November 2012


Who Stopped the Music

By Mark McKenna
Jean Sibelius in Vienna, late 1880s. © Bettmann/Corbis
Jean Sibelius in Vienna, late 1880s. © Bettmann/Corbis
How Jean Sibelius ran out of notes

Finland: January 1939. A jet-black limousine ploughs its way along the driveway that leads from Jean Sibelius’ house. In the half-light of a Helsinki winter, the branches of the trees overhead are weighed down with snow. A recording of the composer’s Andante Festivo, his final appearance conducting his own music for a live radio broadcast, plays hauntingly in the background as the snow continues to fall. This opening scene from Christopher Nupen’s 1984 documentary Jean Sibelius exudes the intense, brooding melancholy that is synonymous with Sibelius’ name. Finland’s ‘national composer’ lived from 1865 to 1957 and was, alongside Gustav Mahler, one of the 20th century’s greatest symphonists. While Mahler’s symphonies digressed and expanded in an effort to encompass the whole world, Sibelius’ symphonies, which he described as “confessions of faith”, were compressed to the point of ultimate silence. “Never write an unnecessary note,” he proclaimed. “Every note must live.”

Almost 30,000 visitors each year make their way to Ainola, Sibelius’ former home at Järvenpää, named for his wife, Aino. Some are bussed in for a couple of hours on tours, barely aware of the composer’s significance, but many more are pilgrims who have made the 35-kilometre journey from Helsinki, eager to set foot in the place where so much of Sibelius’ music was written. I was certainly one of those. Ever since first hearing his music in my late 20s, I had imagined making the journey to Ainola, where he composed the last five of his completed seven symphonies. While his output was hugely varied – there were early chamber pieces, songs, short instrumental and choral works, extraordinary tone poems and incidental music – none of the other compositions, at least to my untrained ear, managed to touch the symphonies for sheer emotional power and originality of expression.

I had also come to Ainola to hear the silence. In the last 30 years of Sibelius’ long life, he produced very little music. While there were a handful of minor pieces and revisions of earlier scores, his prodigious output between World War I and the late 1920s ground to a halt. After composing from his teens, Sibelius fell silent. Although he worked on his Eighth Symphony from 1928 until his death, he became renowned for his silence as much as for his music. The fabled symphony never materialised. While his music was creating a sensation in the United States and Britain, he found himself unable to compose in a way that met his increasingly severe standards of self-criticism. Sibelius remarked that “in Ainola the silence speaks”, and I had come to listen, intrigued as much by the composer’s creative inertia as by his creative powers.

Few other twentieth-century composers have been the subjects of so much myth-making as Sibelius. Inextricably linked with the struggle for Finnish independence and the cultural nationalism that blossomed in the wake of the foundation of the Republic of Finland in 1917, his music is conventionally seen as the romantic-heroic representation of the Finnish landscape, an iron-forged homage both to nature and to nascent nation. Biographers describe his music as having “an almost mystic sense of identification with nature”, or, even more fancifully, “an elemental power that seems to have sprung fully grown from the glacial boulders, lakes and forests of the Finnish landscape”. Although Sibelius was an ardent supporter of Finnish independence (as the early symphonic poems Finlandia and Kullervo clearly indicate), he was more cosmopolitan than parochial, more the iconoclastic modernist than the late nineteenth–century bard of volk and nature. If anything, when trying to understand Sibelius’ music and his silence, nature tends to get in the way. Yet another veil is the manner in which his early biographers cultivated the aura that surrounds his name. 

Biographies of composers are particularly prone to romanticising and deifying their subjects. Sibelius’ first English biographer, Cecil Gray, was in no doubt concerning his subject’s unique powers: “The intellectual feast he spreads before his guests is magnificent ... to give any adequate idea of all the wisdom and wit – enigmatic, gnomic, aphoristic, paradoxical – which flows from Sibelius on such occasions would be impossible.” Even contemporary biographies of composers struggle to perceive their subjects as ordinary mortals. Almost 700 pages into Jens Malte Fischer’s mammoth biography of Gustav Mahler, published in English in 2011, he describes Mahler lying on the floor of his composer’s hut like a distraught child, unable to deal with the grief occasioned by the affair of his wife Alma with Walter Gropius, the Bauhaus architect. Fischer admits “with some hesitation to having difficulties” because, as he explains, “these events depict our ‘hero’ in such a desperate and hopeless situation, a character who, for all his contradictions, was none the less a great man but who seems simply to fall apart”. Having built Mahler up into a demigod, a man of “genius”, Fischer baulks at confronting his flawed humanity.

