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:


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.”

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.

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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)

A special voice that nobody can silence: Sir Colin Davis’ Sibelius

In 2005, Finnish composer Osmo Tapio Räihälä (b.1964) and Sir Colin Davis (1927 – 2013) visited Ainola. In a 56-minute interview filmed by YLE, the Finnish public service television station, Räihälä and the late conductor discuss Sibelius. After the passing of Sir Colin in April 2013, the interview was made available to watch again on the YLE website, for a month (20 May – 20 June 2013). I took the opportunity to transcribe the entire interview. I’ve transcribed as accurately as I can hear, and only took select liberties with some sentences either for clarity or smoothness.

Räihälä: Jean Sibelius was a great observer of nature, and most certainly he wasn’t unique in it. But do you think there is some special side that doesn’t appear in other composers’ music?

Sir Colin: Oh most certainly. And I think I don’t know whether it is his attitude to nature that makes him so unique… but he doesn’t write nice comfortable tunes, for example like his lovely contemporary Dvořák. There’s always more mystery, more darkness, more unpredictability in Sibelius. Whether that was a reflection of himself or his relationship with nature around him – I can’t answer that.

Räihälä: He’s not just painting pictures of nature. His “nature” is a lot more, when you think , for example, about Tapiola. It describes mighty forests, and Tapio is a sylvan god, and it’s a dangerous forest. It’s not something sweet and peaceful.


Sir Colin: Yes, and the human heart is exactly the same. It’s a dangerous place. I’m not well acquainted with Finland, but I was here in a hot summer and stayed a few days in the forest. And it was quite unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. And when the light is so fierce and the birch trees are so white, and then the thing begins to become indefinite and hazy. And you can well imagine that you could see things.  And that you will in fact subjectively people the forest with all kinds of spirits. You can say, “Well, that’s nonsense” – but it isn’t nonsense. Because I’m a human being and I experienced these things.

Räihälä: You can see things like wood nymphs [laughs].

Sir Colin: Well you probably need a bit of Vodka to go that far! [laughs]

Räihälä: Or whiskey as in Sibelius’ case!

Sir Colin: He provided whiskey?

Räihälä: Yes of course!

Sir Colin: Oh well, he was a civilized man.

Räihälä: Also at his time, he only could get blended whiskeys.

Sir Colin: Well I’m sorry he was deprived of the wonderful things we have now. But the effect is much the same. It’s that – and also when you’ve had a couple of drinks – your imagination sometimes bubbles up and produces the greatest effects. Although I got quite scared actually, when I was here, because there was no sound in the forest except [a] hawk [points up, at sky] and there was nobody there, and I was picking wild raspberries and at any moment some strange girl could have turned up. She might not really have been there but I could’ve imagined her. And I came home very fast [both laugh].

I don’t know whether that means anything to you, but all this is in the mystery and the flickering lights of a lot of Sibelius’ music, and human beings are as unpredictable as the storms that blow up in Sibelius’ music. Always, all over the place, there they are and they reflect something in us that a lot of other composers didn’t care to express or (maybe) they didn’t know about. But I don’t believe that – I think that they didn’t care to express them so directly. That’s why he is not greatly liked by the bourgeois countries. The French don’t like Sibelius, do they? Who was their favourite composer?

Räihälä: Well I would say either some French, like Debussy, but also composers like Stravinsky.

Sir Colin: I see, now I was thinking what did Saint-Saëns say? “There are good composers and there are bad composers, and there’s Massenet”.

And Debussy said that in every Frenchman’s heart there is a bit of Massenet. And if you think of Bizet and Gounod and Massenet, there is a kind of comfortable bourgeois taste to which to Sibelius must have been anathema because he is not “comfortable”. He is forever upsetting things. Take the beginning of the Fifth Symphony, wonderful morning and cocks are crowing and the sun is shining. But after five minutes whatever happens – we don’t know; but it’s as though the mists get up off that lake and unaccountable things are moving about in it.

Räihälä: The difference between the reception of Sibelius music in Germany and Britain must depend on the Germans having all these great symphony composers that the British didn’t, at the time when Sibelius popped up from the forests.

01a osmo

Sir Colin: No, they didn’t. Yes, but they had their forests. but Sibelius’ way of expressing himself didn’t fall into that kind of neat, classical formula. He wasn’t composing with antecedence or consequence – things of that kind.

Räihälä: For example, Brahms. He was very conventional, although he was [inventive] too. He was very conventional in the way he finished a symphony. From his style you can guess what is going to happen. And that doesn’t apply to Sibelius.

