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.

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.


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:


There they come, the birds of my youth

Cranes SibeliusSibelius was returning to his home, Ainola, from his customary morning walk in the woods. Exhilarated, he told his wife Aino that he had seen a flock of cranes approaching.

“There they come, the birds of my youth,” he exclaimed.

Suddenly, one of the birds broke away from the formation and circled once above Ainola. It came so close that he could see it clearly for the first time in years, despite his cataract-ridden eyes. The bird then rejoined the flock to continue its journey.

Jean Sibelius died two days later at home, on 20 September, 1957.

* * * * *

Photo of a flight of sandhill cranes by Mark Stevens (Flickr/thor_ mark), used under Creative Commons License.  http://www.flickr.com/photos/14723335@N05/9445039297/

Those few minutes on the porch: Sibelius and Eugene Ormandy

Eugene Ormandy meets Sibelius for the first time in 1951
Eugene Ormandy meets Sibelius for the first time in 1951

“Meeting Sibelius for the first time, I had the impression of being in the presence of someone almost superhuman.  Here was a being I had admired and looked up to all my life — and suddenly I was in his presence.  He was a towering man, a towering personality, with a magnificent head and powerful face.  His beautiful home was full of records, many of which we had sent him from America throughout the years.  Goddard Lieberson [President of Columbia Records, 1956-71, 1973-75] sent him many recordings from Columbia Records.  I remember that I once sent him a recording taken off the air of his Lemminkäinen suite, which we later recorded for Columbia.  He didn’t want it to be performed; that was one of the works he had a strong aversion to, and he wanted to keep the score from the public.  But I managed to get a copy from Helsinki, studied it thoroughly, liked it and performed it.  Then I sent a special recording to Sibelius.  I understand that he put it away for weeks before listening to it.  He was afraid because he was such an uncompromising critic of his own work.  But when he heard it he was pleased and sent me a cable followed by a kind and enthusiastic letter.  When we recorded the work officially, I sent him several copies and he was really touched.  I like to think that I was instrumental in getting Sibelius to appreciate one of his own works!

LP of Sibelius: Symphony No. 1 in E-Minor, Op. 39.  The Philadelphia Orchestra/Eugene Ormandy.  Columbia Masterworks MS-6395
LP of Sibelius: Symphony No. 1 in E-Minor, Op. 39. The Philadelphia Orchestra/Eugene Ormandy. Columbia Masterworks MS-6395

Sibelius’ First Symphony was the “first” for me in another sense — it was the first of the master’s symphonies I ever conducted.  This was in 1932, with the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra — and we recorded it for RCA Victor in that year.  I think perhaps it was the first Sibelius symphony to be recorded outside of Scandinavia.  Of course the great Finnish conductor, Sibelius’ friend Kajanus, had broken ground for Sibelius years before, and so had Koussevitzky, Stokowski and Beecham.  I have played the First Symphony many times in the intervening thirty years, and it never loses its fascination for me.  Recordings have changed a great deal since 1932, and so have interpretations of his works to the end, and he always had admiration for the work of my colleagues Stokowski and Koussevitzky.  I will risk immodesty to add that he praised my readings too.  His enthusiasm is a source of great pride to me.

Strangely enough, Sibelius has never been popular in the Germanic countries — excepting, of course, Scandinavia. Germany and Austria never took him to their hearts the way the British and we did.  And yet he studied in Germany and the German masters influenced his musical development — I remember a dozen years ago when the State Department asked me to conduct some concerts in Berlin with the RIAS Orchestra.  I programmed the Sibelius Second Symphony and it didn’t take me much more than one measure to realize that the orchestra had never seen it before.  When we had played it through, the very Germanic concertmaster said to me, “This isn’t such a bad work after all,” and left it at that.  The work seemed to make even less of an impression on the critics — one of them began his review with the question, “Why Sibelius?”  Fortunately, there are still a few conductors around whose answer to that question would be, “Because Sibelius is among the giants.” The Fourth I love, the Fifth I love and the Seventh — all of them free, wild, beautiful things, more like elemental forms of nature than consciously shaped works of art. –>

It is difficult for me to choose a favorite among the seven symphonies of Sibelius.  The first is still under the influence of Tchaikovsky, but it is a healthy thing for a first symphony to recall the past, and Sibelius does so gloriously.  The Second Symphony shows the composer struggling heroically to free himself from this influence, but not fully succeeding; the very tensions created by this struggle give the work its power.  Like the First, it is filled with passages that only Sibelius could have conceived.  The Third I don’t understand, frankly.  The Third and Sixth remain enigmas, as far as I am concerned.  The Fourth I love, the Fifth I love and the Seventh — all of them free, wild, beautiful things, more like elemental forms of nature than consciously shaped works of art.  And I wish I could say that I love the Eighth, too, but alas, like everyone else I have never heard it and don’t know if it exists or ever existed.

