Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Sibelius' Kullervo

Clef Notes would like to welcome its newest contributor! Xavier University music student and WGUC intern Connor Annable shares his thoughts on Kullervo by Jean Sibelius this week:

The “choral symphony” Kullervo, completed in 1892, was the first major orchestral work Jean Sibelius composed following the end of his formal music studies in his native Finland and with Albert Becker in Vienna. Scored for solo baritone and mezzo-soprano, male chorus and an orchestra of Romantic-era proportions (including a percussion section that is not unduly large, with cymbals and triangle complementing timpani), it is based on the character Kullervo from the Kalevala, widely recognized as the national epic of Finland. 

Although typically described as a symphony, Kullervo is actually a series of five interconnected tone poems which serve as musical guides to the story of the title character, the only one considered tragic in all of Finnish mythology. Interestingly enough, the work was very positively received when it was premiered on April 28, 1892 in Helsinki. After this personal triumph, however, Sibelius essentially disowned what he had written, rescinding its planned publication and instead forming a plan to revise the score which never came to fruition. As a result, Kullervo was not performed again in its complete form until 1958, only 1 year after Sibelius’s death in 1957. A performance edition of the complete work, consequently, was not published until 1961. The entire work will typically take around 70-80 minutes to perform, making Kullervo on the same level as a Mahler symphony, although not quite as sweeping and Romantic-sounding.

The first movement introduces the brooding and dark landscape in which Kullervo will eventually find himself. Kullervo’s Youth is considered by some scholars as an extension of the first movement, or perhaps a lullaby of some sort. But I would take this as an exploration of how Kullervo’s personality developed even before he was born. The clan or tribe in which he had been raised, excluding his mother, has all been murdered by his uncle Untamo. Kullervo’s desire for revenge initially leads to him being sold as a slave, then as a herdsman to the smith Ilmarinen. After he is implicated in the death of Ilmarinen’s wife, Kullervo flees and reunites with his mother.

The third movement, Kullervo and His Sister, introduces the chorus and vocal soloists for the first time in the piece. The male chorus serves a similar function to a Greek chorus, mainly commenting on the metaphysical actions which are unfolding on stage. They also sing primarily in unison, only rarely splitting into four-part harmony (this applies to the 5th movement as well). This is also the symphony’s longest movement, clocking in at about 25 minutes long. At this point in the story, Kullervo is delivering taxes and comes across two women who swiftly reject his advances. The third young girl he comes across and supposedly engages with on a physical level is later discovered to be his long-lost sister. Upon discovering this, the sister proceeds to kill herself by drowning in a nearby stream. Kullervo is represented by a solo baritone, while the sister is represented by a solo mezzo-soprano (some recordings use a solo soprano in place of a mezzo). In the fourth movement, Kullervo Goes to War, a constant march-like tempo represents Kullervo fighting against his uncle with a new sword given him by Ukko, the chief of the gods. With it, he kills Untamo’s entire tribe. Sibelius seems to augment this sense of triumph and heroism musically through the repeated use of percussion and trumpet fanfares against full chords in the rest of the orchestra, while also appearing to suggest the wind-swept Nordic landscape Kullervo finds himself fighting in. In the final movement, Kullervo’s Death, the chorus returns to describe how Kullervo returned to the place where he seduced his sister in the forest, and how feelings of guilt compel him to die by falling on his own sword. In short, Jean Sibelius’s Kullervo is the finest example of how his stylistic trappings came to be set in stone through the ensuing decades of composing. It is also a tragically underrated masterpiece of choral-orchestral music that deserves to be played and recorded more often than it has.

Lahti Symphony Orchestra/Osmo Vänska, conductor; Lili Passikivvi, mezzo-soprano; Raimo Laukka, baritone; YL Male Voice Choir; BIS  BIS-1215
Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra/Leif Segerstam, conductor; Soile Isokoski, soprano; Tommi Hakala, baritone; YL Male Voice Choir; Ondine    ODE1122-5
Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra/Paavo Järvi, conductor; Peter Mattei, baritone; Randi Stene, mezzo-soprano; Estonian National Male Choir; Virgin Classics (reissued on Erato through Warner Classics); VC 5  45292 2 

Like what Connor has to share? Stay tuned for more from Connor in coming weeks!

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