Living with a genius

23 June 2015 | Extracts, Non-fiction

Akseli Gallen-Kallela, Symposium

Akseli Gallen-Kallela’s painting Symposium (1894). From left: Akseli Gallen-Kallela, the composer Oskar Merikanto, the conductor Robert Kajanus and Jean Sibelius. Aino Sibelius was not pleased with this depiction of her husband depicted during a drinking session with his buddies

It is 150 years since the birth of Finland’s ‘national’ composer, Jean Sibelius. Much has been written about his life; Jenni Kirves’s new book casts light on his wife, Aino (1871–1969), and through her on the composer’s emotional and family life.

Aino, Kirves remarks in her introduction, has often been viewed as an almost saintly muse who sacrificed her life for her husband. But she was flesh and blood, and the book charts the difficulties of life with her brilliant husband from the very beginning – his unfaithfulness during their engagement, how to deal with a sexually transmitted infection he had contracted, his alcohol problem, the death of a child. It was Aino’s choice, time and again, to stand by her man; she felt it was her privilege to support her husband in his work in every possible way. ‘For me it is as if we two are not alone in our union,’ she wrote, far-sightedly, as a young bride. ‘There is also an equally rightful third: music.’

Aino’s own family, the Järnefelts, were a considerable cultural force in Finland, supporters of Finnish-language education and the growing independence movement. Her brothers included the writer Arvid Järnefelt, the artist Erik Järnefelt and the composer Armas Järnefelt. It was Armas who introduced her to his friend Jean Sibelius.

Aino bore Sibelius – known in family circles as Janne – six daughters, and offered her husband her unfailing support through 65 years of married life. ‘I must have you,’ Sibelius wrote, ‘in order for my innermost being to be complete; without you I am nothing… For this reason you are as much an artist as I am – if not more.’

As an old lady, Aino remarked of her own life that it had been ‘like a long, sunny day.’


Aino Sibelius, 1891

Aino Sibelius, 1891. Photo: National Board of Antiquities – Musketti.

An excerpt from Aino Sibelius: Ihmeellinen olento (‘Aino Sibelius: wondrous creature’, Johnny Kniga, 2015). We join the young couple in 1892 as they prepare for their long-awaited wedding.

At last, the wedding!

In the spring of 1892 the wedding really began to seem possible, as Janne’s symphonic poem Kullervo was very favourably received and Janne finally began to believe that he could support Aino. His financial situation was still, however, far from brilliant, and there were only two weeks to the wedding, as Janne wrote on 27 May 1892: ‘All the same, we must really be very careful about money. You will keep the cashbox and we will decide on everything together.’ The wedding grew closer and three days later Janne wrote triumphantly:

Do you understand, Aino, that we shall be man and wife in 1 ½ weeks – that we shall be able to kiss each other however we like and wherever we like (!) – and live together and have a household together – eat and make coffee together – it’s just so lovely.

A couple of weeks before the wedding, however, Janne wrote to Aino about some wishes for Aino in the future:

A skill with which a married artist can be protected from regressing is that the ‘wife’ understands to make him as little as possible into a model citizen. The man must not be allowed to be a paterfamilias with a pipe in his mouth, drowsy and docile; he must continually seek as many impressions as before, that’s clear, isn’t it? The kind of marriage whose main goal is the bringing of children into the world is repugnant to me – there are most certainly other things to do for those who work in the arts.

On 10 June 1892 the couple were finally married at the Tottesund manor house in Maksamaa parish, the Järnefelt family’s summer house. Only close family were present. There were lilies of the valley in Aino’s bouquet. Among Janne’s relatives, only his big sister Linda and little brother Christian were present, because is mother, Maria, was ill and Janne’s father, Christian Gustaf, had died of typhoid fever in the summer of 1868 while Janne was still a boy, and had left large debts as a result of his irresponsible life-style. The groom had forgotten to bring his wedding gift with him from Loviisa. It was a gold chain which had earlier been warn by Janne’s mother Maria and his paternal grandmother, Katarina. The chain was sent later to Aino by post. Inspired by Karelianism funded by Janne’s scholarship, they spent their honeymoon in Karelia, Lieksa and Koli. Not yet having exhausted his funding, Janne then continued alone to Ilomantsi and Korpiselkä to listen to Kalevala rune-singers. Aino wrote to her husband immediately after the honeymoon, having returned via Savonlinna to Kuopio on 20 July 1892: ‘Oh my dear angel and beloved, I am so wild for you. You cannot believe how strongly the moment of parting affected me. Oh, if only you were with me! My own dear little boy and bunny and a thousand times beloved.’