Sir Colin: Yes, and that, for the listener creates, probably…. instability. Because he couldn’t have expected that. Maybe another reason why he discomforts a lot of continental musicians. I would feel that Sibelius is actually out there [points outside, as if towards forest], not like Mahler who was in his study. You know when the birds irritated him, he got up and shot them [both laugh]. I hope that’s not true but I had been told it is what happened. So Mahler’s composing in his study, of course so is Sibelius but his spirit is actually out there. And it’s not irritating him that the birds sing, it is part of his thinking. I mean he was a contradiction, he spent so much of his time in the cities, enjoying the luxuries and the city life. And then he suddenly he couldn’t stand it any longer and then he disappeared again. And that appeals to me very much because a musician has to live in the city (there isn’t an orchestra out there in the woods), but after a bit I find that the emotional tension of being a musician too much. I have to get away to a house in the country where there really isn’t anything. But Sibelius actually lived, I mean he composed out of that. So when he was alone out here (in Ainola) and there was no sound except the sounds of the forest and so on, that must have made him in a great state of tension because it was from there that he took inspiration.

Räihälä: So it was really normal for Sibelius to have these two sides. The need for a peaceful place to live and composer, and at the same time he loved to socialize and “booze” with his friends and do things that all “wild” men like him do.

Sibelius on balcony of AinolaSir Colin: Yes. Extraordinary. But I am worse than him because when I go out to the country, I dress like a tramp. Absolutely unrecognizable! But he loved to dress up in the latest stuff. He had his shirts and his shoes, but he hadn’t got the money to pay for them! He was a perplexing human being simply because his talent was enormous, and all the time in his head were these themes flitting backwards and forwards, and he is kneading them, pushing them, trying to shove them around till they had the shape he wants. He’s just like Beethoven with his sketchbooks. Beethoven wrote down incomprehensible scrap – and a couple years later it’s a fantastic string quartet. I mean, how did he do it?

* * * * *

Räihälä: By the way, when did you first discover Sibelius?

Sir Colin: He imposed himself on me, I think. I came from a family of 7, and I was no. 5 so I was really isolated. But my brothers -my eldest brother was very interested in Sibelius, and he brought home a lot of gramophone records. It was an old-fashioned machine that you wound it up…. Brilliant, it was great.

And there, I made the acquaintance of the Third Symphony and I remember as a boy of 8 or 9 being absolutely fascinated with this thing. When I was left alone in the house, I didn’t know what I did – jigsaw puzzles or … and I had this symphony. Always. Why it fascinated me I can’t tell you. It has a hypnotic effect which comes from the second movement, because there is a reiteration of this melody, this lullaby, whatever it is… I’m told that Sibelius used to play it on the piano while his daughters danced about in nightdresses…. [smiles] but this is probably another one of those inventions that people inflict on great men.

And then there was the famous recording of the Third Symphony by Kajanus which is still spoken of.  And the other is the recording of the Seventh Symphony with Koussevitzky [YouTube] and I became more and more interested in this. Because it is so mysterious and it was so violent, and… so serene and… what on earth was going on? [Chuckles, then turns serious] When I look at the Seventh Symphony now, I don’t have the fear of the unknown which I had when I started all those years ago. I still think it’s a remarkable statement … I think it’s so remarkable because he compressed everything, more and more as he got older. When you think of Kullervo, it’s an hour and quarter – there’s some wonderful things in it. And he turned his back on that. And he tried to say as much as possible in the shortest possible time. And for that he should be praised. I think that’s another thing that disturbed some of the continental composers so used to big sprawling pieces.

08 osmo it doesn't exist2Räihälä: Already in the Third Symphony he had only three movements, and in the Seventh he only had one. So what was logical was that the Eighth Symphony had no movements at all. :)

Sir Colin: In that case it doesn’t exist! [laughs]

Räihälä: Does it? [laughs]

Sir Colin: I don’t know! People say he did write the Eighth Symphony and that he destroyed it. And I think we should trust him. If it had been what he had hoped it would have been, surely he wouldn’t have burnt it. He must have felt somewhere that it wasn’t up to the other ones. And I believe him. I mean, he’s written seven pretty unique pieces and he wasn’t one of those people who kept writing the same symphony. I have been some of those. Beethoven wasn’t one. Mozart wasn’t one. But there’re others who’ve tried but found it difficult to escape, like Bruckner.

But his are…. you could never guess after the Third symphony, he would have the Fourth Symphony, like not like that. And then you wouldn’t guess the Fifth would again be what it is. Again a wonderful act of compression. And you wouldn’t believe that a man could hear a symphony that he’d written and be unsatisfied – dissatisfied – and go home and over the years, turn it into a masterpiece. That doesn’t happen very often!

Räihälä: No (indeed). The trouble that Sibelius was prepared to meet in remolding the Fifth Symphony only goes to show that he was really looking for something that only he could see but he couldn’t just find it straightaway.

Sir Colin: Yes. And that’s part of his greatness, I think. That he was prepared to do that. The remarkable thing is that he had the intellectual tenacity to pursue what it was that he was looking for. And having found it, he knew how to organize it. It’s the same with Beethoven really, that it would take him a long time to find the basic shape of what he wanted to do, and having done that, it then all followed. But Sibelius discovered that he’d left something half done, and he had the wit to recognize it – that’s what I think is extraordinary. There’re plenty of composers who didn’t have the wit to know that what they’d done was only half-finished. But he did and he was prepared to tackle to it, because he must have believed that he had found some precious corner of his own soul and that he was going to express that. But he wasn’t going to have a mis-shapened version.

