Sibelius: Kullervo

Audio CD / 2006

The 80-minute work, performed by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and the men from the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus, with baritone Nathan Gunn and mezzo-soprano Charlotte Hellekant, was conducted by ASO Music Director Robert Spano and recorded at the Woodruff Arts Center in May.The all-volunteer Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus learned Finnish in order to perform this piece. Jeff Baxter, assistant director of choruses in Atlanta and a tenor in the ASO chorus, began learning the language from a native speaker about a year ago, in preparation for training the chorus to sing the piece. The Finnish native speaker did not know music, so she intoned the syllables, and then Baxter and Director of Choruses Norman MacKenzie made a phonetic translation. The chorus undertook months of preparation, including drilling on Monday nights on the language alone.

Kullervo is a powerful figure from the Kalevala, the epic Finnish saga composed of 50 poems compiled by Elias Lannrot, a physician and folklorist who traveled throughout the Finnish-Russian borderlands recording the lyrics, stories, and ballads sung to him by rural people. Born with magical powers, Kullervo was raised as an orphan by his tribe’s enemies. As a young man, Kullervo finds his family, who thought he was dead, but learns that his sister is missing. Because he is inept at farm tasks, Kullervo is sent off to pay the family’s taxes. On his return he seduces a beautiful maiden who, they both discover, is his long-lost sister. In horror and shame, she kills herself, Kullervo goes to battle, and finally kills himself as well.

Sibelius’s music for this dark tale abounds with the rhythms and meters of Finnish folk music, which captures the poetry’s brooding sense of hard lives with the ever-present spectre of tragedy. Intent on making this composition – his first large-scale orchestral work – “thoroughly Finnish in spirit,” Sibelius traveled to the coastal town of Porvoo to hear Larin Paraske, the famed female folksinger, perform Finnish laments and runes in order to internalize the rugged, archaic style.