Sibelius and Ormandy 1951
Eugene Ormandy speaks to Sibelius, with Nils-Eric Ringbom in the background, 1951.

The Eighth Symphony is a mysterious subject.  Everytime I saw Sibelius — and I saw him four or five times, perhaps more — in his home about twenty-seven miles away from the city of Helsinki, I asked him about it, sometimes very tactfully, sometimes quite directly.  And his response was always the same:  he became very upset and nervous and quickly changed the subject.  He seemed to be disturbed that anyone should bring up the subject of the Eighth Symphony.  His son-in-law, Jussi Jalas, a very fine conductor and a good friend of mine, had told me that he was convinced that there was an Eighth Symphony.  On the other hand, Sibelius’ oldest daughter assured me that there was no such symphony.  If there was one, he destroyed it.  Sibelius is reputed to have said to intimate friends, “If I cannot write a better symphony than my Seventh, then it shall be my last.”  Apparently he was not satisfied — if he wrote an Eighth Symphony — with what he had done.  At any rate, he seems to have enjoyed the mystery surrounding the existence of the work.

Naturally, I always told him that if and when his Eighth Symphony was ready for performance I hoped he would give me the opportunity to give it its world premiere.  There was never any response:  his fine, nervous hands would begin to tremble even more and he would look away with a troubled expression.  Out of my admiration and respect I would never press the matter, although I felt puzzled and disappointed.  Twice I went to his house with Olin Downes, who was one of his greatest admirers and had written a book about him.  Mr. Downes promised me that he would bring up the subject, because I told him I didn’t dare to anymore.  But he got the same reply, or rather non-reply:  a strange twist in Sibelius’ face, a nervous intensity in his eyes, and the trembling hands.  I said in an aside to Mr. Downes, “We’d better drop the subject.”  We did.  It shall always remain a tantalizing mystery for me.

Photo © Argenta Images
Sibelius waving at the crowd, 1955. Photo © Argenta Images

As wonderful as it was to meet Sibelius for the first time, it was even more wonderful to have been able to introduce him, some years later, to the members of The Philadelphia Orchestra.  That occurred in June 1955, and there is a rather touching story connected with the meeting.  For some months previous I had been in correspondence with Dr. [Nils-Eric] Ringbom (See bio in Finnish), the director of the Helsinki Philharmonic, in order to arrange for the orchestra to meet the master while we were in Finland on tour.  Sibelius was very ill at the time, very old and fragile and tormented by ear trouble.  The day we were to go to his secluded villa at Järvenpää arrived, and though it was cold and raw and raining, the men were as excited and eager as children.  And I was as excited as any of them.  Imagine my disappointment when Dr. Ringbom called to confess that when he had written to me in Philadelphia to say that everything was arranged he had not mentioned that Sibelius himself knew nothing about the projected visit.  He had only spoken to Mrs. Sibelius, who had agreed at the time but now flatly said no, her husband was too ill to receive us.

There we were, in Helsinki, thousands of miles from home and within twenty-seven miles of Sibelius.  “Dr. Ringbom,” I said, “you must not disappoint us.  Please call up Mrs. Sibelius and explain to her that this orchestra, from the very earliest days with Stokowski, has done as much to spread Sibelius’ fame as any orchestra in the world.  All they ask in return is to see him.”  It worked.

My wife and I were having tea with him, and the orchestra came in two buses.  Even then he hadn’t been told that they were coming.  He was so sensitive — perhaps the most sensitive, shy man I ever met in my life — that the knowledge that he was to meet 110 musicians would probably have incapacitated him if he were given  too much time to think about it.  And those poor colleagues of mine were standing out in the cold rain with thin raincoats on, waiting!  Finally I took the bull by the horns and said, “Mr. Sibelius, do you know that the entire Philadelphia Orchestra, the orchestra that played your music when nobody else did, is waiting outside, hoping to meet you?  Would you just go out on the balcony and say hello to them?”

