Love is a strange thing.
—Jean Sibelius to Aino Sibelius, 1892
[Tawaststjerna v. 1, Loc 2314-2326]
For some time now, I’ve been wanting to tell a tale about our visit to Ainola, where the Sibeliuses lived from 1904 until the death of Jean (1957, age 91) and Aino (1969, age 98). I’ve been flummoxed, though, about where to start. The thing is, there isn’t a single, straight-line narrative to be had. The story of Ainola isn’t a one story, but many, and even perspectives on the same strand of story conflict and multiply without cease.
So which story should I tell? The one the eager young woman at the Helsinki TI office told us? We, dead weary and loaded down with bags of groceries, stopped in to get a map and to confirm the route. “I know something about this,” she said, with all the confidence such words imply. It turns out she didn’t know the best route to Ainola. She Googled to find it, but I stopped her. That, I’d already done. (The TI representatives were generally clueless on this point.) Her stories had nothing to do with Ainola, either. Rather, she expounded at considerable length about one of the Sibelius’s neighbors, the Finnish author Juhani Aho, with a focus neither on his considerable art nor that of his wife, Venny Soldan-Brofeldt, but upon his to-ing and fro-ing from the bed they shared to assignations with her sister.
We found our way on our own, in the end. Today, nearby houses impinge on the isolated woodland retreat Ainola once was, and a major roadway, under construction, disturbs the peace and severs Ainola from Jean Sibelius’s beloved Lake Tuusula. Even the lake view he cherished is gone, as the trees have grown too tall.
Just the same, upon entering its gate, before which Serge Koussevitzky once stood without venturing further, Ainola exudes a magic that’s almost impossible to describe. [Tawaststjerna v. 3, Loc 7034] The feeling is not of a museum, but of a home, animated by stories and memories palpable as one walks through. It’s not just the home of a “Great Man,” but of a family, and steeped in its time and place.
In the late 1890’s, artist-friends of the Sibeliuses began to collect along the shore of Lake Tuusula, the first of whom was Juhani Aho. Aho urged Jean Sibelius to join them, but Jean’s attempt to buy a property directly on the lake was foiled. Akseli Gallen-Kallela’s painting, Symposium, depicting a young Jean and artistic cohorts in drunken disarray, so scandalized the owner of the property that the owner refused to sell. [Ainola Guide, p. 6]
Aino Sibelius worried about the isolation of the property the family ultimately bought. She wrote to Saimi Järnefelt, her sister-in-law, “At first it seemed completely impossible for me even to think of such a lonely home, even the road is so far away.” [Ainola Guide, p. 6] Her worries weren’t unfounded. She felt that isolation particularly keenly when Jean Sibelius was abroad, as he often was. “I’m starting to understand why people say that it’s dull in the countryside,” she wrote to Jean. “This home is nothing without you.” [Ainola Guide, p. 13]
One solution was to find solace in her garden. “In the spring I also sow my sorrows; the plants rise from the soil, but my sorrows remain there.” [Ainola Guide, p. 13] She maintained an orchard with prize-winning apples [Ainola Guide, p. 18] and designed, among other things, Ainola’s sauna, where Jean Sibelius spent many a luxuriant hour. [Tawaststjerna v. 3, Loc 162]
While Aino harvested her plants, Jean not only composed music, but harvested the world around him, too. “I am harvesting sunshine and warmth,” he once wrote, “for use in the winter.” [Tawaststjerna v. 3, Loc 1973] As Sibelius biographer Erik Tawaststjerna observed, “Even by Nordic standards, Sibelius responded with exceptional intensity to the moods of nature and the changes in the seasons.” [Tawaststjerna v. 2, Loc 231] In a 1915 diary entry, Jean Sibelius wrote:
The swans are always in my thoughts and give life its lustre. It is curious that nothing in the whole world, be it art, literature or music, has anything like the same effect on me as these swans, cranes and wild geese. Their sound and their very being. [Tawaststjerna v. 3, Loc 1089]
Yet Jean Sibelius’s response to nature, as reflected in his music particularly, is often in danger of being overdetermined. Perhaps this image of him in his own natural state can serve as a corrective:
Juhani Aho and Sibelius must have presented a bizarre spectacle as they sat with their fishing rods in a rowing boat, Aho in a sou’wester, Sibelius in a fly-collar and white cuffs—he never appeared dressed in sports clothes or in an unpressed suit. [Tawaststjerna v. 2, Loc 2457]
Living with Jean Sibelius was no day at the beach. He was subject to great mood swings, he was perennially in debt, and he drank. The house was ruled to serve his creative needs, and Aino was enforcer-in-chief.
