The Real Jean Sibelius
The Australian Financial Review
14 September 2007
Jean Sibelius (1865-1957), the last of the great symphonists and a world-famous musical symbol of Finland, has been a surprisingly elusive character. The composer's comings and goings were well documented, but until recently, his character was made to fit the romantic model of the creative artist: at once celebrated by the world and isolated from it, blessed with his gift and cursed by it.
It is hard to believe that only 50 years ago Jean Sibelius had a postal address in the Finnish municipality of Järvenpää, and an entry in the local phone book. Finland and the whole musical world adored him, but what kind of man was he really? Surely not the untouchable national monument depicted by the Finnish patriotic press nor the immensely respectful biographies. Surely he had likes and dislikes, hopes and fears and enthusiasms like everybody else?
Cracks in the surface of the monument began to appear from the 1960s onwards. This is when one trusted writer, Erik Tawaststjerna, was given permission by the Sibelius family to read some rare documents, including Sibelius's sketchbooks and diaries. The documents themselves were kept in the Finnish National Archives, and anybody wanting so much as a glimpse, needed permission from the family. Under such circumstances all scholarly interest in Sibelius was channelled into studying and analysing his music. More intrusive and intimate questions were neither asked, nor answered.
The archives were meant to stay closed until 50 years after the death of Sibelius's wife, Aino (she died in 1969). But when, by the end of the 1980s, her children too had died, the family changed its mind. The Sibelius diaries, which he maintained on and off from 1909 to 1944, were finally published less than two years ago – in the original, Swedish language (Sibelius was bilingual and wrote his diaries in Swedish). It was only now then that the fragments selected by Tawaststjerna, and repeated by other writers, could be put in their correct context.
In addition to the diaries, recent publications have included collections of letters, illustrated coffee table books, reminiscences by friends and family, essays on Sibelius's importance as a musician and his stature as a national hero. Provided we understand the language (Finnish and Swedish in most cases), we can now get much closer to this enigmatic person – a sensitive, impressionable artist, who suffered from depression, enjoyed good company, drank too much, was financially in deep debt until his retirement, struggled with his self-esteem, guarded his privacy and adored his family.
What might have seemed scandalous decades ago – drinking trips, encounters with Viennese courtesans, reckless spending, unkind or bitter words about friends or family – no longer shock us. But what the diaries, letters and reminiscences add to Sibelius's image are numerous details of the everyday, remarks and revelations that all together form a fuller picture of a very human artist.
The origins of Sibelius's special standing in Finland can be traced to the premiere of his Kullervo Symphony in 1892. The large-scale work for orchestra and male choir was based on the Kullervo legends of the Finnish national epic, the Kalevala. It was the first time the Finnish language had been used in such a context. Formerly the language of the lower classes, it was now embraced by Finland's educated Swedish-speaking elite, of which Sibelius was a member.
The Finnish language was the most important symbol of Finland's unique cultural identity. The Kalevala was another. Its stories provided a fictional history for a nation that didn't have a history entirely of its own. Finland's destinies had always been tied to other nations – Sweden until 1809, and after that, Tsarist Russia. In Kullervo and the Lemminkäinen Suite, Sibelius breathed life into the heroes of the Kalevala. And the Finnish public embraced him – it was almost as if Sibelius himself were one of those mythical heroes: a man possessed of magical, musical powers.
After Kullervo, Sibelius was invited to compose all official cantatas and other pieces of patriotic music. While it has sometimes been claimed that Sibelius was not particularly active politicially, the truth remains that many works by the young composer were blatant musical protests against Russian rule. But when Sibelius wanted to move on, the stamp of the national composer remained. The concerts that he organised to earn money turned into patriotic celebrations. Dutifully he made sure that the programs included patriotic pieces and songs, even if these tended to steal the attention from the main fare, his symphonies.
Sibelius's own attention had turned increasingly towards abstract musical thought. His contemporaries could not follow his rapid progress, so they went on reading his symphonies as metaphors for the pursuit of independence or the Finnish landscape. The second symphony (1902) is even today commonly thought of as depicting Finland's struggle for independence. The fourth symphony (1911) met with a similar interpretation. This surprisingly modernist work left its audience and critics puzzled, and Finnishness was again believed to be the key. It was claimed that the program of the symphony related to the composer's recent trip to the mountain of Koli – an emblematic Finnish landscape. Sibelius went so far as to publish a notice in a newspaper: 'The assumptions regarding my new symphony are not correct.'