“But I cannot speak English well enough,” he protested.  “They will not understand me.”

“Speak German, they’ll understand you.  Just look at them, don’t say anything.”

And so he got his heavy winter coat and hat — there are pictures of that visit — and came out with me.  “Gentlemen,” I said, “Mr. Sibelius needs no introduction.”  They applauded him and bravoed him until I had to tell them, “Gentlemen, Mr. Sibelius is not well, but he wanted to come out and say a few words to you.”  And then he told them, with the beautiful simplicity of his few English words, how grateful he was to them for playing his music so nobly.  At last his oldest daughter pulled him back, saying, “Daddy you’re going to catch cold.”  Fortunately, he didn’t catch cold, but we were worried that he might, for it was bitter that day.

He died two years later, in 1957.  And I think today we perform his music better for the memory of those few minutes when he came out on his porch and spoke to us.  It was an experience that none of us will ever forget.”

Eugene Ormandy (1899 - 1985)

EUGENE ORMANDY (1899 – 1985)

– Essay from Sibelius: Symphony No. 1 in E-Minor, Op. 39. 
The Philadelphia Orchestra/Eugene Ormandy.  Columbia Masterworks MS-6395.

If you are on Facebook, please join fellow Sibelians at the Jean Sibelius – dustofhue.com Page.

The main bulk of this article, comprising of Eugene Ormandy’s long reminiscence of Sibelius from the Columbia Masterworks LP, is republished from kennethwoods.net.

Photo of Sibelius waving, (c) Argenta Images. Photo of Eugene Ormandy in dim light by Romy the Cat (Source)

Confessions of a Sibelius Champion

“Daddy, why do you like Sibelius so much?”

A month ago, my daughter, now age 10, asked me this simple question. Pause. I didn’t really know how to answer her. In truth if anyone older asked me, it would’ve been equally difficult to explain. And those of you who made the little mistake of asking me, I must let you know that it embarrasses me to go beyond five sentences to explain it. (I’ll buy a meal for those whom I subjected more than 10 sentences).

I suppose it would be just as difficult for any fan to explain exactly why he/she likes a certain composer. Sibelius himself reputedly avoided talking about his music, and even less so his compositional processes. I think essentially, like him, I would prefer to let the music speak for itself.

There are many other composers whose music I love – J.S. Bach, Beethoven, Handel, Dvořák, etc. But I only have this special relationship with Sibelius. I live over 9200 kilometres from Helsinki, from Sibelius, so to speak. I live in a tropical, Asian country – in terms of race, culture, language, climate, about as remote as it can be in relation to a Nordic country. Sometimes it seems a bit strange how this happened. Sometimes I can’t understand how come, and a part of me wants to ask, “Why was I chosen to do this?”

I have many times imagined what I would do and how I would feel when I finally reach Ainola. I have seen many photographs on the internet of Sibelius’ simple, bronze green grave. Soon I shall visit it. It will be the closest I will ever be to “meeting” him.

Many thoughts go through my head, and I find that finally, what I would say to him amounts to something emotionally closer to a confession than anything else.

Marshall Cavendish Great Composers Series – Sibelius (cassette version)

I first truly awakened to Sibelius around 1990 or 1991 when I was aged around 18. I don’t remember exactly when, but I remember exactly how. Back then, I was following the fortnightly Marshall Cavendish series of “Great Composer” magazines, each came with a CD of the featured composer’s signature works (Right: the cassette version, which I bought off a second-hand store recently). I bought practically every issue, and I still have the magazines, although I have replaced most of the CDs with better recordings.

The blue-themed Sibelius issue came with a CD recording of Finlandia (naturally) and the Second Symphony, played by the Concertgebouw Orchestra under George Szell. It was my first encounter with the symphony. I remember that afternoon, putting the CD on, and then going to my desk to work on something else. My back was to the hifi stereo set, and I let the music play pretty much as background music (if that is even possible with the Second Symphony). It was all new to me, and it sounded like a Romantic work, half-familiar, melodic, dramatic, spinning and swirling in ever increasing energy…

I raised my head from the table and turned around slowly. What is this?…. I dropped everything I was doing and my eyes opened wide as the finale began generating waves of D-major majesty. I listened intently to every note from the hifi set, as it drove Sibelius in ever mounting layers of magnificent defiance into my ears, into my soul.

