Kullervo and Turin: Music and Tragedy in Middle-earth

The following post is the fifth entry in a series by Music Library intern Dan Hunt discussing the musical influences on the works of fantasy writer J.R.R. Tolkien. Click here to view the previous post regarding the musicians who were inspired by Tolkien.

According to letters and previously unpublished manuscripts, J.R.R. Tolkien began writing stories about Middle-earth as far back as 1917 when he was deployed in the First World War. During this time of time of senseless destruction and tragedy, Tolkien created a hero that embodied these fears; Turin Turambar, the self-proclaimed “Master of Doom.” 

There is no shortage of heroes in Middle-earth; the diverse cast of characters is a primary reason readers are attracted to Tolkien’s books. From the highest order of Elves and Gods to the smallest Hobbit in the Shire, anyone can be a hero. Manwe, Gandalf, Beren and Luthien, Eowyn, Frodo, Sam, and so on. These heroes of Middle-earth are generally positive figures, they show compassion for others, take council in wisdom, and put the needs of the helpless ahead of themselves; standard qualities for an archetypal fantasy protagonist by today’s standards. 

Turin is different. He is disturbed, melancholic, and vainglorious, though he is capable of compassion and accomplishes much in the name of good; of Turin’s many exploits, the most remarkable is single-handedly slaying Glaurung the dragon, a scene reminiscent of Sigurd and Fafnir from the “Volsunga Saga.” Despite all of Turin’s achievements though, despair follows. His sister Lalaith dies from plague as a child and Turin never recovers emotionally; Turin’s father Hurin is captured in battle, believed to be dead, tortured for decades, and cursed to watch his family suffer from afar through dark magic; Turin’s homeland is overtaken by bandits and subjected to thralldom; Turin is forced to abandon his pregnant mother at the age of nine and the two never meet again; he is exiled from his foster home after murdering an advisor to the king, refusing to return on the one condition that he ask for forgiveness; he kills his best friend Beleg after mistaking him for an orc in the dark; most disturbing of all, he discovers that his pregnant wife, is actually his long lost sister Nienor. Upon realizing their act of incest, Nienor casts herself into the ocean and Turin falls upon his sword, thus ending his miserable life. 

Turin, a complicated anti-hero that isn’t quite sympathetic, but pitiable, is a jarring departure from the other heroes of Middle-earth. There is never a triumph for Turin; the weight of the world just keeps packing on. While Tolkien was certainly in the headspace to create such a character during the turmoil of World War One, the genesis of Turin and his family is derived from “The Kalevala,” a collection of ancient songs, poems, and folk stories from Finland. Turin’s life was inspired by the rune songs of Kullervo, a deeply troubled youth who experiences many hardships and goes through life inflicting disaster upon himself and his people; sometimes by accident, other times in a fit of rage. Kullervo is a national icon in Finland, not just for his appearance in “The Kalevala,” but as the subject for Finnish composer Jean Sibelius’ first major symphony, “Kullervo. Op. 7.” Through this creation, Sibelius raised the international awareness of this tragic character, as well as the literary and cultural merit of “The Kalevala.”  

Tolkien first came across the Kullervo character as a student at Oxford University around 1914, but hundreds of years prior, the oral traditions of “The Kalevala” were nearly forgotten alongside Finnish language and culture. Religious censorship by Catholic, Orthodox, and Lutheran faiths banned the expression of the songs as pagan worship and later reinterpreted the narrative of the folk songs to include Christian subtext. Territorial encroachment by the Russian and Swedish empires meanwhile barred other expressions of Finnish culture such as indigenous fashion and using the native language in education. It is thanks to Elias Lonnrot, a Swedish doctor who gathered and published several editions of “The Kalevala” in the 1830’s, that Finland retained a semblance of its identity. With this burst of pride, establishing cultural legitimacy and independence in the eyes of the world became the work of Finns involved in the “Volk” movement that swept through Europe during the 19th century. Politicians, writers, artists, and musicians rallied behind the roots of their respective countries’ cultural heritage as a way to bring about change, be it artistic, social, or political.

