And incredibly, the day has come! 150 years and stronger than ever – Happy 150th Birthday, Jean Sibelius!

Thank you to the variety of people who made this possible, including friends and Sibelius champions Okko Kamu, CEO of BIS, Robert von Bahr, Sibelius scholar Andrew Barnett, Sibelius pianist Folke Gräsbeck, and more. Kiitos!

Be part of a Sibelius 150th Birthday Greeting Video

Thank you for everyone’s contributions!

I am embarking on a project. Success is not 100% guaranteed as I’ve never done something like this before, but I’m going to try it.  I would like to make a video collage of birthday greetings for Sibelius, on the occasion of his 150th birthday.

To do this, I will like to invite all Sibelius fans to send in a short video clip of yourself/ yourselves saying “Happy Birthday, Sibelius!” (all languages welcome) to me, and I will compile them in time for 8 December, 2015, his exact birthday. I already have a handful of clips captured at the recently concluded Lahti Sibelius Festival, such as……

Do you recognize any faces in there? :)

… but to succeed, the project will need more contributors.

If you are keen to contribute,

  1. Video Tool: Use any suitable camera. Any modern smartphone should be more than capable of this.
  2. Duration: The clip should be short, about 3 seconds and up to 5 seconds. I may accept longer clips if the content is justifiable. :)
  3. File Format: please try to send a commonly playable file such as .mp4, .mov or .avi. I am not an expert in this area and am willing to see if other formats work. Just send them in and I’ll let you know. Your file size should be less than 1mb (I reckon way less than that).
  4. Deadline: please send in your video clip by 15 November 2015.
  5. Video location: the plan now is to host the video on YouTube. It will also appear on the Jean Sibelius Facebook Page that I manage.
  6. Privacy Note: obviously, if you want to join in this celebration, you have to accept that you will appear in a public video, and that your contribution is provided free of any charge or licensing issues.
  7. This project has no commercial intent or purpose. It is purely our tribute to our favourite composer. I will be sharing this worldwide and with all Sibelius-related organizations where possible/appropriate.

Use your imagination regarding where to film yourselves – it could be with a Sibelius picture, statue, at a Sibelius concert, with your CD collection, etc. I realize I should’ve started this project earlier in order to have given fans more opportunities to get this done at locations like Ainola, the Sibelius Monument or the Lahti Festival. I apologize for this oversight. Still hoping this works out well.

This project is over, but if you have any queries about it, contact me at dustofhue@gmail.com 

Deadline: 15 November 2015



Karelia: Land of Inspiration

It is now almost one year since I visited Karelia in Finland. The following is a reminiscence, before I once again travel to Finland for the 150th anniversary celebrations of Jean Sibelius’s birth.

For someone like me coming from a small, heavily urbanized and developed country like Singapore, our perception of a forest can perhaps be quite limited. I think we take for granted that the trees planted all around us in the city are “enough”. They are not a bad thing, but I do not feel entirely comfortable with the way we sculpt forests within the confines of our buildings and roads.  There is something too neat about it. Some trees in Singapore’s urban landscape are very old, for sure, and I wonder if they have always stood there, the roads being built around them to preserve them. Other trees – the newer ones, are obviously planted to follow the roads. And now we have the Gardens by the Bay, the  most gardened of gardens, with “Supertree” sculptures meant to emulate the majesty of real trees. But I’m sorry to say: I am not impressed. A tree is not merely a sight by the road to see from behind car windows, or conveniently placed to provide you shade and beautify your surroundings. Trees are life itself. Mankind can try to sculpt nature, but he would do best to  allow nature to sculpt herself.

It was the day after my first visit to Ainola on this Summer 2014 trip, and I woke up early in Kallio-Kuninkula, former home of Eva Sibelius and now a musical venue for the Sibelius Academy, to pack for the next part of my journey: a full-day’s train and bus ride to Lieksa, in Northern Karelia. After breakfast, we departed and walked to Kyrölä station, which as of this writing has now been renamed the Ainola station. But for now we are not going to Ainola.

Treeline on the way to Karelia

The train journey was long. In between trying to take some pictures of this remote part of Eastern Finland, walking to the cafe carriage of the train to buy a orange juice and struggling with my big luggage case, I dropped my camera. The Hoya filter did its job, sacrificing itself to break the fall. My heart definitely skipped a beat. Luckily I had a spare lens, but it was a little worrisome at that point.