The Flying Inkpot

The Flying Inkpot namecards from the late 1990s. Yes guys, I still have them.

In the 1990s, websites were born. In 1996 I joined a small group of university mates at the National University of Singapore who had set up a website for writing about the arts and reviewing local performances. These were the days of hand-coded webpages. The first GIF image had only appeared online a few years ago. We started simple. But we were driven by pure, altruistic passion – we were able writers, and we were eager to share. It was a time before social media, before web 2.0, even before mobile phones. It was the time of The Flying Inkpot (inkpot.com).

My editorial policy was simple:

  1. You write intelligently, but the layman must understand you. No pandering to lowest common denominator, no unapproachable musico-technobabble.
  2. There is no such thing as a “good review” or a “bad review” – only a well-written or a poorly written review.
  3. The VERY BEST reviews are the unfavourable reviews, written so well that even the musician criticized would agree.

Being the typical Type B that I was, I often championed the eclectic and those I deemed worthy of greater attention, underdogs and all. Among the likes of Janáček , Bantock, Hildegard von Bingen, Caldara and Jón Leifs, there stood the oeuvre of Jean Sibelius. But I had written so many reviews by the late 1990s that I felt that the Inkpot was becoming a bit of a monologue with my voice everywhere. On a whim, one day, instead of putting my name on the new Sibelius article, I put The Inkpot Sibelius Nutcase.

Tongue firmly in cheek, I described him in the Inkpotters roll as:

The INKPOT SIBELIUS NUTCASE™ b.1132 Loves Hot Dogs
The Flying Inkpot is proud to be home to the World-Famous, World Premiere Recording of The Inkpot Sibelius Nutcase. Having heard of the fabulous web machine from Singapore, the mysterious white-winged ISN hefted his 6-ton armour of Nordic Music review expertise and crossed the Bifröst bridge to the tropics, bringing with him several boxes of BIS CDs, his Nordic Sounds and Finnish Music Quarterly subscriptions, a copy of the Everyman edition of the Prose Edda, as well as The Kalevala. To date, he refuses to reveal his identity except to the closest of friends (all Inkpotters, heh). Naturally, he only uses Nokia handphones. Due to intense concentration while listening to multiple-layer, multi-pedal sonorities, he does not check his email very often.

And he began to write, and write, and write. Like some hero in disguise, I felt liberated and empowered by the fact that nobody knew it was me. I imagined I channeled some Nordic hero force and threw myself into championing Sibelius.

It was also the time of the BIS Sibelius Edition, I had already sworn by Neeme Järvi’s recordings (left), and the Lahti Symphony Orchestra’s cycle was beginning. In 1997, I had also begun reviewing Okko Kamu’s concerts with the Singapore Symphony, from the 1997 Oceanides to my first “live” hearing of the Seventh Symphony in 1999, and others.

During my time writing at the Inkpot, I never really expected much in terms of feedback. Even less for the many lesser-known composers and works I wrote about. Remember this was almost a decade before Facebook, before social media, before the interactive web we take for granted today. But we did have a primitive comments tool for articles, and people were commenting. To my humble surprise, many were heartfelt compliments. Many of these have been transplanted to dustofhue.com, including those of my most enduring Tapiola article.

Over the years it dawned on me that, the one thing about championing a “niche” composer like Sibelius is that you will occasionally find very passionate fellow supporters. This was deeply heartening, and instilled in me great faith.

Sibelius with his second daughter Ruth, in 1901.

The Silence of Yeah-I’m-A-Pa
In 2002 my first daughter was born. It was the beginning of an unexpected retirement from the Inkpot. It just happened. With a little regret, I left the reins with fellow writers (Derek Lim continues to do so at the Flyinginkpot.com) and over the next seven years I became preoccupied with a great many things unrelated to music. Though I never lost my love for Sibelius, for a long time my attention turned elsewhere.

In 2006 I was approached by The Philharmonic Orchestra, through Dr Chang Touliang‘s recommendation, to write for their Sibelius symphony cycle, Singapore’s first. Though I wasn’t too familiar with the orchestra, its music director, Mr Lim Yau, has always been one of my most admired Singaporean conductors. I could not refuse.

What followed was myself forcing my own rebirth: over the next year or so, I wrote the programme notes for the combinations of the First and Third Symphony, the Second and Fourth, and the last three symphonies. This was a revelatory experience, coming back to writing about Sibelius after some four, five years.

