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.’