We disembarked from the train at Joensuu in Eastern Finland to take a bus to Lieksa, further north. While we waited in the freezing cold wind – this was the coldest on my trip so far, a Somali woman asked us for directions, first in Finnish, then in English. It seemed quite strange to me to see a Somali woman in this windy cold day in Finland, asking me for directions in Finland. She was a little lost herself, but seemed more at home with the language than I was.

In the learning years of my music-listening, before the years of the Flying Inkpot, all I possessed with which to imagine these foreign lands and cultures that  all these non-Asian composers come from were pictures in books and pictures on record covers. They were always different and untouchable, even if the music connected us. In the early years when I championed Sibelius on the internet, online images provided a bit more variety that I could curate. For years all I knew of Finland were images of their quintessential lakes, forests and little tree-studded islands. Beyond looking at the pictures, I could only listen to Sibelius, and somehow try to make the connection.

The bus finally came while I sat in an empty lobby trying unsuccessfully to detach the broken filter on my camera, trying to ascertain if the lens itself was damaged. We boarded the bus in the frigid wind and settled down for the ride to Lieksa where we were greeted by two more of my good hosts for this trip, Paula and her sister Kikki (Andrew’s wife). Paula drove us to her cottage by Lake Pielinen.

On this cloudy, cold and grey day, I met Karelia for the first time in real life.

Pielinen in grey

Melancholy and distant Karelia.

Pielinen in grey2

Silent and poignant Karelia.

To my relief, my lens was intact. Only the Hoya filter was cracked beyond repair. The camera worked fine. I was given a choice to spend the night in a small sideroom by the sauna, which would be heated naturally by the sauna; or I could sleep in the new cabin, which is not heated. Admittedly, I chose the new cabin because it seemed a little more spacious and neater. The night was cold and I woke up with a slight headache from it,  but it seemed tolerable.

Karelia dawn

I was up at 5.25am to try to catch the sunrise. I sat on a rock by the lake, but the sun never really appeared. It simply went from dull grey to light grey, with a glow on the horizon that never quite blossomed. I guess I must have missed it or the sun rose into the thickness of the clouds, without sunburst. The Sunday was spent in a leisurely manner, breakfast, followed by a break. Then a walk in the woods where I was shown the spring from which water was sourced for everyday use, including drinking and cooking. The water is remarkably fresh and delicious. When you drink this water, you will understand how altered tap water is.

Sibelius’s music is likewise, remarkably honest. It has a purity that is on the one hand difficult for many people to appreciate because so many of us are used to the “altered” and embellished music of other masters. Which is not to say they are inferior or overcooked. It’s just that, once in a while, you need to take away the excessive sweetness, the adulterated additives or the chemical neutralizers, to remind yourself – or sometimes to inform yourself for the first time – the sound and taste of purity.

These days, we are used to seeing pictures of beautiful National Geographic-esque, pretty (or prettified) landscapes on the internet. They are a dime a dozen. Even your friends post pictures from their vacations, inciting a mixture of marvel and envy. For me, pictures of Finland and especially Karelia have always been just pictures. Pictures in jpeg format that I decorate my reviews with, to give flavour to my writings about Sibelius, and also as soothing eye candy for the word-weary reader.

But today, it was different. Today, an image on the internet became reality for me. The jpeg was not something I downloaded, but something I was going to see for myself and as a bonus to capture in my camera. At about 5 o’clock in the evening, after a 4-hour walk in the forest and hills nearby, Andrew and I were resting in the cottage when Paula came by and from outside, hollered for us to come out. In her wonderfully dry, minimalistically Finnish and godmotherly fashion, she uttered, quite simply, “Come out. The sun has come out.”

What I beheld took all my breath away. The entirety of it all had transformed. The whole world before me sang Sibelius.



The First Symphony, the Third Symphony, the Karelia Ballade – it was all coming from the landscape.


And beyond or perhaps before all that music the immense, immense and soul-searching silence.