The newly-weds were happy, even though they did not have much in the way of money. As Aino wrote to her oldest brother Kasper about the couple’s first apartment, at Wladimirinkatu street 45, Helsinki, now Kalevankatu street: ‘We have such a pretty home and we are so very happy here at home.’ Aino’s other brother, Armas, wrote to his sister in the autumn of 1892:

… I envy you, but especially Spouse. I wonder if he understands how to value his position? Does he grasp that it is enviable for a person to have work, and the enthusiasm and energy to complete it? And finally: he has a wife who loves him and whom he loves. Nowhere does he have to stand alone. Preserve your relations, dearest children, as you have begun! Be open, do not hide anything from one another and you shall see how much sunshine life has to offer!

Armas was right. Janne really was extremely lucky to have a wife like Aino.

A husband ‘comes gradually’ home

To Aino, Janne may have written about his struggle against bad habits, but to [the conductor] Robert Kajanus he told the ugly truth. On 30 July 1902 he wrote to Kajanus: ‘I have come round from a five-day drinking bout with quite devilish after-effects.’ At Christmas 1902 Christian was very concerned about about his brother’s use of alcohol and was of the opinion that he must immediately become a total abstainer. Even though Sibelious was a tender and considerate father, he would still disappear for days on end to his favourite Helsinki restaurants. One one of his drinking trips he sent his wife a note: ‘Dear Aino! I wonder how you all are? Nipsu (the littlest one) and the rest of you. Send me word – I am in a very interesting conversation. Your Janne. I’m coming gradually.’

‘Gradually’ was a concept that could stretch to many days. Aino kept up appearances, and if she decided to go and look for her husband, she did it herself. One time she was forced to seek Kajanus’s help, as Janne had left the finale of his violin concerto unwritten. Kajanus was reluctant to intervene, but Aino asked: ‘Are you his friend or not?’ So they took a driver together and Aino waited in the carriage while Kajanus fetched Janne from the König. Aino did not utter a word of reproach to her husband.

Aino did not like it that Janne was present in Akseli Gallen-Kallela’s painting Symposium; her husband is seen there in an unflattering light, and this not only hurt Aino, but endangered Janne’s reputation in the eyes of possible financial supporters and creditors. In fact, it later prevented Janne from buying the plot of land on which he had planned to build their house, Ainola. Before Christmas in 1891 Aino had read [the Swedish writer] Adolf Paul’s novel En bok om en människa (‘A book about a man’). Paul described his liquor-sodden adventures in the company of an artistic figure, and his drinking companion was easily recognisable as Sibelius. Aino conceded that the novel’s depictions of partying were lively, but despite Janne’s pleas she did not agree to translate the work into Finnish. It was a wise decision, as that work, too, affected Janne’s reputation in his patrons’ eyes.

During 1903, Janne had began to enjoy spending time with the groups of writers and artists that gathered around the magazine Euterpe. They met at the König restaurant and in the Kämp hotel. Aino was heavily pregnant, and sent her husband a message to the restaurant. She did not mince her words.

Do you think I would have you fetched from the bar, whatever happens? Do you think that, at such an important moment in our lives, I long for a man who is not sober? Far from it! But I am astonished that you, you, who consider yourself to live this life of yours in the service of art, that you can be so without any kind of respect. Consider that you should be a man, since you were created a man. Or are you a man? – You are not! I do not know what will happen in our lives. I suffer so badly from all of this. It will surely all soon be over. Then you can live in peace with your chosen friends. But Janne, as long as you have a wife, you will not be at peace if you merely insist on your rights and as soon as you encounter the earnestness of life, you leave everything, you support your ‘family’ financially, true enough, but in no other way. I accuse you because I am not now free to do what I wish to do. Otherwise I should not say a single word. Of my better feelings towards you I do not speak at present; they are precious and, to you, gratuitous, and moreover we no longer hold them in common. For so much I have experienced, so much have I gazed into your soul. But nevertheless, as I write this, I cannot hold back my tears. – this is all so wretched! – I cannot even hope that I will die, even though it would be best for you and me, for I love our children!

Soon after this Katarina was born, the fourth child in the family. At that time Aino’s restlessness about her husband continued to grow, and she unburdened herself to Janne’s good friend and supporter, Axel Carpelan. Carpelan was also concerned about the Euterpe group, and he in fact demanded that the composer should move out of Helsinki. The idea to move to Järvenpää, then still Tuusula, was born. Aino demanded Janne to stick resolutely to the truth, even if it she knew it would hurt. On 22 September 1903 she wrote to her husband: ‘Write very often and remember: be open. Never conceal anything. Directness is the condition of our happiness. Try always to remember this. If only you know how much suffering you cause me when you do otherwise. Let us care for the one thing that is the greatest that is to be found.’