The five Sibelius children, all girls, were under strict instructions not to disturb their father when he was composing. They weren’t even allowed to call out to one another from room to room. “Father’s work also restricted our family life,” recalled Margareta. “All of us daughters studied music – the piano – and I also studied the violin and the viola, but we were never allowed to practise when papa was present.” Yet, as Katarina recalled, “When father was at home, he filled the whole house. There was somehow a very safe and pleasant atmosphere. When he was away, we children were more free, we could play and sing. But there was an emptiness. His personality radiated everywhere and he gave a tremendous feeling of security.”
For Jean Sibelius, composing was no straight-line process, and it came at considerable cost. He admired composer Erkki Melartin’s “methodical way of working. How is it possible to keep up that nulla dies sine linea [no day without a line]?” [Tawaststjerna v. 2, Loc 2447] But this wasn’t a path he could follow. He didn’t proceed from form, either, but from his musical ideas, and he let “their development in my spirit fashion the formal shape of the piece.” [Tawaststjerna v. 3, Loc 460]
During the eight-year period of his gargantuan struggle with the Fifth Symphony, he also sketched ideas for the Sixth, and “ideas for the two symphonies freely wander[ed] back and forth.” [Tawaststjerna v. 3, Loc 550] “It is,” Jean Sibelius wrote, “as if God the Father had thrown down mosaic pieces from the floor of the heavens and asked me to put them back as they were.” [Tawaststjerna v. 3, Loc 460-471]
Richard Strauss observed of Jean Sibelius’s music, “Seine Musik hat die Frische einer fast Erschöpfenden Erfindung” [rough translation: his music has a freshness of almost exhaustive invention]. [Tawaststjerna v. 3, Loc 654] Yet Jean Sibelius’s genius did not lie in ideas alone. He took those glittering bits of glass, discarded some, retained and revised others, and by dint of his powerful creative intelligence, composed works as inevitable as they are transcendent.
The cost was high, and not only for Jean. Not for the first time, whisky was his constant companion as he composed the Seventh Symphony, his last. “When Aino came downstairs in the morning she would find him sitting at the dining-room table, slumped over a score with the bottle within easy reach.” [Tawaststjerna v. 3, Loc 5468]
Aino Sibelius had had enough. As Jean sat drinking his morning coffee, she delivered him a letter and left the room without a word. As Tawaststjerna described it, her words were unflinching:
He was a useless weakling who took refuge from problems in alcohol. In case he imagined that, thanks to [alcohol], he would be able to compose new masterpieces, he was grievously mistaken; she would not expose herself again to the indignity of seeing him conduct in an inebriated condition as he had been in Gothenburg and she therefore refused to accompany him to Stockholm [for the Seventh’s premiere]. [Tawaststjerna v. 3, Loc 5468]
But she did not leave him.
I don’t subscribe to the “Great Man” theory of history—for one, it leaves a good half of the population out of contention for that prize (if prize it be). When I approached the grave at Ainola, what struck me was not the bold J-E-A-N S-I-B-E-L-I-U-S striding across the stone, but the cursive writing in its lower right corner. So in death, as it seemed to have been in life.
As I think about Aino and Jean Sibelius, I must remind myself not to judge their relationship by my own standards and predilections. As Glenda Dawn Goss wrote, “[Aino’s] role was how she seems to have wanted to play it. . . . “ [Glenda Dawn Goss, Sibelius: A Composer’s Life and the Awakening of Finland, Loc 1655]
No Hadynesque mate here, rolling her hair in the creator’s manuscripts. Aino knew, with that deep soul knowing, that Jean Sibelius would fulfill Uncle Pehr’s prediction—he would be something great for the fatherland. It was she who encouraged him to compose symphonies, she who managed the home so that he could create, she who pulled them back again and again from the brink of economic disaster with her gardening, her faithful copying of his scores, her home schooling of the children, and her unshakable convictions . . . [Goss, Loc 1659]
In one of his many letters to Aino over time, Jean wrote, with clear-eyed wit: “You have chosen to share this composer-fate with me, who has returned you a good deal of pain, but who has never loved any but you, so we are both in need of help.”[Tawaststjerna v. 2, Loc 1999-2009] Aino, in reflecting on their life together, wrote to Jean:
In my mind, I have thought about our early days, our whole marriage, and the love just grows and rolls on ever larger. A wonderful treasure for me are your compositions, from which I always find what I am seeking. It is as if I were sinking into something great and wonderful, in the way that people in the past submitted to religion, with body and soul. No one can imagine what your compositions mean to me. [Ainola Guide, p. 15]
It was she, who, despite their troubled finances, told him to write his symphonies, not the moneymaking potboilers he so loathed. It was she who kept the garden, not only for her own solace, but to assure the family had enough to eat. And it was she who sent Koussevitzy apples from her garden: for Koussevitzky, at first a doubter who had come as far as Ainola’s gate but had not entered, returned, this time as a champion of Jean Sibelius’s work. [Tawaststjerna v. 3, Loc 7029]
In preparing his biography of Jean Sibelius, Erik Tawaststjerna met with Aino Sibelius many times.