Dust of Hue
In 2009, my friend and then supervisor Olivier Amprimo repeatedly encouraged me to set up a blog. The time was the toddlerhood of social media, the blog engine had grown up. As someone who had been working so long on the web, I was quite keen. But what would I blog about? The answer came to me very quickly.

When I finally sat down one day (after more weeks of procrastination) and was signing up for my hosting services, I had to choose a domain name. Years of publishing online taught me that I needed something unique. I put in the first name that I thought of – and lo and behold, it was available. (Even in those days, securing a domain name you wanted wasn’t easy). Like I said before, very often, fate would always make the first one the one.

I began to republish my old Inkpot articles. I even discovered many comments on them that I never noticed before, such was the extent of my neglect. I am apologetic and thankful to all of you who left me comments between 2002 and 2007-ish. I wrote again, and I published the TPO notes online. In all, the experience, as Sibelius would put it in his experience writing the Fourth Symphony, “gave me strength and satisfaction” to do what I believed in.

So why me?

First, I am an organic thinker. I believe in rules and guidelines, yes, but I don’t believe in following them blindly. I don’t like hard mathematics, I don’t fancy step-by-step progression if I know of a way to “smoothen” them out and complete several steps in a multi-layered flow. I am a lousy multi-tasker but strangely I am remarkably good at making sense of the way multiple moving parts work together. I say “making sense”, I do not say “seeing” or describing.

I enjoy putting things in motion and relying on my faith and knowledge that “it’ll work” to let it work. Yes, this statistics-obsessed world hates my kind, as close to the truth as we may be. I detest counting and analyzing, especially over-analyzing things in order to find out how it works. I enjoy telling you the principles as to why it works, but I do not enjoy calculating it and turning it into a formula or a report book. I do not want to touch the butterfly’s wing and lose the dust of hue.

For these reasons and more, I think Sibelius’ music and philosophy is naturally kin to me.

There is one drawback – I have come so far in this inexplicable spiritual journey that I am now in a place where, if you do not understand Sibelius, you will never understand me completely. No one, not I, not my closest friends, least not my precious family, should take this lightly. It is a place in the heart where nature and humanity come together, where I hear Sibelius, where the dust of hue wings in the air, untouched, and is by nature, unexplainable.

So sweetheart, there’s your answer. Now you just need to grow up some more, understand why I do this and follow me to Finland one day. My first journey begins imminently. Ainola is my destination, Sibelius is my destiny.

Sibelius at Hawk Lake, a poem by Tom Henighan

(“We were all enthralled by the dark pine forests and the shadowy gods and wood-nymphs who dwell therein. The coda with its icy winds sweeping through the forest made us shiver.” On the Sibelius tone poem Tapiola. From a letter to the composer by Walter Damrosch, who conducted the premiere of that work in 1926.)

The cabin walls groan,
I step out, under articulate stars,
their wild canopy excites me,
those icy exclamations
make the black scroll sing,
and punctuate the night
with a dazzling syntax
that lets the heart speak in parables.
When something lumbers by in the darkness,
I retreat to my fireplace.

This is Canada.
We are an outpost of terror.
Mountains, granite ridges,
chill mornings, mist-shrouded
lakes, the bleak sun,
the slow turning of the endless day.
Marshes and moors,
the smell of mud and decay,
glacier-tossed boulders
like the severed heads
of an ancient enemy.

What’s trivial in the human
he cast out–
and most of all our frenzy
to remake the world,
creation’s paradox and bane,
the junk piled high,
earth and space littered
with false dreams.

Implacable nature, in Tapio,
god of the forest.
by another name lurks
in these rough shaggy pines,
cedars and elders,
dark birches, like runic figures,
boundaries and portals of time,
of our deep hidden life,
to be entered only at twilight
or when the wind shrills
bleakly across the lakes,
the mind full of music
and what moves in the woods,
by cloven nature bound
to another earth.








In the drawing rooms of Europe
the sad waltzes ceased,
the sun swallowed up
by its own serpent tides,
as in his knotted glance
by Karsh, looking inward
and downward
to where creation stops
at the boundaries
of feeling.

At the end, endless silence.
Ambition burned out,
mind falls back to its source:
the drowned book’s spell
alive in rugged lines,
in fractal clouds and waves,
this globe’s solemn music–
while time flows unhurried
to its own desolation,
the great swans gather
on the lost lake.