That’s where I think he’s so wonderful. He worked and worked at it until it was what he wanted it to be. He was like a smith, like Ilmarinen. I’m glad that his wife wasn’t like Ilmarinen’s wife [laughs]. No, I think we’re really at the nerve of why he’s such a great man. He didn’t always do that, he wrote a lot of pieces just for fun or for money – but who didn’t? So did Mozart, he had to write minuets for the wretched balls of the court; Beethoven wrote all kinds of stuff which we don’t bother with and I don’t see why that should be held against Sibelius at all. Elgar did the same. They had to make money somehow.

Räihälä: They had family.

Sir Colin: Yes. what were they to do? They had to slog at that, but I don’t think it cost him too much to write superficial pieces. His tragedy was of course that he wrote Finlandia and Valse triste and made no money out of either of them. He should have made his fortune. But then that’s luck. Or perhaps it was also good, because it meant that he had to go on.


Räihälä: What is really interesting is that Sibelius didn’t want to save his better ideas or stronger themes [for] these large works only. He [had] fantastic themes/music in these small pieces too.

Sir Colin: Well I think Richard Strauss said he had an enviable gift for melody, which indeed he had. But if you look at Sixth Symphony or Seventh Symphony, there aren’t any “great” melodies. That isn’t what he was trying to do.

Räihälä: It’s not about the melodies, it’s more about masterful forging of music.

Sir Colin: Yes the symphonies are about that but some of the lighter pieces are not dependent on that.

Räihälä: But at some point while still working on the Eighth Symphony he must have realized that – although he was going deeper and deeper and trying to find that something that only he can see – that it doesn’t exist. So he gave up. That must have been a horrible moment for him.

Sir Colin: Yes, and it’s very difficult to understand how he could have spent the last 30 years of his life without composing anything. Because obviously from the time he was a young man his head was full of music. Wasn’t it full of music anymore? Or did he ban it from his mind? We don’t know. He doesn’t talk about it.

Räihälä: At the time when he moved here to Ainola, he wrote that while living in the city, all the song in him died. So moving here was something like being reborn and all these melodies, all this music started to flow again. I don’t know if it’s something he said to make it sound more romantic, but it happened at the crossroads of his style going from the more national romantic style to this more universal classic style. That was about the time of Pohjola’s Daughter. Which by the way, you have been doing quite recently.

Sir Colin: Yes I like that piece very much. And so much of it reminds me of some of the portraits of Sibelius himself. A man puts everything he has into something and of course it begins to sound like him. The weariness of the beginning and that snarling fanfare, which is supposedly Väinämöinen. It could very well be a portrait of Sibelius himself.

Räihälä: Pohjola’s Daughter is very interesting in Sibelius’ output because he gets so close to, for example, Richard Strauss of the time, because it [has] such colourful orchestration, when you compare it with other works that he had been doing or was going to do quite shortly. So it was kind of a crossroads.

Sir Colin: I never thought of Richard Strauss in the company of Pohjola’s Daughter, I must say…. because it’s so compressed, so tightly knit. All the material belongs to itself. Compared with Sibelius, Strauss is prolix – he takes his time [laughs].

Räihälä: Do you think he felt the pressure to get away from the style of Strauss because he was such a famous contemporary composer at his time?

Sir Colin: That’s possible. I don’t know. Didn’t he tell somebody that he wished to give the public “pure cold water” and not all these cocktails. Something like that. He wasn’t really in the business for entertaining the public with symphonic music.

Räihälä: He also had this flirting with impressionism, with the Oceanides. It’s a bit in the direction of Debussy.

Sir Colin: Yes but so are the fluttering creatures in the Sixth Symphony. As he’s chased through the woods there. Do you remember that? You know that chord at the beginning of the 6th. It’s called the seventh, it’s the Tristan Chord. He makes import out of that fluttering noise. It’s all pianissimo [Sir Colin sings]. Little nymphs are calling one another across the wood in the high summer, and there is this heat shimmer. Whatever you like to call it – that to me is impressionism. Much more than the Oceanides.

That is really – how many of them are there? See I think there are three. Two of them play the flute, and play in duets. The other one is really lovesick and is wailing like one of Wagner’s sirens in Tannhäuser. And it is she who conjures up that storm – one of the most terrifying storms there is. And what is so magical about it is [Sibelius] manages to find a colour and a harmony which to me reflects the horrible color the sky goes before there’s a storm. Everything is still and everything is anticipating disaster. So all the animals have long gone home and only the light is kind of all of purple and sick and yellow – and do you know it did that well? I think it’s amazing. If that’s impressionism, okay, but it’s not like the… “impressionism” we use for the great picture postcard revolution in French painting. That is not Sibelius! [laughs]

Räihälä: No, it isn’t! By the way, Sibelius was a great admirer of Wagner and went to Bayreuth – yet he never really tried his hand in opera.

