On the 6th December 1917, Finland declared its independence after a century of Russian rule. Sibelius’s well known symphonic poem Finlandia was seen as an emblem of Finnish nationalism, defying Russian oppression after it was premiered in 1900 alongside a metaphorical dramatisation of Finland achieving political independence; this was the sound of a new, independent Finland.
The Finnish national epic The Kalevala was also instrumental in building an image of Finnish national identity. Derived from Karelian folklore by Elias Lönnrot in the nineteenth century, the Kalevala was adopted as a source of inspiration across the arts in Finland. Perhaps the most famous depictions of scenes from the Kalevala are Akseli Gallen-Kallela’s paintings; Lemminkäinen’s Mother is shown below.
It provided a consistent source of inspiration for Sibelius; he wrote twelve pieces based upon tales from the Kalevala including Luonnotar, Lemminkäinen, and Kullervo. Gallen-Kallela also used Kullervo as a subject (shown left); his tragic story that tackled incest, child abuse, revenge, and the attributes of heroism proved particularly popular. This painting of Kullervo’s Curse is particularly interesting for its depiction of the Finnish landscape, the link between man and landcape being a recurring theme throughout the late nineteenth to early twentieth centuries, not least in Sibelius’s music, as the rise of nationalism spread across the Western world. The sense of pride in and loyalty to one’s country that nationalism relied upon would of course reach unprecedented proportions in the devastation of the Second World War, during which Sibelius’s music was appropriated by Hitler in the search for a national Germanic music. Inevitably this led to a decline in Sibelius’s popularity in Germany following the war, particularly from the critic and theorist Theodor Adorno.
This is one of Sibelius’s lesser known pieces based upon the Kalevala; scored for orchestra, chorus, and baritone solo, The Origin of Fire is based upon the creation of fire as according to the Kalevala.