Evening Forest. Photo by Ari Helminen (Click photo for link)

Sibelius at Hawk Lake – A Poem by Tom Henighan

Art inspires art, and sometimes not in the form you expect. The poem above is by Canadian author Mr Tom Henighan (born in Manhattan) who is also Professor Emeritus at the Carleton University of Ottawa,  and “a very busy free-lance scholar and writer, with a special interest in Canadian culture, mythology, and popular culture.” Among his other eminent qualities is a tendency to “get jumpy if [he] can’t stay in touch with the natural world.” Mr Henighan is an active author and has an extensive publication history.

In the last few years beginning around 2008, in my gradual return to writing about Sibelius, I have had the immense honour and pleasure of becoming acquainted with Sibelius fans from around the world, including conductors, musicians, painters and now a writer. Tom left a kind comment on Dust of Hue here (which I have barely begun to do justice in terms of a reply, and in subsequent emails, he sent me this Sibelius-inspired poem – essentially an act of kindred sharing.)

You have to know something about Sibelius to get the references, Tom explained. And indeed that was definitely the case. Of forests, mountains, stars, the slow turning of endless time, endless silence – the words and images include many that I have used in near poetic futility to capture the essence of Sibelius’ music in words. It made me eager to share with you, fellow Sibelians. About the poem, Tom wrote:

“I was sitting outside my cottage one dark-bright summer night, a cottage that’s on a very quiet lake next to the huge provincial park Papineau-Labelle in Quebec. I was listening to Sibelius, probably Tapiola as I recall, and I remembered how similar to the Canadian landscape the landscape of Finland looks, at least in photographs…”

And that’s how it often begins for us Sibelians. We find ourselves in the midst of nature, almost always quiet nature. And then we hear – sometimes imagine – his music. Sibelius himself often composed in silence. But for us, “nature music” isn’t always the romanticized, sentimental lyric tune written to admire her beauty. For us, Sibelius casts a spell as binding as it is often fearsome – “the mystery of nature in the dark woods”, as Tom puts it, where wood sprites weave magic secrets.

… and I thought how beautiful and peaceful that night was, but also, in a way “terrifying”–as wild, sublime nature sometimes is.  So I began to fuse my experience of nature in Sibelius’ wonderful sound-landscapes with my immediate experience of the sublime natural setting all around me.

Sibelius in 1945
Jean Sibelius (1945). Photo by Yousuf Karsh

Tom mentions Yousuf Karsh, the celebrated photographer responsible for a handful of the noblest photographs of Jean Sibelius, among other famous portraits. He refers especially to the one showing Sibelius in deep meditation (pictured above). “I imagine him contemplating “creation” –the natural world–and his own shackled powers” – Sibelius locked away his magic for the last three decades of his life, Prospero-like.

At the end, endless silence. Readers from either today or at the Inkpot will know how often I say Sibelius’ music often ends in a “vast silence” you dare not disturb; and that in the inexorable flow of his music, time often feels timeless. Time indeed “flows unhurried to its own desolation.”

 I try to evoke the indifference of time that rolls everything into oblivion but dissipates itself in so doing, and at that point I bring in Sibelius’ beloved swans, in some lost dimension, poised for a kind of rebirth, signaling the perennial unfolding of nature and its mysterious qualities (and of course the power of Sibelius’ music to announce such transformations and celebrate them.)

Tom calls his final stanza, “enigmatic” – but Tom, I want you to know that for me, it rang – it glowed – with clarity. In it, I hear the endless silence of the Seventh Symphony’s post-conclusion. I see the composer letting go of his final spell, not yet fully cast, and receding back into his mysterious wellspring of creation. His book of creation purposefully destroyed, yet his music –  the ancestral DNA of the Eighth Symphony, still alive, soaring in the clouds and waves of its predecessors, flowing unhurried as time. Desolation, “logical collapse”, the final breaths of Tapiola, the Fourth Symphony.  The final image, the great swans of his Fifth Symphony, gathering on the lost lake, invokes the nostalgia and heartache Sibelius spoke of in the birth of this symphony.  They settle gently in the still waters, knowingly, paying silent homage.


Jean and Aino: In the very trees of Ainola

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. Continue reading Jean and Aino: In the very trees of Ainola