“A person should live either in a big city or in the middle of the forest”.
So said Jean Sibelius in his unmistakable voice, deep and precise, speaking his old-fashioned Finnish, in an interview that I’ve heard more than once. He went on to specify where he’d written various symphonies (Florence and London, as I recall) and of course he had a home built in the forest by none other than our friend Lars Sonck himself.
As sound, image and associations, Sibelius is deeply grafted onto my experience of life and I doubt I’m alone. When I think of the best of my city of birth he pops up in all kinds of ways, not least in the bourgeois bastions of early twentieth-century neighbourhoods like Eira, Kallio, Punavuori and Töölö, here. But beyond as well, in the forests.
His music, first played to both baffled and enthusiastic audiences over 100 years ago, was the product of a decent education and a musical home, but also of an inexplicable facility with melody, harmony and all the intricate techniques of organisation and sound architecture that goes into producing symphonic music.
You might say (in a moment of patriotic fervour) that Sibelius’ talent was as baffling as the work of many architects who were his peers. Helsinki would not be the city it is were it not for its Jugend architecture. The weirdness of Väinämöisen Linna, for instance, is too everyday to be noticed each time you walk past. (Can’t resist noting that the chemist on the corner, behind the tram, is deemed too everyday in the 21st century for this space – look out for luxury-something here soon).
On the other side of the block, in Hotel Kämp today we have overpriced snobbery (I have it from countless sources) in opulent surroundings. But in the 1890s Sibelius and his chums regularly met there (for a piss-up as my father might say). OK, they were young and Finnish, so obviously alcohol had a role. But their madness also helped foster nationalism in the arts and in politics and eventually independence from Imperial Russia.
A new book, Vesa Siren’s award-winning tome on Finland’s conducting phenomenon, quotes Lilly Kajanus-Blenner, daughter of Robert Kajanus, conductor and close friend of Sibelius thus (my translation, as ever):
Father’s closest friends were Sibelius and Gallen-Kallela. He believed in them and he trusted that they would achieve what they did in fact go on to achieve. About Sibelius he said long, long ago: ‘He isn’t fully understood as a composer yet, but he is among the greatest in the world and one day the world will understand and acknowledge him! If only he might see it for himself’. This sort of thing my father used to say often…” (Siren 2010, p.48).
And the world did get it, and to some extent Sibelius did see, though he did turn into a rather grumpy old man before passing away at a ripe old age in that home built for him by Sonck. Lucky man.
His name lives on in computer software but as I said, on a good day the spirit and the material imprint of the dreams of the late 19th century live on in these parts quite unmediated by gadgetry. Particularly, of course, when it’s sunny, snowy and crisp. That book about conductors is just one aspect of the legacy. The music academy, named after him another. The Sibelius violin competition, currently in full-swing, is another.
I agree with Sibelius that one really should live either in the big (Helsinki-sized) city or the forest, but actually on the basis of experience I’m finding that the formula for suburban life (Espoo) has its redeeming qualities. Wildlife has scurried across the front-garden.