Modern interpretations of the fourth symphony often hinge on what is popularly known of the composer's life. In the melancholy, dark and reflective mood of the music, we imagine we hear Sibelius's illness (a throat tumor that was removed in 1908), depression and heavy drinking. The diary entries paint a different picture.
During the summer of 1910, Sibelius is no longer shadowed by his illness. He records in his diary his 'beautiful swims' in nearby lakes. He is listening to thunderstorms rumbling around Ainola, the family home, and suffering from creative doubts preceding the birth of something completely new and different.
I felt no longer at home in the city. I am strangely lonely. You, Ego, you do have some skills at this stage. About time! Try to work away this feeling of insecurity. You should have shoulders to carry your little musical cross! Pull yourself together! (18 July 1910)
There are low moods and depressed thoughts but these seem to coincide with the days when Sibelius is stuck with his composing. When the work is going well, it is a different matter:
A lovely day. I have hammered some – but dreamt mostly. (15 August 1910)
Worked in my way. It would help if I had some cigars and wine – but I must learn how to do this even without. (16 August 1910)
Following his illness, Sibelius had stopped drinking and smoking for seven years. September 1910 has more than its share 'lovely days'. It is around this time that Jean and Aino conceive their youngest daughter. After a concert trip later that year Jean returns to Ainola:
A lovely day – typically Finnish – with snow on the branches. I'll leave this place only in emergency. I must sever my contacts with Helsinki, otherwise there is no peace. A symphony is not a normal composition. It is more like a credo, at a particular time in one's life. (5 November 1910)
After Finnish independence in 1917, the political significance of Sibelius's music changed. He became an unofficial cultural ambassador for his country. An endless stream of guests and fan letters started to find its way to Ainola.
In the 1920s, Sibelius was living through one of his strongest creative periods. Within four years, he completed four major works: the sixth (1923) and seventh (1924) symphonies, the incidental music for The Tempest (1925) and the symphonic poem Tapiola (1926). Soon he also started work on his eighth symphony.
Why the eighth symphony was never finished has been a source of endless speculation. It has been assumed that the international interest towards the symphony was too much for the self-critical composer. A possible, even likely, explanation is that as Sibelius grew older, the act of composing and the approaching deadlines drove him to depression and drinking and made life unbearable for him and his family. The diary entries from the early 1920s are few and make for heartbreaking reading:
I have spent a week in Helsinki and have an awfully bad conscience now. I don't understand myself any more. If only I could leave this drinking. But it remains a useless wish. (18 December 1920)
Alcohol is the only friend that doesn't betray you. (24 November 1924)
Sibelius's beloved brother Christian had died in 1922. The drinking was again out of control. In the mornings, Aino found her husband composing with a bottle next to him. Sometimes she showed her desperation by communicating with him only in writing. The following lines are from a note she slipped to Jean over morning coffee some time in 1924:
Do you really value the work that you achieve with such artificial inspiration? [...] If you knew how much I suffer for you. If you don't change you'll be destroyed. And is that it, then, for that beautiful creation of God, that I have in my mind got used to thinking of as something holy. [...]. I beg you on my knees and I believe that if you want, you can change.
In May 1927, Sibelius seems to have made a decision to control his drinking. Thereafter, alcohol-free days are carefully listed in the diary, and there are lots of them.
Everyday life in Ainola was undoubtedly characterised by the female presence of Aino and the five daughters (one had died in infancy). Aino Sibelius ran the composer's home with the help of two servants, took care of the bills, grew the vegetables in the garden, and taught all her daughters at home for their first six years of schooling. Sibelius, on the other hand, seems to have lived somewhat according to his own schedule – working at nights and sleeping late in the mornings.
The composer's household was different from a normal home in that singing and playing music was banned when father was at home. Daughter Katarina later talked about this:
Sometimes you would think that Father was just sitting and relaxing but in actual fact he was developing some composition in his mind. And if then you made the mistake of singing a bit, he would start and say, 'Oh now I you've made me lose it'. This taught us to be careful.
Like any father of daughters, Sibelius was suspicious of boyfriends and fiancés. The second-eldest daughter Ruth caused her parents particular grief – she found theatre more interesting than school, became an actress and promptly fell in love with a theatre director 18 years her senior. The fiancé was not only old, he was also vegetarian and interested in theosophy!