The publication of Lonnrot’s Kalevala sparked the creative minds of Finland for a time and eventually found its way to a young, ambitious Jean Sibelius who sought to make himself known internationally as a composer. Sibelius, born in 1865, was raised by a Swedish-Finnish family that nurtured his musical talent and was able to send him to study music in Vienna. While he had read excerpts of “The Kalevala” in school, it was in his mid-twenties that the stories piqued his curiosity. Sibelius was courting a woman named Aino Jarnefelt, the daughter of an esteemed Finnish family of artists, writers, and advocates of the growing Finnish Independence movement. Hoping to make a good impression on the Jarnefelts and Aino, who shares a name with a maiden from “The Kalevala,” Sibelius immersed himself in all matters concerning Finnish culture. He re-read “The Kalevala” in Finnish, attended a performance of the tone poem “Aino” by the Finnish conductor Robert Kajanus (a later friend and interpreter of Sibelius’ compositions), and in 1891 he traveled to Porvoo, Finland to hear an authentic rune performance by Larin Paraske. Paraske was the foremost expert on all runic poems, songs, lamentations, and stories in the country and received much attention internationally for her gift of song. She committed thousands of lines of verse to memory and the experience brought about a fervor in Sibelius to participate in “the wondrous singing” as the first rune song beckons listeners. 

Sibelius’ aspirations came at a time when most Finns had moved on from using “The Kalevala” in art, having published new critcisms, translations, and homages in the decades prior. In regards to music, Robert Kajanus composed the above-mentioned “Aino” as well as “Kullervo’s Death,” and Filip Von Schantz had planned his own “Kullervo Overture,” though it was never performed. The rune songs were of course an established part of Finnish oral tradition and memorized by countless amateur singers across the country. Of all the prominent characters in “The Kalevala” to choose from, Vainmoinen the wizard bard, or Ilmarinen the master blacksmith, Sibelius created a tone poem which chronicled the tales of Kullervo, the deranged warrior. Within the scope of the folk stories, Kullervo is a black sheep; he doesn’t have much bearing on the overarching story that Lonnrot weaved, and his collection of rune songs is much shorter compared to the previously mentioned characters who also have much larger roles and significance throughout the overarching story. For some reason though, Kullervo endeared himself upon Sibelius and likewise the Finns, perhaps because he represented the struggles of the people. Kullervo wants the same things we all want: love, a home, happiness, but is denied and punished as if the Gods set a curse upon him. Kullervo’s struggles serve as a parable on the perils of poor upbringing and abuse of those in need. Creating an homage to this troubled character might resonate with the often mistreated Finns…and maybe impress the Jarnefelts.

The tone poem contains five sections that loosely retells Kullervo’s story: I. Introduction (The death of Kullervo’s father in battle); II. Kullervo’s Youth (Kullervo’s enslavement and murder of his master’s wife through supernatural strength and magic); III. Kullervo and His Sister (Kullervo’s search for a bride, resulting in the rape and suicide of his long lost sister); IV. Kullervo Goes to Battle (Kullervo’s search for glory through battle which results in the destruction of his homeland); V. Kullervo’s Death (Kullervo’s lament of his miserable life and suicide by his own sword). 

Keeping with the grand concept, the composition contains a number of stylistic choices that contribute to the overall Finnish-ness of the music. Though the five movements can be performed together, Sibelius maintained that they could be represented independently as well, which is similar to the performance of the rune songs. The time signatures fluctuate between cut-time and 5/4, making use of complex rhythm patterns that are more aligned to the recitation and meter that singers like Larin Paraske would use. The orchestral arrangements feature baritone and soprano soloists and a choir, all of whom sing in native Finnish, an important aspect not just to the musical composition, but cultural pride. “Kullervo, Op. 7” premiered in 1892, coincidentally the same year J.R.R. Tolkien was born. Shortly after, Sibelius and Aino Jarnefelt were married and the composer’s career picked up. Though Sibelius eventually diversified his symphonic influences, he continued to reference “The Kalevala” throughout his career in pieces such as the “Lemminkäinen Suite,” “Vainamoinen’s Boat Ride,” “The Swan of Tuonela,” “Pohjola’s Daughter,” “Luonnotar,” and “Tapiola.” 

Sibelius, much like Kullervo, has since become a national icon for Finland. The flag is flown on his birthday, which is also the “Day of Finnish Music,” December 8th; he has both a statue and a monument in a park that is also named in his honor; before switching to the Euro, the Finnish Mark bore his face. Sibelius is not just a world-renowned composer, but Finland’s composer, a champion for international and cultural significance. In regards to Kullervo however, Sibelius was protective. Only five performances were given during his lifetime and he refused to have the score published until after his death. A number of explanations and theories range from his dissatisfaction with the performances, desire to revise to the composition, and being spurned by poor reviews a year after debuting, but a 1935 letter to a fan tells a different story. 

“The youthful work is still close to my heart. Probably for that very reason, I would not want to see it performed in an era that is, in my view, very far from the spirit of Kullervo.[…] I am not certain whether the public would see the work in the proper historical context […]. I did not even want to permit Kullervo to be performed in my own country, apart from exceptions such as my birthday five years ago. Here the circumstances are very different from the world at large, and so I felt obliged to respect the wishes of the government.” 