Beyond the finer points of musicological analysis, the biographer also faces enormous hurdles when attempting to explain the creative process of musical composition. Music is the least tangible of art forms, which is perhaps one reason why biographers strain to describe it, all too often retreating behind enigmatic descriptors like ‘mysterious’, ‘mystical’ or ‘transcendent’, and portraying the ‘master’ as God’s messenger. The truth is that no matter how graceful and poignant, descriptions of music will always pale in comparison to the experience of listening to it. After all, the point of music is not to be described but to be experienced. It is what music can do to us that contains the most exciting potential for analysis: music to steel the guts of soldiers before they go into battle, music for making love, music for shopping, music for giving birth and music for dying. No wonder biographers get carried away.

When biographers bring their ready-made romantic myth of Sibelius with them to Ainola, they tend to lose their critical faculties. The critic Alex Ross had probably imbibed too many of the dreamy landscape canvases that so often appear on CD covers of Sibelius’ music before describing his own visit to Ainola in his brilliant history of twentieth-century music, The Rest is Noise.


The atmosphere of the house is heavy and musty, as if the composer’s spirit were still pent up inside. But you get a different feeling when you walk into the forest that stretches out on one side of the house. The treetops meet in an endless curving canopy, tendrils of sunlight dangling down. The ground is uncluttered: many paths fork among the trunks. Venturing a little farther into the wood, you lose sight of all human habitation. A profound stillness descends. The light begins to fail, the mists roll in. After a while, you may begin to wonder if you will ever find your way back.

This is beautifully written, delightfully romantic, and pure fancy. “Many paths fork among the trunks”: during my walk through the same wood, I counted about three. “You lose sight of all human habitation … you may begin to wonder if you will ever find your way back”: the wood behind Ainola stretches for 150 metres before meeting a wire fence that overlooks an open field. If Ross could not find his way back from this point, he needed merely to turn around and follow the path back to the house. Even if the mists rolled in and darkness descended, he still would have made it back to the car park unaided. As for Sibelius, a man who loved to walk on well-worn tracks in the woods wearing a Parisian tailored white suit, a wide-brimmed hat, brandishing his cane and smoking a Cuban cigar, he hardly qualified as the rugged forest dweller. Mahler, who often enjoyed long treks in the Alps (and looked slightly more authentic with his rucksack and lederhosen), had far more claim to being a man of nature than Sibelius. As much as the sight of swans on the lake and cranes flying overhead moved him, Sibelius’ nature was within him.

At first sight, Ainola appears disarmingly simple. A weatherboard-clad log cabin, built on stone foundations in 1904, with views to Lake Tuusula, less than a kilometre away, its design combines elements of American romanticism with a rustic, slightly jumbled, Swiss chalet aesthetic. In the first two decades, the house was subject to frequent renovation. As the Sibelius family grew (their sixth daughter, Heidi, was born in 1911), upstairs rooms were added, and alterations to the ground floor soon followed. Although Sibelius needed regular injections of the bohemian life in Helsinki and major cultural centres such as Berlin and Paris, he would complete nearly all of his major compositions at Ainola.

Notoriously fastidious and obsessive about the monastic silence he needed in order to compose, the strictures Sibelius placed on the family home were severe. The sound of running water was too distracting for him; all downpipes and gutters were made from wood to lessen the noise. Water for drinking and cooking had to be brought in from outside the house, usually hauled up from a nearby well in large oak barrels. Sibelius’ daughters, all of whom played musical instruments, were never allowed to practise when their father was at home. While the children slept, Sibelius composed into the early hours of the morning in his upstairs study, an enormous bust of Beethoven looking grimly over his shoulder and a bottle of whisky (“my most faithful companion”) close by his side. To secure inspiration, no trees were permitted to obscure his view down to Lake Tuusula. He and Aino lived in the house until their deaths, in 1957 and 1969 respectively. They were buried side by side in the garden. Three years after their mother’s death, Sibelius’ daughters sold most of the Ainola estate to the Finnish government, and in 1974 the house opened as a cultural museum.