Sir Colin: No, because the way I think of Sibelius – his music is never static, it’s always changing into something else. That wouldn’t do for trying to depict characters realistically on the stage. Simply wouldn’t. I mean they would be starting a conversation and then drifting away into themselves and not say anything. And where have they gone then? Or it would be like Harold Pinter where somebody starts a conversation and nobody answers or nobody says anything – then goes out. It’s not like that at all. It’s not a theatrical way of writing music. How could you do that? Because it’s an internal development in Sibelius, it’s not to do with “situations”.

That’s how it seems to me. What do you think? You’re a composer – you know more about it than I do!

Räihälä: Well I haven’t written an opera yet [both laugh]. I’m not a specialist!

* * * * *

Räihälä: You’ve been performing Kullervo lately.

Sir Colin: Yes, in London and New York.

Räihälä: It’s one of Sibelius’ earliest major works and something of …. it’s not a symphony or is it? What do you think?

Sir Colin: I don’t know. It’s full of wonderful things and it has a first movement like a symphony, a sonata piece and then it has a sort of rondo. I don’t know what it might be, the 2nd movement… and the third movement is an operatic number or it’s an oratorio number, it’s a scena. And then there’s a scherzo, so if you like, Lemminkäinen [sic] going to war. And then the last scene is left to the chorus and orchestra which is the death of a young man. You can say these are five movements strung along to the story of Kullervo. But that doesn’t make it a symphony.

Räihälä: He finished Kullervo just before he got married to Aino. That was sort of a graduation. He had to show the world that he is man enough before he could get married. But afterwards he didn’t allow a performance of Kullervo.

Sir Colin: Do you know why?

Räihälä: No, but he didn’t burn it.

Sir Colin: No, so he must have been secretly been rather proud of it. But as his ambitions changed, perhaps he didn’t want to have that forever thrown in his face as his successful nationalist piece. He really didn’t want to be a “narrow” nationalist composer.

Räihälä: No, he wanted to be a universal hero.

09 exactly

Sir Colin: Exactly, he had big ambitions. And he succeeded, I must say. But if he’d stayed with that kind of piece, in that genre, he would perhaps have never have escaped from it. And he was certainly, as we have already said, not the man who wanted to write the same symphony again. Already when he gets to the Lemminkäinen music, he’s changed. And I think the most remarkable piece in that – of course the Swan (of Tuonela) is wonderful – but Lemminkäinen in Tuonela is an absolutely one-off piece. I don’t know anything like that – do you?

[Räihälä shrugs with a smile.]

Sir Colin: Please, you’re the Finnish, not me!

Räihälä: Is it a nationalistic thing? That a Finn would know better.

Sir Colin: Well it’s often said that only the Finns understand Sibelius. Only the Finns can perform him.

Räihälä: But he’s our only real universal hero, I mean…

Sir Colin: That’s wonderful! But that doesn’t mean his music is only appreciated by Finns. That proves he’s universal. If only Finns could perform Sibelius, that would make him provincial. [laughs] I’m making all this up!


Räihälä: Do you think the First Symphony is in some way still “provincial”, or does it already belong to “Universal Sibelius”?

Sir Colin: Well, not quite – because it has so many echoes of other things. There’s a lot of the Flying Dutchman in the first, I always feel. The second movement is… “pathetic”… I don’t mean in the bad sense – a “pathétique” melody, which moves us. It does. The scherzo owes something to Beethoven and Bruckner; and the last, “quasi una fantasia”, is… well it opens with a very grand version of the lament (uttered by the clarinet in the beginning of the symphony) and then of course it is a furious movement with rhetorical gestures before we reach the important thing about the last movement which is that very grand tune. I must say, I’d love to have written that – wouldn’t you? [Räihälä nods]. I mean come on, you may say it’s not the greatest symphony, but he certainly had a ear for big melodies.

Räihälä: But isn’t it typical for a still youthful artist that – especially for a male composer – that in the early stages of his career, he wrote pieces that describe some kind of heroic things like the Second Symphony. It’s really a grand symphony. Then came the Violin Concerto. Of course Sibelius had wanted to be a great violinist himself. Then he gradually goes over to more peaceful things and tries to find more of the “inner” when in the early stages of his career, when things come more to the surface.

Sir Colin: And it’s certainly true, yes. The Second Symphony is as heroic as anything that ever ended.

Räihälä:  In the beginning of the 20th Century, the western world, at least Europe was going through huge changes and there were things that led to the first World War. But in my opinion, most art were at their most interesting during the turn of the 20th Century,. and Sibelius lived through that time and at the same time there happened things in Vienna like Schoenberg and Stravinsky, who had a  revolutionary effect on music in 1913. And the Fourth Symphony – do you think it was in some way Sibelius’ answer to all these big things going on around him?

