Jean Sibelius

Kullervo, symphonic poem for vocal soloists, male chorus & orchestra, Op. 7

    Description by Roger Dettmer

    Kullervo began as an Overture in E major that Sibelius wrote in 1890 as a student in Vienna. To his future wife Aino he wrote of possibly a "symphony, in three or perhaps four movements" based on the folk epic Kalevala, collected by Elias Lönrott in 1835, expanded in 1849 from 32 runos to 50, and republished in 1890. Though Sibelius later denied it, he heard a rune-singer from Karelia during the summer of 1891; inspired by her repertory of orally preserved folk music, he began to evolve a personal style. By 1892, he had completed Kullervo, a work in five movements of 72 minutes' total duration, which he introduced in Helsinki on April 28. He called it his Op. 7, yet never allowed publication of it in his lifetime. With soprano and baritone soloists, male chorus, and orchestra, it has been identified variously as a symphony, a symphonic poem, even a cantata, but it is in fact a conflation of all three -- and startlingly anticipatory in "Kullervo and his Sister," the long central movement.

    The protagonist didn't materialize until 1849, as the subject of Runos 31-36: the bastard child of a pregnant housemaid, who survived a massacre by Kullervo's evil uncle. Despite attempts to destroy the child (by drowning, immolation, and finally hanging), Kullervo survives. Brain-damaged, however, he does all manner of wickedness in return to the uncle's cruel wife and properties. Hearing that his parents and three siblings survived the massacre, he finds all of them in the northland, except for a roving sister. Despite their happy reunion, Kullervo wrecks whatever he puts his hand to, and is finally sent off to pay taxes. On the journey back he encounters a maiden who resists his advances, but eventually succumbs to the warmth of his fur-lined sleigh. After they've cohabited, Kullervo discovers the woman is the missing sister, who in shame and despair drowns herself. Unbalanced by guilty rage, Kullervo declares war on his evil uncle. With a magic sword given to him by the god Ukko, he destroys everything and everyone, returns to where his sister drowned, and falls on the sword.

    The opening "Introduction" is putatively a portrait of Kullervo. But while this Lisztian mélange in sonata form has a notable second theme, hardly anything truly Sibelian appears until the second movement, "Kullervo's Youth," with its distinctive main subject in the oral runic style. The work becomes suddenly epic in the central movement, narrated mostly by the chorus with the soloists as incestuous siblings, and which concludes starkly with the protagonist's lamentations. Next comes "Kullervo Goes the Battle," which sounds stylistically second-hand after the preceding movement. In "Kullervo's Death," the chorus sings the conclusion of Runo 36 verbatim. It doesn't quite rise to the heights of the third movement, yet is fittingly somber and ends as the work began, in E major.

    Parts/Movements

    1. Introduction
    2. The Youth of Kullervo
    3. Kullervo and His Sister
    4. Kullervo Leaves for the War
    5. Kullervo's Death

    Appears On

    Year Title Label Catalog #
    2017 BIS BIS 9048
    2017 Warner Classics 9029586915
    2016 LSO Live LSO 0675
    2015 Deutsche Grammophon B002362202
    2014 RCA Red Seal 88843006072
    2010 Virgin Classics
    2010 Erato / Virgin Classics 5099962865
    2009 LSO Live 191
    2008 Ondine 11225
    2008 EMI Classics / Warner Classics 5099921767
    2007 Virgin Classics 91363
    2007 BIS 1906
    2006 Cpo 777196
    2006 LSO 74
    2006 LSO Live LSO 0574
    2006 Telarc Distribution 80665
    2006 Telarc Distribution 60665
    2006 BIS 1697/1700
    2005 Virgin Classics
    2004 RCA Victor 55706
    2003 EMI Classics
    2002 Virgin 545344
    2002 Naxos 505179
    2001 BIS 1215
    2000 EMI Music Distribution 574200-2
    1999 Chandos 9393
    1997 Virgin 45292
    1997 Naxos 8 553756
    1994 EMI Classics / EMI Music Distribution 65080
    1994 BIS 313
    1994 BIS 622
    1993 Sony Music Distribution 52563
    RCA Victor Red Seal 68312
    EMI Music Distribution 574485-2