As much as I had wanted to visit Ainola, I could not avoid feeling a strange sense of discomfort upon my arrival. Everything there remains the property of the past. Time stands still. Nothing has changed, or so we are led to believe. The rooms and furnishings appear much as they do in the many photographs taken of the Sibelius family at home in the 1930s and 1940s. Sibelius’ white jacket hangs in his bedroom, as do his hat and cane. His pens still rest on his desk, his six ashtrays (each one for a different mood) still grace the side-tables throughout the house. Not a hair out of place; not a hair to be seen. These stage props, set up to mimic Sibelius’ lived experience, wait in vain for life to begin. For what makes the house slightly eerie is precisely the absence of life. Nothing stirs. The house is frozen in time in order to help maintain our illusions, to allow us to pretend that we really can step back into the past; as if we might somehow meet Sibelius leaning against his made-to-order green-tiled fireplace, puffing gently on a cigar. For all the impressive attention to period detail, silence is what rings out loudest of all, a silence that only seems to intensify the mystery surrounding the final decades of Sibelius’ life.

In 1927, Sibelius’ one-movement Seventh Symphony, a mere 22 minutes in length, premiered in Helsinki. By this time, the last major work from his pen, the majestic, swirling tone poem Tapiola, had also been performed (typically, Sibelius had wanted to make last-minute changes to the score but could not because his publisher, Breitkopf & Härtel, had already engraved the work in preparation for its imminent performance in New York). The older Sibelius became, the more reluctant he was to let his compositions rest. Works were ‘finished’, sent to his copyist, then recalled and revised, sometimes several times. His Fifth Symphony, written during World War I, underwent numerous last-minute changes, so much so that the symphony can be heard today in the original 1915 version and its final (and superior) 1919 incarnation.

Although Sibelius began work almost immediately on his Eighth Symphony after completing the Seventh in the late 1920s, his increasing self-doubt and perfectionism had the cumulative effect of stalling his creative output. The Eighth was almost certainly ‘finished’ on many occasions throughout the 1930s and 1940s. The influential American music critic Olin Downes, who had championed Sibelius’ music as a counter to the likes of Stravinsky and Schoenberg, managed to arrange the Russian émigré Serge Koussevitzky to conduct the symphony’s premiere, first in Boston in 1932, and shortly afterwards in New York. On both occasions, Sibelius, after initially agreeing to the arrangement, declined at the final moment, telling Downes that the Eighth was not ready, despite the fact that he had sent at least part of the score to his copyist in 1933. Downes was dogged in his pursuit of the symphony, visiting Sibelius at Ainola whenever he was in Europe. On one much-referred-to visit in 1936, after Downes had continually pressed Sibelius about the symphony, the composer turned to him and shouted: “Ich kann nicht!” Sibelius’ angst-ridden cry revealed the enormous pressure he was under as the public clamour for his symphony intensified. That he held out, refusing to send what was almost certainly a complete score to his publisher, and ultimately failed to produce another major work for the remainder of his life, suggests that Sibelius had come to prefer silence, or at least working silence. Long after he had burnt the manuscript of the Eighth Symphony in 1945, he told Santeri Levas, his secretary, that he was continuing to work on the symphony “in his head”. To admit that he had stopped completely would be to admit the unthinkable – that he was no longer a composer.

Faced with the ‘silence of Järvenpää’ – a well-worn tag for the last three decades of the composer’s life – Sibelius’ biographers have offered a range of explanations: his excessive reliance on alcohol (Sibelius developed a severe hand tremor that worsened with age, making it increasingly difficult for him to write); his crippling self-criticism; and, as his English biographer, Andrew Barnett, has perceptively remarked, the sudden absence of financial struggle: “The spectre of debt had pursued him throughout his adult life. But in early 1927 he finally paid off everything that he owed.” Now provided with a generous stipend from the Finnish government, Sibelius no longer needed to compose to secure an income. He celebrated by buying Aino a designer leather coat and travelling to Paris, elated at his newfound financial independence. “Now things are fine from a financial point of view, and I can concentrate on whatever I like. Isn’t it wonderful?” he wrote to his sister. In fact, far from ensuring his creative freedom, Sibelius’ financial security coincided with his creative inertia.