Sir Colin: Well I think he saw that the – he must have seen – that what he was brought up to, what he knew as music was being destroyed.  And there is in the Fourth Symphony an extraordinary nostalgia for the triad, for the basis of classical music as he knew it. It’s a very …. distorted view of music…. but suddenly in the first music, the horns play [Sir Colin sings] and then there’s an echo.  And one wonders: what is that? Is it nostalgia for something that is forever gone? The slow movement is one of the most elusive, despairing pieces that have ever been penned. The last page of that is the loneliest music that has ever been written. And then in the scherzo, there’s the light and the beautiful day, the light-hearted oboe melody.. and all that goes wrong. And in the last movement, it’s as though if he’s set it up again, a lovely day and the sleigh ride and the bells… but two thirds of the way, something awful happens. The sled turns over, the inhabitants are killed, the dogs are all mangled… and he buries the lot of them. Under the grisly repeated chord of A minor. Smooths the grave over, and leaves. What is he talking about? The death of civilization? The death of music as he knew it? Or the struggle that already begun, that the heart writes music at all?  Please, you help me with that.

10 a-minor

Räihälä: Well only thing I can say is the Fourth Symphony is the dearest of his children.

Sir Colin: It’s almost as though he was protesting the time that he been born into. As Brahms always did but didn’t actually managed to express it. As Sibelius did. That’s why some people find this kind of music too bewildering, because what they want is confidence and resolution and what they get is a mirror of what was actually going on. And it’s not for nothing there are 11 of the 12 tones at the beginning of the Seventh Symphony. He knew what he was doing, I think. Maybe that’s why he was dissatisfied with his Eighth – because he had nothing more to say about what was going on around him. It was all too utterly bewildering. After Stravinsky, after Schoenberg turned to 12-tone music, which was something Sibelius couldn’t do. Couldn’t possibly have done… And there was the rise of the Serialists, which has come to nothing. No system has been devised which has replaced the old Classical system, which lasted for so long. And even now, composers – many of them are using Classical procedures and Classical harmony. Sometimes different keys simultaneously, in an effort to find a way of writing a musical sentence.

Now you are a composer. And maybe this is really what the trouble was. It wasn’t possible to write a sentence anymore, because without harmony there isn’t any syntax. So what are you going to do? Write a new language? But then whatever language you write, it’s got to have a subject a verb and an object. And that’s what music had lost.

Räihälä: Well, if every composer tried to speak his own dialect , no one’s going to understand each other.

Sir Colin: No they won’t! And they didn’t!

Räihälä: So it’s really isn’t possible to communicate with the audience or even with the musicians if a composer can’t get his or her message through. And that is a problem for composers, of course. So obviously, you think that Sibelius’ music will last longer than, for example…

Sir Colin: Stockhausen…

Räihälä: or Schoenberg…

Sir Colin: I certainly do. I mean Schoenberg imposed an intellectual solution on something which is not… won’t be subjected to that. You can’t say all 12 tones are equal and continue to write old-fashioned music which is what he did. It doesn’t work, because you got no point of beginning and no point of rest. And very few musicians have such acute hearing that they can pick up the 12 tones and versions of them going on and when they are all combined together.

* * * * *

Räihälä: I wonder why it was such a “drag” for Sibelius to write the concerto because he was a violinist… ?

Sir Colin: Well, that‘s probably one of the reasons why it was so difficult for him to do it. The opening is one of the most poetic moments in musical history, really. There’s just these oscillating fifths and one never really knows what’s going to happen and suddenly there’s this little voice comes out of nowhere. Extraordinary music.

Räihälä: It’s like hearing voices from outdoors that you don’t recognize. And the voices, by and by, they come closer and suddenly they are in front of you and indoors.

Sir Colin: That’s really beautifully put! Yes. I think that the most remarkable section of the Violin Concerto is the slow movement. It’s one of the final great tunes. It really is a grandiose arc of melody and that in itself is very moving. It’s very difficult to play. I think this is one of the reasons: the bow’s too short.

Räihälä: Although it’s a fantastic composition, in my opinion, there are some funny things that don’t really seem to belong. Maybe that is a result of him doing all these versions, trying to find the right solution, that things were left from elsewhere.

Sir Colin: I think that’s happening to the end of the first movement. For example there’s suddenly, it goes [sings]… and you think, “What the devil’s that doing here??”Because it’s quite extended in the earlier version, the first version. And then you know why it’s there. But the end of the first movement worries me, and the end of the last movement worries me. Difficult to bring it to a…. satisfactory ending.

Räihälä:I have a feeling he was in a hurry while he was finishing the concerto.

Sir Colin: Maybe he was. I mean he’s spent enough time on it.

Räihälä: Because the end comes so unexpectedly.

Sir Colin: Abruptly.

Räihälä: Yes. But obviously it has found its place in the repertoire quite well, because as far as I know it is the most often recorded violin concerto.