Karelian sunset

For one entire year, back home in Singapore, I could not figure out how to repay my hosts for this privilege of being here. I wanted to express my gratitude, beyond ordinary ways of thanks and gifts, but there was simply nothing to match the gift of Finland that I had received. I am forever grateful to Andrew, for all his knowledge and his generosity in making my Finnish trips work out; for Kikki, his wife, her unassuming joy and warm friendship – which has kept us connected all this time. That one photo she shared online with which I commented, “Bring me there someday!” and it really happened. And last but not least, Paula, her sister who has connected me spiritually to the forests and to the Finnish soul, by way of Sibelius. I sometimes wonder at how to explain it, but I always feel additionally indebted to her. In part for nothing less than this opportunity to stay at her Karelian cottage.

And so, this year, I decided finally, that the only gift worthy of Karelia is Karelia itself. I sent a number of photographs from my 2014 trip for printing and gave these to Paula. Judging by her emotional reaction, it seems my choice is right, if I may say so. I told her, it seems to me that it’s strange to give you photos of a place that is your home that you already “have”. But I hope that the photos can represent a moment in time which I’ve managed to capture, and give that moment to her as a gift. A  moment in her very own land, a land of music and inspiration, a moment in the music, in the homeland of Jean Sibelius.

Fantasia and the Swan of Tuonela

What has Jean Sibelius got to do with Walt Disney? It seems in December 1940, Disney approached Sibelius to propose featuring The Swan of Tuonela in the famous animated film Fantasia. Although by that time, Fantasia was already running in the theatres for a month, Disney already had plans to continually revise and improve the film – an approach that would surely have received more than a few approving nods from Sibelius!

Throughout 1941, story material was developed based on the addition or substition of new pieces of music, including Wagner’s The Ride of the Valkyries, Weber’s Invitation to the Dance, Rimsky-Korsakov’s Flight of the Bumblebee and Debussy’s Clair de Lune.

Disney acting out a scene in The Sorcerer's Apprentice for Taylor and Stokowski.
Disney acting out a scene in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice for Taylor and Stokowski. Picture from wikipedia.

On 9 December, 1940, a day after the composer’s 75th birthday, a letter arrived from the Walt Disney production company, bearing the Fantasia title decorated with cartoon characters. The message it carried was from John C. Rosen of Disney, who described Walt Disney as being a long-time admirer of Sibelius’s music. Although The Swan of Tuonela is not under copyright protection the United States, he added, Mr Disney did not want to proceed with using it in the film without the composer’s blessings.

Swan of Tuonela by American painter, Lorena Bowser
Swan of Tuonela by American painter, Lorena Bowser (Fine Art Studio 111)

Rosen explained the film’s intention to depict the “awe and reverence” for the souls of the departed on its journey through Tuonela, accompanied by the beautiful and majestic Swan. He assured the composer that each scene in the film would be as faithful to to the spirit of Finnish mythology, and will be accompanied by corresponding verses from the Finnish national epic, Kalevala.

The letter was accompanied by a note of support from the Finnish Ambassador to the US, Hjalmar Procopé , who said the project would be of great significance to the promotion of Finnish culture.

Sibelius’s interest in the matter is only known from the fact that he contacted his publisher, Breitkopf & Härtel, about it. I say “only” because – alas, in the end, nothing came of it. Perhaps the composer’s interest was piqued because of the involvement of Leopold Stokowski and the Philadephia Orchestra in Fantasia – the very same musicians who made the first recording of The Swan of Tuonela in 1929.

In any case, the proposal did not come to fruition. Any correspondence between Breitkopf & Härtel and the composer regarding the project has not survived, and thus we do not know exactly why it was rejected or not taken up.

Could it have been indeed a copyright issue? Considering the potentially huge earnings a film of Disney’s stature could earn, did Breitkopf & Härtel desire a cut … which Sibelius might have felt too awkward to ask of the Americans? Did Sibelius perhaps feel that a “cartoon” was not befitting his “serious” music? I speculate.

I leave you with this animation-style YouTube video of The Swan of Tuonela, featuring the classic Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic.If it had been featured in Fantasia, it might have looked something close to this.

This article is adapted from “Sibelius ja Hollywood” by Sibelius scholar Glenda Dawn Goss.

Juhana’s Memories of Ainola – Grandpa Sibelius, tired guardian angel

Sibelius with Juhana 1939
Jean Sibelius in a hammock with his grandson Juhana 1939.

