On Friday 15th September, Gothenburg Symphony stream their performance of Sibelius’ Kullervo. In this instalment of the At Home Guide, we look at the Finnish national epic that inspired the piece, the Kalevala.

In the beginning, there were eggs. A nest of them, in fact, resting on the knee of the Luonnotar, the primordial nature spirit. The eggs had been laid by a duck and, having been alone for aeons, Luonnotar was excited to have some company. In her excitement, she inadvertently cracked the precious eggs, and in doing so brought the material world into being. The yolks and whites of the eggs formed the sun and moon, while the broken shells turned into the sky and the earth. The remaining pieces, of course, became the stars. This piece of primitive cosmology is from the Kalevala, a collection of Finnish folkloric myths presented in the form of an epic poem. Jean Sibelius rendered this episode musically with his 1913 composition Luonnotar, in which a fluttering flute portrays the duck’s movement across the skies. But the Kalevala didn’t just inspire Sibelius to write one tone poem. In fact, it was a significant influence throughout his artistic life.

The Kalevala was compiled by the doctor, botanist and linguist Elias Lönnrot, who like any good folklorist travelled the land – in this case Finland and Karelia, an ethnic region which straddles Russia and Finland – to collect stories, songs and epic poems from ordinary people. Sibelius, whose sense of national identity was likely somewhat in flux (he was schooled in Swedish and didn’t master Finnish until his 20s) came across the work as a student and saw, in its multifarious legends on archetypal themes, something like the themes and variations of the classical music tradition. In 1891, he travelled especially to see the singer Larin Paraske perform parts of the Kalevala. Paraske was perhaps the most famous exponent of runolaulu or rune singing, a Finnish brand of folksong used to declaim epic poetry which uses alliterative line-ends to propel the narrative forwards. Born to a peasant family in Lempaala, Karelia (now Lembolovo in modern-day Russia) she was viewed by many cosmopolitan Finns as a living link to their country’s archaic heritage, and was romanticised in paintings such as that by Albert Edelfelt.

“I dare not speculate what it meant for the compositions the master based on Kalevala, the fact that he could listen to Paraske just then,” remembered Sibelius’ travelling partner of their pilgrimage to hear the rune singer. “I just remember how he followed the song attentively and wrote down the melody and the rhythms.” Years later, Sibelius himself was somewhat dismissive of the effect that Paraske had on him, saying, “To my ears the stress that Paraske used sounded very strange, and I had no idea that I was dealing with such a great master, since I did not find her such an extraordinary rune singer.” It’s very likely, however, that the rune singer’s singing patterns and stressed syllables were highly influential in the creation of Sibelius’ first major work, a “choral symphony” based on the story of the Kalevala’s most tragic character, Kullervo.

The resulting five-movement work is epic in scope, using a chorus to fill the role of the narrator, while the principal roles of Kullervo and his sister are sung by a baritone and mezzo-soprano. The first two movements are instrumental, acting as tone poems which relay Kullervo’s early life and setting the scene for the eventual tragedy. Stormy, filmic passages recount his childhood, in which his family are brutally murdered and he is sold into slavery. By the time the vocals kick in during the third movement, Kullervo is a young man, recklessly chasing women. After two failed attempts, he finally seduces a lady who, unhappily, turns out to be his long-lost sister. The dreadful realisation is illustrated in the sister’s long lament and, after her suicide, Kullervo’s resolve to seek his own death in war is marked by brisk, almost cheerful themes in the fourth movement. Such optimism is short-lived, however, and in the fifth movement we learn of how Kullervo, searching for the place where he seduced his sister, begs his magic sword for death. A huge crescendo accompanies the male chorus, which depicts the tragic image of the titular character impaled on his own weapon.

It’s the kind of grim, almost lurid material that could only come from a folk tale. It certainly chimed in with the growing nationalist sentiment in Finland when it was premièred in 1892, though Sibelius’ choice to set the words in Finnish caused consternation amongst Swedes living in Finland at the time. The composer was, of course, from a Swedish-speaking background, and this turn was viewed as something of a betrayal. It seems that for Sibelius, however, his conversion was total: in the same year as Kullervo’s première, he took his honeymoon in Karelia, the land where much of the Kalevala originated. The epic work continued to be a font of inspiration for the composer. In 1896, in fact, Sibelius modified work for an abandoned opera to create a collection of tone poems based on the trails of the Kalevala character Lemminkäinen.

The Lemminkäinen Suite opens with “Lemminkäinen and the Maidens of Saari”, which relates the hero’s journey to an island and his amorous pursuits there, with its tentative string passages in the opening moments giving a sense of the ancient land coming into view. The following tone poem, “The Swan of Tuonela”, is one of Sibelius’ best-known works and tells the story of the hero’s mission to kill a mystical swan in Tuonela – a kind of Finnish Underworld. He is unsuccessful, however, and is killed himself, with “Lemminkäinen in Tuonela” using rune singing-influenced melodies to illustrate the protagonist’s death and subsequent rebirth when he is magically restored to life by his mother. Finally, “Lemminkäinen’s Return” sees folk rhythms reflect the hero’s triumphant return.

The Kalevala continued to fascinate Sibelius into the 20th century, notably with the tone poems such as Pohjola's Daughter (1906), whose programme is based on the old man Väinämöinen and his magical attempts to win the hand of a young maiden, and Tapiola (1926) which brings to life the forest spirit that haunts many of the Kalevala narratives. It seems that, for Sibelius, the epic was not merely a collection of interesting folk myths, but a central component of his nationalist project, as he is reported as saying: “I would like us Finns to have a little more pride… not to be hanging our heads! What is there to be ashamed of? This is an idea that runs through ‘Lemminkäinen's Return.’ Lemminkäinen can hold his own with any count or marquis.”