Sir Colin: Really?

Räihälä: Something that I read somewhere. And there was something funny written by a Finnish music critic a few years ago, who said that Sbielius’s Violin Concerto is such a fantastic work that a violinist should not be allowed to perform it more than once a year, so that the audience can enjoy it to the full effect! And that (the remark) was probably meant to be for fun, but I think it was pretty accurate.

Sir Colin: Well, you can probably think of all those wonderful classical pieces that shouldn’t be performed more than once a year!

Räihälä: But if there is one piece that will last forever… a work of music by Sibelius that you would take to a desert island, what would it be?

Sir Colin: Goodness me!….

Räihälä: And remember, you would have to listen to it more than once a year.

Sir Colin: Well I would take one gigantic symphony… which consists of numbers 1 to 7 [both laugh].

Räihälä: That is not an answer!

Sir Colin: I know it isn’t! [laughs] [Seriously] I haven’t. Any. Idea. How to answer that.

Räihälä: That’s your personal view but do you think there is some work that will survive even longer than…. our civilization is changing all the time and classical music gets more and more marginal…

Sir Colin: I’m not even sure that’s true. I hope it isn’t. I don’t think it’s true because there will always be people who are fascinated by it. And the lovers of classical music are always a minority. And they are certainly a minority now but that’s nothing new. The only thing that would destroy classical music is if there were no more children playing instruments. The fascination over classical music will remain, I’m quite sure.

Räihälä: What would be the Sibelius work that most appeals to people?

Sir Colin: I haven’t  the faintest idea… I can’t take one without the other. How can I take the Sixth without the Seventh? Or the Fourth without the Fifth? Or any of those four without the Third? You might do without 1 and 2 – you might. But you can’t go without the others. And then you have to figure in Tapiola as well. Then perhaps you could say, yes, I can go to this desert island. [laughs]

If you take that as a compliment, and I hope that you will – if you can – I think whatever happens, Sibelius’ place in the tradition of European music is unshakable. That’s a special voice that nobody can silence.

"Here in Ainola, the silence speaks." - Jean Sibelius
“Here in Ainola, the silence speaks.” – Jean Sibelius

For Sir Colin Davis
(25 September 1927 – 14 April 2013)
A Great Conductor.


A Beautiful Silence, this Silence of Järvenpää

The grave of Jean Sibelius is cold. It is monumental and simple, a great bronze square whose expanse bears nothing except his name and Aino’s. It exudes the grandeur of a hewn rock, as if nature’s forces had sculpted it, shaped it to represent the final resting place of one of her greatest musical avatars.

Yellow twigs, needles and leaves gently litter the bronze skin, now green with age. It lies amongst the trees, the centrepiece in a painting of quiescence. As I gently sweep my hand over the metal, it is the stark cold that I remember most. A beautiful cold, a metallic intensity, radiating quiet. This is the closest I will ever be to the master.

Four days before I flew from Singapore, I had begun a terrible descent into depression. I felt an immense pressure over me, the huge weight of some 15 years of championing Sibelius on my head. The anticipation was numbing. I could not sleep well. My family, whom I could not bring to Finland, had instead flown to Australia for a holiday. The loneliness of my house was deeply alienating, staggeringly heavy. Opening the door to emptiness was heart-breaking. It was unbearably silent.

Shouldn’t I have been happy? I felt as if I was going to change – as if I was going to die from reality and visit a longed-for place which, as if it was heaven, something that I only dreamed about. That in doing so, I would be transformed forever. It was an awe-ful feeling. Or maybe, it was because I wasn’t prepared for this journey that I wanted so much – I didn’t know what to say, I didn’t know how much to expect. I felt and knew this was something very big – and of course it is – but it didn’t seem right to feel I should loudly celebrate or even be excited about it. It was a strange uneasiness.

When the day came, my heart was heavy, my skin almost feverish with anticipation. The weight of it all continued to drown me in terrible emotions as I locked the door to my house and went on my way to the airport. The taxi ride and the flight was my Night Ride and Sunrise – my flight departed near midnight. Freezing and lonely, with the in-flight entertainment system down in my section (Finnair kindly sent a notice the day before), I went to sleep after a late supper, wrapped in a Zara jacket I bought purposely for this trip.

Finland2012-027 dawn

Perhaps the lack of the TV screen was a blessing. I woke up some hours later at 4am, and as we flew northwestwards towards the lands of the midnight sun, the sun chased the plane. It rose for three whole hours -the dawn-touched horizon speared with magical colours from crimson to vermillion to cobalt.

Finland2012-33 Vantaa
Dawn at Vantaa Airport, Helsinki

I arrived at the same time as the dawn. Helsinki’s Vantaa Airport was cool, tranquil and in blues and whites, like the Finnish flag. The first thing that struck me was the absence of a crowd. Spaces were empty, open, quiet and untouched by the chaos and bluster that is typical of where I come from. It was a complete breath of fresh air. I felt free. I sat down at a small empty cafe in the airport and had a Finnish sandwich and coffee.