I often visit that treasure trove of Sibelius information, sibelius.fi. I have never tried to read everything, so sometimes I would just click randomly to see what I might have missed. Gradually, I realized that some of the material in Finnish has apparently not been translated into English.

It was on this page regarding the Memories of Ainola – from his grandchildren, that I found this very curious photograph. A rather awkward photograph, I’ll say. A portly Sibelius looks somewhat uncomfortable – or is it comfortable, with the crossed legs?  – lounging on a hammock. With him is the then 2-year-old Juhana Blomstedt (1937 -2010), son of Finnish architect Aulis Blomstedt and Heidi Sibelius, who later became an important modernist artist (biography).

Now, one useful trick about sibelius.fi is that if you change the word “suomi” to “english” in the URL of page, it switches the language accordingly. I often do this when I’m looking for the Finnish version of an English text. However , for this page, there was no English version.

I remained curious about the story behind this photo, and sought help getting the Finnish translated. The deed was finally done by dear friend and leading UK Sibelius scholar Andrew Barnett. Thanks, Andrew!

The result is a smattering of various memories, some trivial, others serious, yet others of amusing anecdotes about the composer – but all of interest.

Artist Juhana Blomstedt (1937 - 2010)
Artist Juhana Blomstedt (1937 – 2010)

Jean Sibelius in a hammock with his grandson Juhana, 1939
Source: sibelius.fi

Juhana Blomstedt is Heidi Blomstedt’s eldest son, an artist and professor. ‘I was obviously pretty hard to look after, because my mother once told me that she had telephoned Ainola and had asked how Juhana was doing there. Grandfather had replied that Juhana was doing fine, but his guardian angel was very tired .

Of the bombing during the Continuation War, I remember that we were once sheltering in the sauna and saw the explosions, white in the night sky, a long way off towards Helsinki. Having lived in the city, I asked for the curtains to be drawn. Grandma said something approving.

The adults listened to the news on the radio, and in the evenings I sometimes sneaked onto the stairs to listen when large losses were reported on the radio. I thought that the losses referred to were the big buttons on the radio, and I was surprised by the adults’ serious faces.

Grandfather was otherwise very friendly, told us funny stories and liked to laugh. I would say that he was a happy person who achieved peace of mind through the significance of his life’s work. I remember how he listened to his own works on the radio. His forehead was wrinkled. He tended his works as if they were his own children.

There were strict rules concerning how we should behave. At the dinner table, for example, it was forbidden to speak unless spoken to.

I was still so young that I did not know how to swear. Siimes was a good friend of mine, he was the caretaker, though he didn’t live at Ainola but over in Järvenpää. I often went to their house nearby to listen to him playing the accordion. Once I asked him to teach me just one swear word. I immediately had to try it out at the meal table, and Grandfather immediately sent me to the kitchen to eat. It’s terrible to admit it, but I preferred to eat there, as I felt freer in there. In the dining room, at the dinner table we did not get to speak unless spoken to. They were horrified at my swearing, until Grandfather and Grandma realized that I had not understood what the word in question meant – it might have been ‘perkele’ or ‘saatana’.

Under the dining-room table was a foot-operated button that sent a message to the kitchen to say that the next course was due. It felt strange to push that button myself, with grandfather’s permission.

I also remember Grandfather’s long walks, by means of which he kept fit. And in the evenings grandma played patience, and together we did huge jigsaw puzzles.’

SO, they had jigsaw puzzles at Ainola! I’m guessing one of them is a mosaic from heaven.


Andante festivo – New Year Greetings 2015

This has been a long time coming. I have always wanted to create a video of Sibelius’s Andante festivo, a piece so dear to my heart and I’m sure to many a Sibelian. For many years I’ve sat on the idea and done several other videos but this one I’ve put off because I want it to be really good. I also have a dilemma about whether to use the recording that first introduced me to the work, or to use Sibelius’s historic 1939 recording. The decision I made this morning – playing both versions loudly on my hifi after breakfast at home – is that ultimately I’ll do both. For now though, it will be the former – Neeme Järvi’s 1982 recording on BIS with the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra, a very beautiful and powerful account that still sounds fantastic to this day. The CD is 30 years old.