Aino's and my heart is bleeding because Ruth has fallen in love with a man – a fine and educated man I am sure, but one with a past... Am I old-fashioned? (2 November 1914)
Eva, the eldest, quarrelled with her father about the latest fashion.
My unfortunate attitude towards her had to do with the current fashion that just doesn't look good on her figure. And she even goes without the corset, which makes her position on Vanity Fair even more difficult. I can't forget her bitter, bitter weeping. Poor girl! (1 February 1912)
Sibelius's own idea of casual home clothes was light summer suits, walking sticks and hats. The smell of Havanna cigars and eau de cologne followed him around, as his daughter Margareta recalled:
His fairytails, they were neverending. He created the plot and the characters while telling the story. It often went on the next evening, and the next and however long. … If there was a witch or some scary creature in the story, Father might pull me to safety inside his coat. There was a lovely, fresh smell of eau de cologne in there – it always surrounded him. He wiped my tears with a big, white, fragrant handkerchief.
According to a grandson, Erkki Virkkunen, the atmosphere in Ainola was particularly stormy if the reviews in the day's press had not been favourable.
He got up around midday, and the papers were brought to him in bed. He read the Finnish papers as well as foreign ones and always read the reviews. The whole house was in turmoil if something negative had been said. You really could tell if the papers had been nasty.
The so-called 'silence of Ainola' began in the late 1920s, though at the time neither the composer nor his audience knew there would never be another major piece of music. He kept composing, usually at night, and his children and grandchildren got used to listening these 'night sounds' in their beds.
The 1930s brought renewed interest in nationalist ideas, in arts as well as in politics. Many composers in Finland turned again to the Kalevala as a source of inspiration – 1935 was the centenary of the national epic. Sibelius's 70th birthday in the same year turned into a public celebration of a grand scale, with the prime minister and former presidents in attendance. A birthday greeting arrived from Germany – a Goethe medal, the citation signed by chancellor Adolf Hitler.
While the young Sibelius had taken an active political stand through his compositions, the old Sibelius was very aware of his status as a national hero. He avoided taking sides or making political comments but politely agreed with whomever he was speaking. We know now that after the bitter civil war in Finland in 1918, Sibelius remained suspicious of Socialists and Communists and was probably more conservative than liberal in his thinking. Aino Sibelius was interested in right-wing ideas and admired Hitler initially – her copy of Mein Kampf remains on the bookshelf Ainola. But in 1943, Sibelius wrote in his diary:
This primitive way of thinking – antisemitism etc. I just can't approve it any more at my age. (6 September 1943)
During the war years, patriotic pieces such as Finlandia gained new importance. The gratitude of the nation was manifested in a generous gesture by the government on the composer's birthday in 1945: Sibelius's quite adequate pension was tripled. Sibelius made at least one public, political comment regarding the war. Finland had fought its dramatic Winter War against the Soviet Union in 1939 to 1940, losing significant parts of the country to the enemy. During the so-called Continuation War in 1941 to 1944 (Finns tend to talk about their two separate wars rather than World War II) Finland allied itself with Germany against Russia. Sibelius agreed to make a statement to the US in order to gain understanding for Finland's actions. Around the same time, word came to Ainola from Germany about a new Sibelius Society, initiated by Joseph Goebbels. Sibelius sent his daughter Ruth to Germany to represent the family in the inaugural celebrations.
The nightly composing continued until the 1940s. It is assumed that the sketches of the eighth symphony were finally burnt in the fireplace of Ainola some time around 1945. Several of the world's big orchestras continued to hold out hope until, a day after Sibelius's death on 20th September 1957, his eldest daughter made an announcement on the family's behalf. The next morning, a stunned headline appeared in a Helsinki newspaper: 'There is no eighth symphony'.
Diary entries from 'Jean Sibelius Dagbok 1909-1944', edited by Fabian Dahlström, Atlantis, 2005. Family reminiscenses and all other quotes from 'Aina poltti sikaria – Jean Sibelius aikalaisten silmin', by Vesa Sirén, Otava, 2000. Translations from Swedish and Finnish by Anni Heino.
This essay is based on concert talks given at the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra's Sibelius festival, in July 2007.
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