When Jean Sibelius and Aino Järnefelt first chanced upon each other, their eyes locked for so long that she faltered. He was visiting her family flat in Helsinki and was providing, with her brother Armas, musical accompaniment to a pantomime being put up by the ladies of the house. So intense was Jean’s blue-eyed gaze that Aino could not go on with her part. Thus began the relationship of “the prettiest girl in Finland” and her greatest composer.
Being the daughter of an aristocrat, namely the General August Aleksander Järnefelt, proved to be young Sibelius’ first test. The second was the protectiveness of her two brothers. Jean was still an unproven composer with no regular income. Although by then he had the reputation for being a lady’s man, Jean found himself lacking the confidence to court Aino and for a time turned his attention elsewhere – much to her disappointment.
A Brother Relents
Her brother Armas perhaps finally gave in when one evening in 1890. Aino came into his room, threw herself into his arms, bursting into tears over her apparently unrequited love for Sibelius. She confessed to Armas that she had wanted to confide about Sibelius for a long time, but feared it would only anger her brother. Full of pity, Armas consoled her, promising to help, himself unable to hold back tears for his lovelorn sister.
Jean and Aino met again later that year in her father’s home in Vaasa, played music together, both in love with each other but uncertain how the other felt. When he was leaving Vaasa at the train platform, he asked Armas to pass a message of thanks to Aino for her company – but her brother declined, citing concern that this would cause Aino untold distress. At this very juncture when he was leaving her company, Jean suddenly realized it. “I then understood for the first time that you had never really forgotten me. I left Vaasa in a strange state, half idiot and half composer.”
On 23 September 1890, having sent Aino home after an evening of music, outside the door of her brother Arvid’s place in Helsinki, Jean asked Aino to marry him. She accepted. Coincidentally, the following night she read the manuscript of “Alone”, the first novel of Finnish author Juhani Aho, within which he declared his love for her. When she returned home to Vaasa, she found her train compartment filled with flowers – by Jean.
The successful premiere of Kullervo in 1892 propelled Sibelius high up enough in society’s view that a marriage became possible in the eyes of Aino’s family. Although his income (from teaching and performing) up till this point was uncertain, he was soon to receive a government stipend on the account of his contributions to the Finnish nation. These signs of his potential as a viable composer gave some hope to all. But in fact, it would be a long and extremely trying journey. Here the fairy tale ended.
The Price of the Artist
In the ensuing years, Jean and Aino’s relationship and marriage were tested to the uppermost limits by the composer’s over-indulgent taste for the high life and alcohol, exacerbated by burgeoning debts, made even worse by the irregularities of a full-time composer’s life.
Reading about this period, you would probably be as impressed with his musical progress as you would be appalled at his apparent disregard for family and husbandly obligations. Sibelius’ personal mission to become a famous composer took priority, and he made this clear to Aino. He put it in no uncertain terms that “The sort of marriage centreing solely on rearing children is anathema to me – there are other things to think about if you are an artist.”
He would frequently abandon wife and home – and later children – in order to pursue what he perceived as the extravagant social life appropriate for a celebrity artist. Even as his first daughter, Eva, was born, he spent increasingly less time at home, preferring to squander his money – of which he had little – on drinking, smoking and socializing. He would not just spend hours, but often days away from home. One time in 1901, he abandoned wife, daughters (including a 6-year-old Ruth who was fighting typhus) and financial uncertainties at home, simply because he could not longer stand the stress of being with them.
Aino certainly did not appreciate this, but there was one thing that she believed in with absolute, unwavering reserve: Sibelius’ genius. In fact, this would become the single most important article of faith that kept the couple together.
Ambrosia, Anger, Ainola
Arguably worse than his debts was Sibelius’ habit of drinking. Excessively. He justified it with the belief that only alcohol kept him steady, it helped him conduct “like a young god”. But it certainly tested Aino’s patience, who on more than one occasion berated him on the way he embarrassed himself in public, and wasted precious funds on drinking.
Sibelius was acutely aware of the problems he caused to his wife, but he was just as incapable of controlling it. However, there has never been any evidence that he fought to justify himself. Indeed, there are many accounts of his deep remorse. At one time, he even considered separation from Aino, out of sympathy for her.
In 1903, seeking to remove Sibelius from the city of Helsinki, the centre of drink and socialites, Aino and his close friend Axel Carpelan convinced Sibelius to move to the countryside. Despite having a debt equivalent to 80,000 Euros today, Sibelius borrowed enough to buy a plot of land in Järvenpää, which had then become a sort of artists’ village. There, a house was built which the Sibelius family moved in in 1904. He named his new home “Ainola” – which means, essentially, home of Aino.
Aino recounted how their happiest time as a family was during the seven years when he gave up drinking from 1908 after being diagnosed with suspected throat cancer. But, only seven years. She was full of disgust when alcohol ensnared her husband again around the time of the Fifth Symphony.
At one point, so angry was Aino that she could no longer speak to him, choosing instead to write him a note, accusing him of demeaning himself by finding “artificial inspiration” through despicable means – alcohol. And yet, as unpalatable as the idea might be to some, it seems Sibelius might have truly only been able to reach a certain plane of inebriated assurance that allowed him to write his best, through alcohol. He could not find the steadiness of hand, it is said, to write the Seventh Symphony, except with its help.