The photos used are from my 2014 trip to Finland, mostly of Suomenlinna and a few of Karelia. I plan to make a couple of videos this coming year for Karelia. In the meantime, Happy New Year to all! Happy 2015! Happy 150th Anniversary, Jean Sibelius!

Remembering Grandfather Sibelius

She is wielding a scythe. Satu Jalas, Sibelius’s granddaughter by his second youngest daughter Margareta, cuts through the grass on the grounds of Ainola as she leads us to the area known as “The Temple” . Trudging through the summer grass behind her with me is UK Sibelius scholar Andrew Barnett. Following a remark I made earlier about locating this rather sacred spot, Andrew revealed that he himself has never visited the location and would love to – so he asked Satu if she knew…


It is August 29, 2014, and I am back in Finland for the second time. It is my great honour and privilege to be brought to Ainola on my first day – right after landing in Vantaa airport at 6.35am – to witness a recording session later in the evening with Mdm Satu Jalas and Folke Gräsbeck, pianist and friend. It will happen after public visiting hours and go late into the night. For all this and more, I am eternally grateful to Andrew.

But right now,  it’s about 4pm and Satu has just arrived at Ainola. She still treats it like a home, describes Andrew – she would regularly open up cupboards to show us various things, and sit on the couches and arrange things.  “This should not be here,” she says, pointing to an object or two inside Ainola, before moving it to where it would have been when she was a child. And indeed she should treat it like a home, for she did come here as the granddaughter of Jean and Aino Sibelius.

And this granddaughter is now wielding a 4-foot scythe, which she procured from the shed, and is cutting through the grass in front of us, clearing our way to The Temple (see this pdf map from Ainola for its location). I feel a little awkward walking behind her, 30 years her junior and not doing it myself (I offered of course!). When we reach the spot, on the northern end of Ainola, I am a little disappointed to realize that Sibelius’s tree root chair is no longer there. What happened to it? I asked. No one knows, she says. It’s disappeared. It’s returned to nature, perhaps.

Sibelius in tree-root chair 1940s by Santeri Levas
Sibelius in his tree-root chair. Photo from the 1940s by Santeri Levas courtesy of the Finnish Museum of Photography

“He loved to pile up the pillows and have his grandchildren surround him.  He would ask us to tell him all our dreams.” Satu recounts with great fondness later that evening after the recordings are done. “Grandfather was a sweet nice man”, she states in his defence. “Not like the sour face in photos. He was never angry.” Her own face is filled with a frown of disappointment, trying to express a certain injustice in the way many of Jean Sibelius’s photos seem to show the composer as a severe, dour  figure, made even more unapproachable in black and white. But Satu’s face lights up as she describes how he loved giving his grandchildren great big hugs. She demonstrates this, opening her arms wide – very wide. Indeed it looked as if one were being embraced by a huge loving papa bear, massive and pure in its love.

Grandfather Sibelius once gave out chocolate to all his grandchildren. But that day, little Satu was not well and unable to eat the sweet treats. She describes how his face filled with great pity for her. He went away for “a long, long time” before coming back with some candies for her. But her Grandmother, Satu recounts with amusement, quietly warned her not to eat the candies as they are very old. “I took them anyway!” Satu laughs.

The following week, I met Mdm Satu again on the last day of the Lahti Sibelius Festival. As we left the hall at the end of the chamber recital featuring Sibelius’s music for violin and piano, I asked her, “What do you feel when you hear your grandfather’s music?” She paused ever so slightly and says, “I feel…. something inside.” Which would seem to the reader like an obvious sentiment. But what you cannot see is her facial expression. She is trying to describe a powerful nostalgia which you and I cannot fully comprehend. It is the music of her grandfather, that one Jean Sibelius, who is not just a famous composer, but family. Nothing more, nothing less. She seems to feel, if I may attempt an interpretation, something akin to pride but closer to love. It is a powerful connection, an almost overwhelming nostalgia.

“I want to keep all the memories and feelings of my grandfather.” Satu says as we walk under the Forest Hall at Sibeliustalo, underneath the constellations of 8 December 1865. She has unconsciously answered a different question, albeit just as personal. “When I was five years old, ” she continues with her flow of memories, “I understood immediately the Fourth Symphony. I was just five.” She recalls how on one trip to visit Ainola,  she had the Fourth Symphony playing in her head while on the train. She arrived at Ainola in tears. When Grandfather found out the reason, he was again filled with sympathy for her, and the result (of course) was another loving embrace.