Finland2012-002 Station I felt the usual lightness of arriving in a new land. After I located the Finnair Bus to the city, loaded up and sat down, I realized all the stress was gone. Everything was new, everything not yet experienced. And yet, 20 years of listening to Sibelius – and months spent perusing tourist guides to Finland – made everything feel faintly familiar. I know this realm. I smiled to myself as I spotted Helsinki Cathedral, the modern lines of the Finlandia Hall across the road, the stone guardians of the Helsinki Central Railway Station,or the vertical STOCKMANN sign of the famous department store.

I’ve spent many years asking myself what makes Sibelius Finnish? But as a Sibelius nutcase in Helsinki, my automatic sense was to ask myself – what is so Sibelian about Helsinki? There is a certain old-time grace, which you might sense in the buildings. The streets have an unspoken neatness. Helsinki is clearly a modern city, people walking among buildings, trams and cars following its logical streets. She has a certain regal elegance, an unassuming nobility – it speaks for itself without having to make a loud noise. Things seem to just work without asking, things seem to be just in the right place. I was told my luggage case was too big to be kept at the bus ticket office, but perhaps I could try the cobbler just down the corridor. “I think they can take it.” And sure enough, they did. As a first-time visitor, I am not disappointed. Helsinki is full of little touches of graceful purpose and artistic surprise – flowers on a post, stark modernist architecture sitting amidst tradition, like a bronze square in a forest.

It was noon. I decided I had to do something Sibelian on my first day in Finland, so I took a walk to the Sibelius Monument. The sun was shining bright, and remarkably warm. Approaching from a distance, I discovered the monument wasn’t far from the main road. It was as if it was calling me. Or perhaps it was just the buzz of the throng of tourists around it. The road was filled with their coaches.

The Sibelius Monument in Helsinki
The Sibelius Monument in Helsinki

Many Finns are proud of Helsinki’s 24-ton monument to their greatest composer. But someone forgot to explain to the tourists why. Many tourist guides, books and the like, mark the Sibelius Monument as a must-see, citing its modernity and artistry. But you can’t explain Sibelius in two paragraphs, so the result is that the monument sees a lot of touristy galavanting around it, not just taking photos but hollering into the echoing pipes, rubbing the nose of the bust and general tomfoolery. It was noisy and it was rude, but I wasn’t surprised and I can’t blame them, but neither was I impressed. All I wanted was for someone to help me take a photo.

Two different men with DSLRs failed to take nice shots of me. I approached a Japanese group, and practised my rusty Japanese a bit with a lady. She apologetically said her husband is a better photographer but took the shot anyway, and it was not bad at all. Arigatou gozaimashita!

Finland2012-005 Sibelius MonumentFinally, I met Iker – an amiable young man from Pamplona, the historical capital city of Navarre, in Spain. We chatted for some time, and I explained to him the purpose of my trip. He showed interest instead of the usual confoundment when I spoke about Sibelius – what a relief. We helped each other take photos, and agreed to find one another online. We parted as my bus journey neared. It was a good meeting.

Usually when I have to explain to people about my favourite composer, the response is a polite unfamiliarity. It’s difficult to put it in words. But during this trip, I expected to and did meet people, fellow Sibelians and nutcases, for whom no words are necessary to explain.

We know. We know why he sounds like that. We know what he “means”. We know why he stopped after the Seventh. We know what is the dust of hue. We don’t have to explain. I suppose it is the same for many composers and their fans. But for Sibelius, the group of people on this Earth who share the understanding of his musical idiom is small but dedicated. We often find ourselves in spot, a little frustrated that it’s not possible to explain Sibelius to those who haven’t heard. We may even feel a little sympathy (for them and often for ourselves).

Finland2012-006 Sibeliustalo sign

It is especially wonderful then, to step into the quiet dining hall of my hotel in Lahti in the morning, and spot an elderly British couple already there. We would introduce ourselves and sit together to have toast, karjalanpiiraka, sausages, juice and talk Sibelius within 15 minutes of seeing each other for the first time. It feels as if we knew each other from symphonies past. Did humanity never notice the binding power of the arts?

My new friends, esteemed members of the United Kingdom Sibelius Society (UKSS), are best summed up in one word: jolly. Joining the group of seven (with one Australian), we made the journey to Ainola on the morning of September 6th, 2012. They do this every year, the society, but it was to be my first trip to Ainola, which is located in Järvenpää, 70 km south of Lahti.

Finland2012-010 Lahti

I was happy, obviously, to be finally on the way. And a little tense. The hour-long train journey from Lahti to Järvenpää was pleasantly full of sunlight, chatter with new friends, laughter and Sibelius. I sat opposite the magnificent and very funny John J. Davis, who looks exactly like Sibelius, but would otherwise be happy to be called King Kristian II (you can see his very Sibelian hairstyle in the photo above).