Sibelius’ biographers frequently mirror the silence of their subject, marching through exhaustive analyses of his music and times before coming to a sudden halt when he ceased publishing his scores. The last third of the composer’s life often takes up less than a tenth of biographical texts. Musical silence becomes biographical silence. “Sibelius’ life during these last years was uneventful,” declared Robert Layton in 1978. Sibelius’ most renowned and trusted biographer, Erik Tawaststjerna, who knew the composer towards the end of his life and was given unrestricted access to his private diaries and correspondence, produced a monumental five-volume biography in Finnish, translated into English in truncated form. When Tawaststjerna finally confronts his subject’s silence, he is disappointed at Sibelius’ failure to supply a triumphant conclusion: “So we are faced with the problem of describing a long period of work without actually being able to turn to the results … the internal balance of the biography is disturbed.” Indeed. But Tawaststjerna’s admission points to an even more important dilemma: how do we write about creative silence?

After several visits to Ainola on successive days, I began to see a possibility, one that, as I later discovered, had been mentioned by Sibelius scholars and biographers but perhaps not yet wholly explored. Walking from room to room, I encountered several bronze busts and plaster reliefs of Sibelius. One of the first to be sculpted had a refreshing sense of playfulness: Sibelius had insisted that he be depicted holding a horseshoe, for luck. But those sculpted during the last decades of his life seemed to take on a more self-important, monumental quality. I asked my guide whether they were placed in the house after Sibelius’ death. “No,” he replied. “They were in the house when Sibelius was alive.” As each new bust and commemorative medallion came in, Aino and Sibelius found it a prominent resting place. In the drawing room, there was the Steinway piano given to Sibelius for his 50th birthday in 1915 by more than a hundred donors. Nearby, a bookcase contained the hundreds of petitions and scrolls of acknowledgement and appreciation that had poured in from across Finland, especially from the 1920s onwards. Then there were Sibelius’ many honorary doctorates and awards. One chest alone was not sufficient to hold them all. By 1938, the composer was receiving so much correspondence that he was forced to employ Levas as his full-time secretary. As Sibelius’ international fame spread in Britain and the US, Ainola became a mandatory stop on the VIP tour circuit. As Levas described it: “For many Americans, Sibelius was a kind of object on a sightseeing tour that one glanced at if one were in Finland.” Visitors turned up unannounced: journalists, conductors, musicians, artists, writers, photographers and autograph hunters, publishers and agents with proposals. On one occasion, in 1955, Eugene Ormandy and the entire Philadelphia Orchestra dropped by. Meanwhile, together with textiles, silks, Japanese dolls, dried flowers, sweets, alcohol, books and an entire record cabinet from Philips (with the gramophone Sibelius could now listen to recordings of his compositions at home), boxes of the finest Havana cigars arrived annually from the Cuban Ministry of Agriculture. When these were all smoked, Sibelius could always rely on the occasional delivery of cigars from VIP admirers like Dwight Eisenhower and John D Rockefeller. By the late 1930s, Ainola had become a de facto Finnish embassy of the most luxurious kind. When he was not posing for sculptors and photographers or receiving the latest round of dignitaries, much of Sibelius’ time was devoted to answering correspondence and responding to requests. Rather than composing, his days were spent managing the consequences of his fame. Sibelius busied himself with being Sibelius. While he performed this role willingly, he often felt besieged. When all the attention became too much he resorted to placing a sign on his front gate: “Professor Sibelius is not available.”