Aino fought intense depression, as a mother, keeping the house together, struggling with her husband’s debts for many years, but to her immense credit, refused to give up. But we know today that Jean and Aino lived together into his 90s. For more than 60 years, they remained married, and lived in Ainola till their end of days – a feat rare even by today’s standards.
Even when he finally became able to generate a stable income, Sibelius’ way of life continued to pile on the debts. In 1909, this peaked, amounting to a modern sum of 320,000 Euros (more than USD 420,000 or SGD 524,000). Only stalwart friends, publishing music, fame and its ensuing fortune, plus donations from supporters kept him from going bankrupt.
Sibelius’ fortunes took a dramatic turn as he found fame and champions in America. He finally cleared his debts in 1927, when he was 62 years old. The full story of his debt is described here at sibelius.fi, which argues that Sibelius took a gamble, responsible or not – and succeeded. He lived the high life that he wanted, built a big house for his family, splurged on drinking that he claimed calmed his nerves as composer and conductor, and ultimately won the gamble. (Please don’t try this at home).
“Today [in 1935] life at Ainola is in many ways different from what it was in our childhood; there are no financial problems anymore nor as many bad reviews as before. Admiration, interest, understanding is flooding in from the outside world. Nowadays the public is not just talking about Valse Triste or Finlandia; countless music lovers have access to Sibelius’s orchestral poems and symphonies on gramophone records.” – Eva Paloheimo (1893 – 1978), their oldest daughter.
A well-known aspect of Sibelius’ life as a composer is that he wrote trivial tunes – the equivalent of elevator music, for the sake of publication royalties – next to extraordinary monuments in symphonic thinking. Aino herself was appalled at this uncomfortable dichotomy within the genius that she held faith to in her husband. Even in the face of financial uncertainty, she found it unpalatable, and felt as if he was betraying his own genius.
“Father sometimes fretted over not being able to spend time on his great works. He had to write small pieces for a living. We children said: ‘Then why do you write them, if you don’t want to?’ Father: ‘So that you can get sandwiches.'” – Katarina Ilves (1903 – 1984), their fourth daughter.
In the very trees of Ainola
Despite all the stories of Sibelius’ lack of reliability as a family man, there are just as many tales from his own children about the profound sense of security Sibelius exuded at home.
“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.” – Katarina Ilves
“He had such blue eyes when he gazed at us. I have never seen anything like it with anyone else. I always remember the feeling of safety that came over me when I was sitting on his lap.” – Margareta Jalas (1908 – 1988), fifth daughter.
“We children always had such a strong sense of his presence. It is hard to believe, but somehow you always knew, sensed, if he was at home or somewhere else, even if you did not see him… something like a density in the air when he was at home … I felt as if his presence was in the very trees of Ainola. It was quite extraordinary.” – Margareta Jalas
One Last Bouquet
During the last decades at Ainola, Aino continued to devote herself to her husband, her family and her vegetable garden. “My wife’s whole life has been dominated by a sense of duty,” Jean Sibelius said to his secretary in the 1940s.
Ironically, peace and stability seems to almost have coincided with Sibelius’ “Silence of Järvenpää”, the final 30 years or so of his life when he lived debt-free, where no major work emerged from hands (least of all the legendary Eighth Symphony). I am tempted to suggest that the lack of stress contributed to the composer’s lessened(?) inspiration.
Jean perhaps, increasingly found time for his Aino, his wife of whom his gratitude had been far too long owed. In the 1940s, she described what may have been his figurative final act as a composer, the sight of her octogenarian husband burning a large basket of manuscripts in the fireplace of Ainola, where the ashes of the Eighth Symphony probably now lie forever. It was Sibelius’ farewell to his role as master symphonist of the 20th century. As much as this episode pained her, she acknowledged that after this Jean became “calmer and gradually lighter in mood. It was a happy time.”
Katarina related how her parents would often begin dancing in Ainola without any music playing. As if they danced to their own tune, that only the couple could hear. On the morning of 10th August 1956, on Aino’s 85th birthday, the 89-year-old composer climbed to the upper floor of Ainola to present his wife a large bouquet of roses, even though he had much trouble ascending the steep stairs since the 1940s.
Jean died on 20 September, 1957. She laid a funeral ribbon on his grave. Aino’s last message to Jean.
“From your own wife, in gratitude for a life
dedicated to your great art.”
She continued to live at Ainola, arranging family documents and assisting biographers to chronicle the life and art of her husband. Aino died on 8th June 1969, aged almost 98.
Photo by Heikki Siltala
“I am happy that I have been able to live by his side. I feel that I have not lived for nothing. I do not say that it has always been easy – one has had to repress and control one’s own wishes – but I am very happy. I bless my destiny and see it as a gift from heaven. To me my husband’s music is the word of God – its source is noble, and it is wonderful to live close to such a source.”
Photograph by Mark Kauffman © Time Life Pictures/Getty Images.
(Enjoy. I’ll have to remove this photo sooner than later due to copyright).
References (text, quotes, photos)
- Rickards, Guy. Jean Sibelius (Phaidon 20th Century Composers). Phaidon: London, 1997. ISBN 0-7148-3581-1.
- Jeremias Ylirotu (Metropoli Oy). Jean Sibelius Website of the Finnish Club of Helsinki – www.sibelius.fi (including The occupants of Ainola)
- The Life of Jean Sibelius http://sibelius.tk/
- The Ainola Foundation website www.ainola.fi.