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…

Finland2014-08-29satu

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:

 

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)

Steve Jobs, 1955 – 2011

I’ve never looked back since I got my iPhone in Dec 2009. It’s ease of use and that sense of delight when it just got things right, is unsurpassed.  Apple affirmed for me again why I love the organic and the intuitively logical approach when it comes to art, science, technology and life.

Steve Jobs
Steve Jobs, 1955 – 2011

Steve Jobs once said, “A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” And he went on to give us – or at least the Apple fans – exactly what we never knew we wanted so badly.  Many people said they don’t need an iPad because they already have a notebook computer, and it’s hard to explain to them they are two different things.  But let them have an iPad, and they’ll see it.

Steve Jobs’ Apple devices carried their own logic and appeal with them. It has always been hard to explain to people why they are so popular – you only realize why when you use or own one for a time.

Similarly, it is excruciatingly difficult – but perhaps a pleasure of a challenge – to explain to people why Sibelius’ music is unique and ingenius. To explain the concept of organic development, or Sibelius’ particular brand of logic – where “The symphony must always be internally compelling and inevitable.” – is in many ways the same challenge as explaining Steve Jobs’ almost magical ability to make his devices logically usable and user-friendly, which to me is a different way of describing “internally compelling”.

When you first start off trying to solve a problem, the first solutions you come up with are very complex, and most people stop there. But if you keep going, and live with the problem and peel more layers of the onion off, you can often times arrive at some very elegant and simple solutions.

— Steve Jobs, 2006

Amazingly, this is precisely what Sibelius kept doing with his music. He wrote something, and unsatisfied with it kept revising – kept peeling more layers off, kept excising extraneous notes, cutting off entire movements, until he arrived at nothing short of elegance.

Mr Jobs, thank you for all that you have done for technology on earth. As this tweet from Matt Galligan so “app”ly puts it:

RIP Steve Jobs. You touched an ugly world of technology and made it beautiful.

Wherever you have gone now,  Mr Jobs, I hope you have found what you never knew you wanted, and that you will forever be happy for it.