Rediscovering Kullervo


Sibelius: Kullervo, Op. 7 can shake your listening room to the rafters. Heard in Telarc’s big, powerful recording with Robert Spano conducting the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, the magnificent men of the superb Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus, and top-notch soloists Charlotte Hellekant and Nathan Gunn, the 71-minute, five-movement work shines an invaluable light on Sibelius’ efforts, at age 26, to discover his true voice.

Based on the Finnish national epic, the Kalevala, Kullervo was soon withdrawn from performance because Sibelius feared branding as a local composer dependent on folk sources. Nonetheless, thanks to the Kalevala Society, which bought the score from him in the 1930s when Sibelius was short of cash, Kullervo has survived. It first received its first full performance in the 20th century less than a year after the composer’s death in 1957, and was finally published in 1966.

The symphonic epic tells the story of Kullervo, an orphan blessed with both magical powers and a penchant for ugly vengeance. Having inadvertently made love with his missing sister, who in turn kills herself, he launches into battle. Eventually, discovering that everyone but his family dog has died, he falls on his sword and commits suicide.

Sibelius sets the legend to music, omitting only the text’s closing warning that a child who is not well nurtured, “rocked and led uprightly” will never know discretion, honor, or wisdom. What you will know after listening, however, is how much of Sibelius’ musical genius found early expression in his epic composition, Kullervo.