Finland2012-012 Janne flags
In the city of Järvenpää, flags bearing the symbol of a hat and walking stick are everywhere. They are simply called “Janne”, after Jean.

From Järvenpää, we take a 2.4 km walk to Ainola. Amidst fields and trees and lakes, the sky threatened to rain and indeed for a while, in the middle of the walk, it did. I was a little worried. But it was not to last. Walking through the carpark at Ainola which I’d seen on Google Streetview, the rain simply stopped. The sky shifted, painted itself blue and the sun came out. Looking at the nature around me, I felt welcome and privileged.

The group headed to the Café Aulis first, which also acts as the ticketing booth. I could sit here everyday. The veranda looks out into a simple but resplendently sunlit garden. The interior was warm and inviting – pillows and chairs, tables with autumn leaf decor, cakes, pies, coffee and Sibelius. While I struggled to absorb as much as the cafe’s ambience as possible, the rest had already sat down with their cakes and coffees.

Finland2012-015 JanneleivosI like cakes, but I don’t usually have them. But this morning, I did not feel like having a healthy sandwich. I saw a muffin with a chocolate treble clef, named “janneleivos” and ordered one. As I put it on the table, Janet of the UKSS point out that this was Sibelius’ favourite muffin that Aino often made for him. I was more than a little quietly delighted. And Aino was at the cafe in more ways than one. Her personal embroidery lay in a small exhibition at the entrace. They were woven of home. A home of quiet, sunshine and a birthplace of music.

As I walked out of the Cafe back in to the sunshine, my shoes crunching in the gravel, I followed my companions as they turned right towards Ainola.

“It’s there, can you see it?” And suddenly, there it is, through the trees it appeared, a house. It must be one of the most beautiful sights I’ve ever seen, this house among the forests. All around it, morning light, sky-reaching trees and serenity. Every step I took along the gravel path carried something like a musical purpose. The tall tree trunks went by, each one revealing the house in greater and greater detail. We stopped by the house’s exterior for a while, our hearts filled with unspoken greetings. I looked and stared, trying to examine every single detail of roof, window and woodwork, before realizing my companions had gone on ahead. I hurried to catch up.

Finland2012-019 Ainola

Down again the gravel path, with the guardian trees watching, I see ahead my destination. I could not help but slow down. This point had been in my dreams for many years. It didn’t seem real, and I felt the lightheaded weight of surreality over me. I was kept on Earth only by a strange sadness, because I knew it was a grave I walked towards. Now, more than ever, every single step I put down held an immense weight of purpose. I stopped at the edge, where two stone walls parted and gave way to the grave. I took a deep breath, knowing that the next time I breathed, it would be a different me, one that had fulfilled a lifelong dream. There was a reverent hush around the grave. A stillness in the centre, like noteless bars in a music score, but surrounded by the rustle and whispers of nature.

Finland2012-30 Ainola

The grave, as I have described, is cold and beautifully so. Aino’s apple trees surround it, a wife’s quiet, living, lifelong support for her husband, still alive and growing fruit, even as her name lay inscribed in cursive in one corner of her husband’s grave.

I came to Ainola expecting to say a lot. I wanted to tell him things. I thought I would have a lot to share with my friends. Instead, the weight of emotions while I was there kept me quiet. No, it was not that I spent all my time there silent and emotional – in fact, I shared much cheer and wonder with my companions, who happily showed me everywhere around. We took photos in the back garden. While there, I was asked to listen – listen: if not for the faint hum and whoosh of cars on the nearby highway, the place would be completely silent.

Finland2012-026 Ainola

That silence, I think is what struck me the most. For the longest time since coming home, I could not express exactly what I wanted to say about this journey. It has been over four months since I returned home as I write this. Maybe like Sibelius, Ainola is a contrast. It is a place of silence and also a place of music. It is a home for the happy noises of family, and also a home for the quiet of rest and retirement. Sibelius demanded absolute silence when he was composing. He spun symphonies out of a certain cosmic nothing – though if you listened closely, you will realize something remarkable: that silence is filled with the chords of the universe.

In the very trees of Ainola, Sibelius’ search for a home came to an end. Within Ainola, his music reached its logical conclusion and his own journey as a composer ended. His symphonies soar in the concert halls, his home is all quiet. I found myself having nothing more to say, except to smile. My journey too, was done.

I knew that when I left Singapore, I wasn’t prepared for Ainola, spiritually. I did not know what to expect on a journey of such emotional weight, I could not know how to face my hero until I made the journey. And when I finally met Sibelius, and all the spirits in the sunlit forest, his birch trees, his wife Aino, his family, his favourite chair, his piano in the corner, the bed where he breathed his last, his hat and walking stick, his green fireplace; when I met his people, his land, his music, and when I laid my hand as close to him as possible at his home in Ainola – all he said to me was silence. And it is a beautiful silence, this Silence of Järvenpää.

Finland2012-26 Ainola

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.