Karelia: Land of Inspiration

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

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

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

Treeline on the way to Karelia

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

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

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

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

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

Pielinen in grey

Melancholy and distant Karelia.

Pielinen in grey2

Silent and poignant Karelia.

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

Karelia dawn

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

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

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

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

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



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


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

Karelian sunset

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

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

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:


Memories from the Woods – recollections of a Sibelius granddaughter

Janet Abbots and Andrew Barnett of the United Kingdom Sibelius Society bring us a glimpse of the recital at Brighton, where Sibelius’s granddaughter Satu Jalas recently performed. Like the composer’s music, the reflection is brief, but concentrated in intense memories.

It was a somewhat surreal experience to see Satu strolling though the streets of Brighton, with her grandfather’s violin strapped to her back.  On 21st February 2013, both violin and grandchild played his music, and in between the notes came many special memories. The image of a grandfatherly Sibelius is as charming as it is a contrast to the rugged, stately photographs of the elderly composer we are so used to seeing.

Sibelius would welcome his grandchildren when he returned from his forest walks, and they would run into his open arms. When the little ones themselves came back from the woods, he would ask them, “What did you see?”  His grandfatherly response turns out to be as wise as it is pure Sibelius (the answer later).

But when Sibelius realised that Satu was serious about playing the violin, he gave his own instrument to her, believed to have been made by the renowned Austrian instrument maker  Jacob Stainer (c. 1617 – 1683). Satu notes that while she is privileged to be the owner and player of this unique instrument, she does not want to underline her personal role among Sibelius’s 16 grandchildren.

Satu Jalas with autographed score
Satu Jalas is holding the sheet music for the F major Romance, Op. 78 No. 2, a copy bearing a handwritten dedication by Sibelius to his daughter Margareta (Satu’s mother). Picture courtesy of Kyllikki Barnett and shown with kind permission of Mdm Satu Jalas.

“A Winters Evening with Sibelius”, presented by the Finnish School of Brighton with Satu Jalas, the composer’s granddaughter playing his own violin, and world-renowned pianist and principal artist in the Complete Sibelius Edition on BIS records Folke Gräsbeck, performing a programme of music at St Pauls C. E. School in Brighton, must surely have raised a few eyebrows. There was considerable press coverage in Helsinki’s main newspaper Helsing Sanomat and also in Brighton. To include a world premiere of the Andantino for piano solo in D major was a massive coup, and a very reasonable audience of around 70 or so were in attendance.

Satu Jalas brought out the beauty of the revered instrument, relaying fascinating information about the violin and of her grandfather. She was really able to bring out the human side of Sibelius, not just in music but in memories. She recalls that her overriding impression of him was of his piercing blue eyes that absolutely radiated spirituality, an image that has stayed with her today still.  Sibelius was such an avid devotee of the sauna, he would smell her neck just to get a whiff of it. Grandfather Sibelius was a gentle and generous person, Satu recalled fondly.

Satu Jalas and Andrew Barnett
Sibelius’s scholar Andrew Barnett playing on Sibelius’s violin with Sibelius’s granddaughter Satu Jalas. Picture courtesy of the Barnetts (and their home).

Sibelius scholar Andrew Barnett quotes (at the Sibelius Forum) directly from Satu Jalas:

“As a child I spent with my brother and sister several periods in his home, called Ainola… usually every year some days at the end of August and also during the winter holidays, during the year some weekends and so on. I saw and remember his big blue eyes, and felt a very great spirituality, and there was something heavenly in his way of looking at us children; and this intuitive impression doesn’t go away from my mind.

He didn’t stay very much with us, but when he did it was really very special. For instance, as he usually got up late in the morning, and we had already played a long time in the garden, he called us every morning around his bed, where he sat with thousands of pillows, and asked us what everybody had dreamt of; and it had to be a very detailed description – it was his way to know us better inside, and it was not a stupid idea… When he came back from his long walks he met us in the garden with grandmother, and then he opened his arms and we ran to him…

He also told us a lot of nature’s secrets. Once, one of my cousins went to the woods and was coming back, then grandfather asked: ‘Have you been in the woods? What did you see?’ ‘Nothing special’, was the answer. Then my grandfather winked and said: ‘Go back and look more closely.’


dark forests

Wide-spread they stand, the Northland’s dusky forests,
Ancient, mysterious, brooding savage dreams;
Within them dwells the Forest’s mighty god,
And wood-sprites in the gloom weave magic secrets.

– Preface to published score

On the occasion of Earth Day, April 22, 1999.

A bassoonist friend of mine had the fortune to play Tapiola once. It was a run-through conducted for fun, not meant for the orchestra to perform. When I asked him how it was like, he opened his eyes wide and said it was awesome and terrifying; that the sensation of sitting in the orchestra as it weaves its way through the tone painting of the forests made one feel very small. During rests, no one dared to move or make a sound. Continue reading Tapiola