The Kalevala was recognized as a work of enormous cultural importance in Finland when it was first published, but its influence spread far beyond the pages of the book itself, and not only in literary spheres. Many lovers of music know the name of Jean Sibelius, a prominent romantic composer, and perhaps the best known name in Finnish music. His “Finlandia” – which introduced a popular hymn melody – and “Karelia Suite” are some of his most famous works, but many of Sibelius’ compositions found their inspiration in the Kalevala.
Robert Kajanus, a composer writing slightly before Sibelius’ time, also wrote music based on themes from the Kalevala, notably the symphonic poem Aino. He also wrote Kullervo’s Funeral March, on a theme which was later taken up by the younger Sibelius. Kajanus, though brilliant and renowned, was never as prolific or well-known as his successor.
Kajanus’ music may have been instrumental in the Sibelius’ decision to use the Finnish national epic for inspiration in his own pieces. His Lemminkäinen Suite derives its name from the cycle of poems about the impetuous hero Ahti (also named Lemminkäinen). Another, called Tapiola, is takes its name from a forest spirit in Finnish mythology. Kullervo is based on the tale of the tragic hero Kullervo, which Tolkien transformed into the story of Túrin Turambar.* Because I’m such a Tolkien nerd, I find this story fascinating, and the music, happily, lives up to my high expectations.
Sibelius also studied some of the rhythmic and melodic styles of the folk poetry from which the Kalevala was drawn, and incorporated them into some of his compositions, giving the folk poetic tradition something of a voice in modern musical tradition, which it otherwise might never have had.
A prolific though far more recent composer, Einojuhani Rautavaara, though most of his music seems to have little relation to the Kalevala, wrote an early piece called The Myth of Sampo, named after a legendary treasure that appears several times in the epic.
The music of Finland demonstrates the power of the Kalevala to influence national culture in the musical realm, in addition to inspiring generations of Finnish literature, visual art, and political activism. Arising from unique circumstances in the birth of the nation of Finland, Lönnrot’s epic clearly holds a cultural status rivaled by few other works in the world, maintaining a surprising degree of influence over the art of its native land even to the present day.
I’ve included some links to YouTube, where you can find some of the pieces I’ve mentioned above: