Kullervo, Op. 7, is a suite of symphonic movements by the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius. Although often referred to as a "choral symphony," the work avoids traditional symphonic structure and its five movements constitute a set of related but independent tone poems. The third and fifth movements make use of a men's chorus. The third, authorized by the composer for performance as an independent work, also calls for two soloists, a baritone and a mezzo-soprano. Based on the character of Kullervo in the epic poem Kalevala and using texts from that poem, the work premiered to critical acclaim on 28 April 1892 with Emmy Achté and Abraham Ojanperä as soloists and the composer conducting the chorus and orchestra of the Helsinki Orchestra Society, which was founded in that year.
Kullervo had only four more performances in Sibelius's lifetime, the last on 12 March 1893. Sibelius refused to publish it until, in 1957 at the very end of his life, after he had re-orchestrated the final "lament" section of the third movement, he gave permission for it to be published after his death.
Though the work was generally well received, Sibelius's idiosyncratic style received some criticism. Greater controversy arose from the fact that he set a Finnish text. Finland was divided between Swedish nationalists, the Svecomans, and promoters of Finnish (Suomi) language and culture, the Fennomans. The Svecomans regarded Sibelius, whose mother tongue was Swedish, as a defector.
Isolated movements were performed during Sibelius's lifetime. The fourth movement was performed two days after the premiere and again in 1905 and in 1955. The third movement was presented as part of the centenary celebration of the publication of "Kalevala" in 1935 and in 1958, a year after Sibelius's death, with Jussi Jalas, Sibelius's son-in-law, conducting the work. A limited edition release of the 1958 Jalas live performance became available in the early 1970s. The first studio recording was made by Paavo Berglund and Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra in 1971. The first complete performance in the United States was given in Milwaukee with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra under Kenneth Schermerhorn and the same forces performed it in Washington, D.C. and at Carnegie Hall in New York. Since then many orchestras have performed and recorded the work.
Each of the five movements presents a part of Kullervo's life, based on the Kullervo cycle from the Kalevala. Movements one, two, and four are instrumental. The third and fifth movements contain sung dialogue from the epic poem. The work runs over an hour, depending upon the conductor. Seven recent recordings range from 70 to 80 minutes in length.
- 1. Introduction
This movement evokes the heroic sweep of the legendary Finnish setting, as well as the character Kullervo, who is a complex, tragic figure.
- 2. Kullervo's Youth
This movement reflects the somber tone of Runos 31 through 33 of the Kalevala. Kullervo is marked for tragedy from birth onwards, and he spends his youth largely in slavery.
- 3. Kullervo and His Sister
The baritone and mezzo-soprano represent the protagonist and his sister, while the male chorus sets the scene and offers commentary. Kullervo encounters three women and attempts, unsuccessfully, to seduce them, before raping the third, only to realize too late that she is his long-lost sister. When she learns the truth, she commits suicide by leaping into a stream and drowning. Kullervo laments his crime and his sister's death.
- 4. Kullervo Goes to Battle
Kullervo attempts to atone for his crime by seeking death on the battlefield.
- 5. Kullervo's Death
A haunting male chorus recounts Kullervo's death. He inadvertently comes to the site where he raped his sister, marked by dead grass and bare earth where nature refuses to renew itself. He addresses his magic sword, asking if it will slay him. The sword answers, and he commits suicide.
- 1970: Paavo Berglund, Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, Helsinki University Chorus, Raili Kostia, Usko Viitanen (EMI Classics 74485), world cd premiere
- 1985: Paavo Berglund, Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra, State Academic Male Choir of the Estonian S.S.R. & Helsinki University Male Chorus, Eeva-Lilsa Saarinen, Jorma Hynninen (EMI Matrix CDM5 65080-2)
- 1985: Neeme Järvi, Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra, Istävät Male Chorus, Karita Mattila, Jorma Hynninen (BIS 313)
- 1993: Esa-Pekka Salonen, Los Angeles Philharmonic, Helsinki University Chorus, Marianne Rørholm, Jorma Hynninen (Sony SK52563)
- 1996: Jukka-Pekka Saraste, Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra, The Polytech Choir, Monica Groop, Jorma Hynninen (Finlandia 0630-14906-2)
- 1997: Paavo Järvi, Royal Stockholm Philharmonic, National Male Choir of Estonia, Randi Stene, Peter Mattei (Virgin-EMI / EMI 286522)
- 1997: Jorma Panula, Turku Philharmonic Orchestra, Laulun Ystävät Male Choir, Johanna Rusanen, Esa Ruuttunen (Naxos 8.553756)
- 2001: Osmo Vänskä, Lahti Symphony Orchestra, Helsinki University Chorus, Lilli Paasikivi, Raimo Laukka (BIS 1215)
- 2005: Sir Colin Davis, London Symphony Orchestra, London Symphony Chorus, Monica Groop, Peter Mattei (LSO 0074)
- 2005: Ari Rasilainen, Staatsphilharmonie Rheinland-Pfalz, The Helsinki Academic Male Choir KYL, Juha Uusitalo, Satu Vihavainen (CPO 777196-2)
- 2006: Robert Spano, Atlanta Symphony Orchestra & Men's Chorus, Charlotte Hellekant, Nathan Gunn (Telarc 80665)
- 2008: Leif Segerstam, Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra, Helsinki University Chorus, Soile Isokoski, Tommi Hakala (Ondine ODE 1122-5)
- 2016: Osmo Vänskä, Minnesota Orchestra, Helsinki University Chorus, Lilli Paasikivi, Tommi Hakala (BIS 9048)
- Sirén, Vesa (principal editor); et al. (2005-07-03). "Jean Sibelius, The Music – Kullervo". The Sibelius Project. Retrieved 2012-10-16.
- Jean Sibelius: Kullervo, Op. 7, 1st edition, 1961: Breitkopf & Härtel, Wiesbaden. Facsimile printing of copyist's MS; Citations refer to the Editor's Preface.
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