“Finland must find its music and soul.” Satu now says, thinking of her grandfather’s fateful role in Finnish music. “We had to ‘push out’ the Russian, Slavic sound.” And Finland did. Jean Sibelius did, forever changing the meaning of Finnish music.

“Your grandfather has completely changed my life.” Now it is my turn to say to her, on that first day on 29th August. I tried to express in words just how much Jean Sibelius has influenced my life, the way I think,  my place in the world.  We stood reminiscing in the sunlight of the forest floor where the tree-root chair used to be. At these words, I saw a layer of formality and emotional distance instantly fall away from Satu, as she breaks into a warm smile and her own sympathetic “Awwwww…” for me. And then, suddenly, I am in her embrace. In The Temple at Ainola, in the arms of a Sibelius.

Satu Jalas and me.
Satu Jalas and me, at The Temple, Ainola.


[I’ve tried to reproduce as accurately as possible  Mdm Satu’s words but some paraphrasing may have taken place, which I hope the reader will forgive.]

More on Satu Jalas:


To Finland Again

I remember last time, before I departed for Finland, the immense emotional weight bearing on me. It was joy and terror. It wasn’t that I thought it the trip would go wrong, or that it would be difficult. It was the emotional weight of having a lifelong dream squeezed into a one-week journey, in fact, into that one moment when I finally placed my hand on his final resting place. I brought the emotional weight of some 20 years of being moved by his music “back” to his home, and truly, it felt amazing to bring it home. Ainola was beautiful, shimmering with elation.

It is a little strange now, listening to Sibelius’s music. Music is a sometimes strange thing for us modern people. It comes out of plastic speakers, and plays without musicians present, without composer alive. As I imagine myself approaching Finland, it is as if the music becomes more and more real, like going to the source. Sibelius was a synesthete – he had a condition called synesthesia where the stimulation of one sense (such as seeing a colour in a landscape or even the smell of hemp drying) evoked sounds in his hearing. He often said that the silence spoke – and it appears he meant it literally.

Sibelius in tree-root chair 1940s by Santeri Levas
Jean Sibelius in his tree root chair in the border area of the Ainola grounds, 1940-1945, Järvenpää. Photo by Santeri Levas, used by courtesy of the Finnish Museum of Photographÿ.

I wonder often how this experience must be like. Since I do not have synesthesia, I can only imagine it as having a sound buzzing in my ear or head – rather like hearing the whirr of the air conditioner or the ticking of the clock in my room now – if one thinks about hearing it. But I suspect it isn’t that simple. Sibelius, I guess, probably heard real tones and harmonies, when he looked upon and drank in nature. I’m reasonably certain this is why 1) he took walks in the forest so often, 2) he demanded absolutely silence when he composed and 3) he said, “[Here at Ainola,] the silence speaks”.

I find that it remains difficult to share with others, my friends and even family, why I love, appreciate and believe so passionately in Sibelius’s music. I’m beginning to think that it is my own synesthetic experience. I experience something – something beautiful, something serene, something emotional, something cosmic – when I listen to Sibelius. And it is not something I can explain to someone who doesn’t get it; someone who doesn’t (yet) experience this with Sibelius.

This year, 2014, I make my way to Finland again, for the International Sibelius Festival in Lahti, Finland. Besides the festival, I have the great honour of being invited by my host, eminent British Sibelius scholar Andrew Barnett, to witness a recording at Ainola, featuring the pianist Folke Gräsbeck and Satu Jalas, Sibelius’s grand-daughter who also plays on the composer’s own violin.  I cannot begin to express my gratitude and the immensity of this rare privilege. During the trip, I will also be part of a special group (more on that in a couple of week’s time) who will be granted another special privilege – access and a private tour into areas of Ainola not open to the public. I will write about this at dustofhue.com. And that’s not all. We will also have something new and exciting to announce soon for Sibelius fans all over the world – mark this date: 6 September 2014.

I have much to look forward to, and one of the greatest – both a joy and a privilege – is to meet so many fellow Sibelians in one place. People with whom I do not need to explain.

“Music begins where the possibilities of language end.”