Today, Finland’s tourist industry promotes Ainola and the surviving houses of Sibelius’ artist friends scattered around the shores of Lake Tuusula as national heritage sites where “wealthy officials, tradesmen and artists worked to develop Finnish identity”. But perhaps the reverse is true. At a time when the cult of the leader’s personality dominated the political landscape of fascist and communist Europe, Finland, eager to build a stirring new national mythology in the wake of its independence in 1917, moved quickly to create Sibelius as the fierce, bald-headed colossus who embodied the Finnish nation. In the words of Sibelius scholar Daniel Grimley, long before Sibelius died he became “his own memorial”. Lavish state banquets, concerts and cultural events marked his 60th, 70th, 80th and 90th birthdays. Ainola was flooded with gifts and flowers, while telegrams arrived from all around the world. Sibelius, the national institution, gradually became a living monument, a man who no longer created but was merely his dutiful, silent self. Living at Ainola, Sibelius found himself a curator of the Sibelius museum, surrounded by the icons of a dead man – heroic sculptures and photographs of a composer whose time had already passed him by.

The effect of this flood of national memorialisation on his creative drive was stultifying, as Julian Barnes perceived in ‘The Silence’, a short story based on Sibelius’ final years at Ainola. At one point, early in the story, a young journalist arrives at Ainola to interview Sibelius. He suggests that Sibelius has written himself out and accuses him of shirking his duties by continuing to draw a state pension without producing the Eighth Symphony. “It is you who are keeping me from finishing it,” Barnes has Sibelius reply. Barnes knew intuitively what many others had failed to flesh out. The silence of Sibelius is the din of his beatification. The Finnish state that raised Sibelius to the level of a national hero also played a large part in crippling his creativity. The nation not only found its hero, it succeeded in silencing him. Silence was, in fact, the only logical response Sibelius could make to his deification by the Finnish state. The story of his final years is a graphic illustration of the dangers of too close a connection between art and nationalism. It was clear that his status was secure. He needed to do nothing more but repay the state’s generosity by playing the great man he was employed to be. Perhaps he also feared that if he released his Eighth Symphony, it could not possibly live up to his exalted status.

Today, the silence of Järvenpää is no more. Waves of traffic from the nearby road and the occasional plane flying overhead can be heard from the woods around the house. From the main road, trees obscure the view down to the shores of Lake Tuusula that was once clear. Before leaving Ainola, I thought of the impossibly romantic story of Sibelius’ final days there, one repeated by his many biographers. Alex Ross probably tells it best of all:

One September morning in 1957, [Sibelius] went for his usual walk in the fields and forest around Ainola, scanning the skies for cranes flying south for the winter. They were part of his ritual of autumn … When, on the third-to-last day of his life, the cranes duly appeared, he told his wife, “Here they come, the birds of my youth!” One of them broke from the flock, circled the house, cried out, and flew away.

In the many renditions of this all-too-convenient biographical send-off, finer details vary in the telling. Sometimes Sibelius waits for the cranes. Sometimes he hurries outside to see them. Sometimes the cranes cry out, sometimes they remain silent. But almost always, one crane breaks away from the flock and circles Ainola. Two days later, Sibelius was dead. Twenty thousand people attended his state funeral in Helsinki on Monday, 30 September 1957. As much as I want to believe the story of the cranes, I see how perfectly it fits with the national myth that Sibelius had become. The birds behave like a military fly-past, as if the Finnish president had determined their flight path, with one crane breaking away – nature herself farewelling the nation’s artist–hero. It is such an ideal ending that it must be fictitious, or, more precisely, a beautiful blend of truth and lies.

Many Finns and lovers of Sibelius’ music worldwide still hope that somewhere in his personal papers or his copyist’s archive lies the Holy Grail of Finnish music – a full score of the Eighth Symphony. In October 2011, researchers in Helsinki discovered what they believe to be a series of brief sketches from different sections of the score. They continue to search for more. Although the true nature of these meagre offerings is disputed, within weeks of the discovery the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra rushed to play the incomplete sketches in a performance that lasted all of 2 minutes and 41 seconds. The music that emerged, particularly the opening bars, was strange and ethereal, yet nonetheless recognisably Sibelius. Watching the performance on YouTube, I could not help but think how disappointed the composer would have been to hear his unfinished music performed.

Mark McKenna

Mark McKenna is an award-winning writer and historian. His most recent book is Return to Uluru.

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