inspired several composers– including Filip von Schantz, Karl Müller-Berghaus and (most notably) Robert Kajanus – it was Sibelius who became most associated with its intoxicating poetry.

Following Kullervo, Sibelius returned time and again to the Kalevala for inspiration, including some of his most arresting scores – the Lemminkaïnen Suite (which features ‘The Swan of Tuonela’), Pohjola’s Daughter, Luonnotar and Tapiola. Two little-known, Kalevala-inspired choral settings – The Origin of Fire and Väinämöinen’s Song – are also worth seeking out.

Feeling dislocated from contemporary musical trends, during the1920s Sibelius attempted to rekindle the fires of his creative youth with a series of planned but mostly abandoned Kalevala projects, including a tone poem entitled Kuutor, the best of which re-emerged in Symphony No. 6.

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For many years he suppressed Kullervo as unrepresentative of his mature style, but in 1935 he brought the wheel full circle by allowing part of it to be performed in The Kalevala’s 100th anniversary celebrations.