She would receive me in the library of their villa, Ainola, and all the associations and moods conjured up by the atmosphere of the room, the murmuring of the forest outside, the sight of pictures and paintings, would unleash a flood of memories . . . . She would recall her elation in the early 1890s on seeing the first sketch of a theme from Kullervo . . . or down to those very last September days in 1957 . . . where he would ask her to sit up with him a little longer . . . . [Tawaststjerna, v. 1, Loc 69-79]
Among Aino Sibelius’s memories in her final years was this: Jean Sibelius “always approached her with open arms.” [Tawaststjerna v. 2, Loc 1723]
The stories of Aino and Jean Sibelius may be complicated, but they are nonetheless stories of an abiding love—and it is to both of them, and to their children, that we must give thanks for the gift of Jean Sibelius’s music. I am grateful to them all, and to Finland and the Ainola Foundation, for offering us this ongoing entry into their lives and Jean Sibelius’s art.
Photographs are not generally permitted for visitors to the house, but David Nice, in conjunction with preparing an article on Jean Sibelius for BBC Music Magazine, was able to obtain a wonderful collection of interior views of the home. David’s posts about his visit to Ainola may be found at the links indicated: Sibelius at Home; Sibelius at Home II: Swan Songs; Sibelius at Home III: Tributes; Sibelius at Home IV: Portraits; and Sibelius at Home V: Instruments.
While we were abroad, the fine young conductor David Bloom was concluding his master’s degree in conducting at Bard’s Conservatory of Music. I’ll always remember talking with my friend Barbara after we’d seen David conduct Contemporaneous at Merkin Hall. At the time, she exclaimed, “I know I shouldn’t compare him with Koussevitzky. But I WILL compare him with Koussevitzky!” She went on to describe all the ways in which Bloom’s conducting reminded her of Koussevitzky’s, which she’d had the privilege to witness live many times. So what do you suppose Bloom conducted for his master’s degree recital? Sibelius: the first movement of the Second Symphony. (Here’s Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting the Second.) I think Barbara’s on to something. (Watch David Bloom conduct here.)
Jean Sibelius, Symphony No. 5 in E flat major (1919)
Early reviews of the Fifth Symphony in the United States ranged from dire (“[a]lthough by no means wanting in melody, the most obvious themes are distinctly without charm” [Tawaststjerna v. 3, Loc 4890]) to rhapsodic. As to the latter, and I think with prescience, Henry T. Parker wrote, in The Boston Transcript:
He belongs to no school, like all and sundry in Paris, like the camps of Strauss and of Schoenberg in Germany and Austria . . . no one has quite plausibly traced his antecedents . . . . Out of the failure of these cataloguing devices has come the custom to define Sibelius by Finland. This or that in his music, we are told, reflects Finnish air and lights, Finnish lakes and forests. It is an easy critical device . . . Yet as a man thinks and feels in himself by himself for himself, so shall he make music . . . The secret of creation, the mainspring thereof, is individuality. [Tawaststjerna v. 3, Loc 4911-4921]
Succinct and useful program notes for the Fifth Symphony may be found here. Sibelius’s Love of Nature, an excellent discussion on BBC Radio 3 (for as long as it remains available), may be found here. The discussion occurred in the context of Proms 35, which included performances of The Swan of Tuonela and the Fifth Symphony.
A Selection of Incidental Music and Songs
On Spotify here. (There is a slight delay before the first selection begins.)
Whether Sibelius thought any of the pieces on this Spotify playlist were potboilers or otherwise a distraction from his more serious work, I haven’t researched. I suspect it’s true for some of them, at least. What I do know is that one or the other of the members of our household, and often both, have enjoyed getting to know and listening to the works from which these selections have been chosen and hope you will, too. Each piece on the playlist is listed below with a link to additional information about the piece.
On YouTube: Elegie
On YouTube: No. 8 (Esa-Pekka Salonen/LA Philharmonic)
Sibelius presented Var det en dröm to his favourite soprano, Ida Ekman, with the words, “Here you have my most beautiful song.” With thanks to Anneli for introducing us to this song.
Credits: Citations to Tawaststjerna are given as location numbers from the Kindle Edition of Erik Tawaststjerna’s Sibelius, Volume 1: 1865-1905, Sibelius, Volume 2: 1904-1914, and Sibelius, Volume 3: 1914-1957. Citations to “Ainola Guide” are to Ainola—The Home of Jean Sibelius Guide, published by Finland’s National Board of Antiquities and available at Ainola. All other quotations may be found at the links indicated in the text. The image of Gallen-Kallela’s Symposium may be found here; I photographed the image of Ilya Repin’s The Great Men of Finland from my copy of the Festival Program edition of the Bard Music Festival’s Sibelius and His World. As always on the blog, the remaining photographs, unless otherwise indicated, are mine.