Sibelius lived to be 91 years old and in that lifetime the world had changed drastically since the writing of Kullervo back when he was only 26. A sense of nationalistic pride brought him to write so many of his symphonies, but it also became the undoing of the world twice over. The surge in international popularity of the Kalevala tales meanwhile undoubtedly shaped the prose of J.R.R. Tolkien during his formative years. As a student, he attempted a translation of the Finnish text into English, created his own version of Kullervo in prose, and used the Finnish language as a basis for Quenya, one of his invented languages. Turin also maintains musical themes in his story “Narn I Hin Hurin (The Children of Hurin),” which uses songs of lamentation to recall history and commemorate the lives of fallen heroes, just as Kullervo had been eulogized.

In many ways, Sibelius and Tolkien’s personal stories mirror each other, just as Kullervo and Turin. Similar to Sibelius’ Kullervo, Tolkien’s Turin would not be published until after his death in 1973. As a participant in one world war and a spectator in another, Tolkien also became concerned about the use and interpretation of mythology in the modern world. Kullervo and Turin served as stepping stones for their respective creators to branch out and explore their crafts. Just as Sibelius, Tolkien mined “The Kalevala” for inspiration in much of his later works.

Below are a list of resources you may wish to explore pertaining to the music of Jean Sibelius and the writing of J.R.R. Tolkien.


  • “Jean Sibelius” by Tomi Makela, translated by Steven Lindberg: MUS ML410.S54 M3513 2011
  • “The Sibelius Companion” by Glenda Dawn Goss: MUS ML410.S54 S53 1996
  • “The Silmarillion” by J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by Christopher Tolkien: MAIN PR6039.032 S5
  • “Unfinished Tales of Numenor and Middle-earth”: MAIN PR6039.O32 U5 1980
  • “The Kalevala, the land of the heroes” translated by W.F. Kirby and Michael Branch: MAIN PH324.E5 K5 1985


  • “Finlandia: Music of Sibelius.”: Audio 9604
  • “Four legends from “The Kalevala”, op. 22”: Audio 5760


  • Kullervo und seine Schwester : für Sopran- und Bariton solo, Männerchor und Orchester = Kullervo and his sister : for soprano- and baritone solo, male chorus and orchestra : op. 7 Nr. 3: MUS m M1002.S56 op.7 no.3 1980z
  • Complete works = Sämtliche Werke: Monuments M3.S57

Web Resources: 


  • Borg, Selma. 1880. “The Music of Finland [Kalevala Song Relating the Legend of the Ancient Bard Wainemöinen and His Kantele, the Finnish National Instrument. National Predisposition of the Finns toward Music. Their Bards’ Singular Gift for Improvisation. Oral Transmission of Poetry into the Earliest Form of Music. Exquisite Folk-Songs, Including ‘Tuos Un Mum Kultani;’ Characteristic Qualities. Origin of the Kantele in the Austro-Hungarian Zither. A Number of Meritorious Modern Composers, in Particular Songs by Carl Collan. Re-Assertion of Native Art Tendencies Following Political Union with Sweden. Finnish Opera in Helsinki, in the Native Tongue. Destruction of the Manuscript Compositions of Filip von Schanta in the Great Fire of 1863; Survival of His Exquisite Fragment, the Overture to Kullervo].” The Musical Herald I (5): 99. http://search.ebscohost.com.proxy.library.stonybrook.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=rip&AN=MHE000251&site=ehost-live&scope=site.
  • GOSS, GLENDA DAWN. “A Backdrop for Young Sibelius: The Intellectual Genesis of the Kullervo Symphony.” 19th-Century Music 27, no. 1 (2003): 48-73. doi:10.1525/ncm.2003.27.1.48.
  • Makela, Tomi. Translated by Steven Lindberg. Jean Sibelius. Woodbridge. The Boydell Press. 2011
  • Snyder, Christopher. The Making of Middle-Earth: A New Look Inside the World of J.R.R. Tolkien. New York. Sterling. 2013.
  • Tolkien, J.R.R. The Silmarillion, ed. Christopher Tolkien. Boston. Houghton Mifflin. 1977.
  • Tolkien, J.R.R. Unfinished Tales of Numenor & Middle Earth, ed. Christopher Tolkien. New York and Boston. Mariner and Houghton Mifflin. 1980.
Gisele Schierhorst

Gisele Schierhorst

Head, Music Library at Stony Brook University Libraries
Gisele is the Head of the Music Library. She is the liaison to Music, Africana Studies, Anthropology, and Sociology.
email: gisele.schierhorst@stonybrook.edu
Gisele Schierhorst

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