It was 3 December 1903, and Aino was much concerned with the building process of [their new house,] Ainola, which was left largely to her as Janne concentrated on composing and, very clearly, boozing. Once Janne telephoned his wife, apparently drunk, and asked after his coat, which Aino herself had sought in various restaurants. Aino was cast once more into the depths of despair.

Do you know, the telephoning between us, when you were in Helsinki, was something quite terrible to me, as if I had been whipped. Because I always believe in something better and just as my belief was about to be strengthened – to receive a blow like that. I cannot bear many more of those. ­– Janne, do you not see the high, great thing? Why do you stifle in yourself that which has not been granted to other people? Are you never afraid? Genie oblige [genius brings responsibilities]. It is written as if in letters of fire wherever I look. Don’t scorn anything that is right. –– It is as if I am in a fire, I am so unhappy that I cannot do anything to help you. – It is just as if I had lived my life in vain. And that is exactly what I have done. Farewell my love, my only love. Keep well, kisses from us all.

The following day Aino continued to scourge her husband in the words of [the Norwegian playwright] Henrik Ibsen: ‘One must have faith in oneself, one must never betray one’s inner voice, one’s vocation, one’s task in life.’ And: ‘Talent is not a right but an obligation, and it is accompanied by great responsibility.’ In her own words, she wrote: ‘I fear and feel that something is about to be broken. –– Now I do not mean myself, but you! Dear, dear Janne, you are still young, do not let your life and your gifts be shipwrecked. –– Awake, Janne, awake and see what you are!’

Janne answered optimistically: ‘Morning will come for us.’ At the top of the page he wrote the couple’s watchword, me (‘us’). Aino, however, was still downcast and on 7 December 1904, on the eve of Janne’s birthday, she sent her greetings in a melancholy vein:

I am so, so distressed. Life is one great teardrop. –– Otherwise I have been perhaps doing a little better, although it is as if I were in touch with the spirit world. It is as if trolls visited me and told me what is happening far from me. –– Remember that one’s gaze must be clear before God. Every wrinkle in life is lit as if by electricity. – one can hide nothing, everything will be revealed.

On the following day, his birthday, Janne replied with the promise: ‘Build up for the last time, I shall change.’

To Aino, Janne might sometimes embellish the truth, but in a letter to Akseli Gallen-Kallela’s brother-in-law, Mikko Slöör, he revealed the true state of affairs in 1907: ‘This drinking – in itself a marvellously cheerful business – has gone too far –– Aino is at her wits’ end. I must address her concerns properly. It is very stressful for me to pinpoint and recognise all of this. After all, I am a spoiled, arrogant individual of no character.’

On 3 April 1907 Aino was so tense about the situation and so tired that she was sent to the Hyvinkää sanatorium to rest. The cause of her anxiety is easy to guess when one glances at the receipts: bills for Janne’s lobsters, brandy and champagne. Almost as many receipts have been preserved from that period as from the wet years of 1903-4. When, in late spring, Aino returned home, she was forced to note that her husband’s drinking went on and on. Her message to her husband was stark:

Do you have so terribly little respect for me that you care nothing for the extreme grief you cause me. I really do suffer from it so badly that it feels as if I am consumed by flame. Is life, in your opinion, really so cheap that you cannot even be bothered to show that you can stay where you want to. For you, what has happened is a little thing. For me, it is big. It makes such a tear in the slow and fine fabric that you and I, I at least have believed, have made together. All my strength goes into things like this. I have no other life. For I place all my belief in some tiny virtue or sign of effort from you. I suffer from everything that is bad or ugly with you. This is a great disillusion, for I was so sure of you already. Now you are, in my opinion, once more a sluggard. If only you know how ashamed I am that you have taken a gift that was meant for another. If you were energetic, then even now, upside-down as we are, we would be at our goal and my conscience could rest. My love suffers from these great wounds. It breaks my heart, and I am revolted when I hear your speech stumble and know what spirits are loose in your brain. Oh Janne, Janne, – you, who have the heart for all that is beautiful and noble that is ‘written’, do you not understand what it is that is so hurtful in a person when you show yourself in such an unlovable state. You lose more than you suppose. If only I could explain it to you.

Janne’s alcohol problem was serious, and his wife’s return apparently did nothing to improve the situation. In January 1908 Janne spent more than a week drinking in the Hotel Fennia in Helsinki and found himself in detox in the Deaconess Institute in Helsinki once again.

A great change in his habits, however, was on its way. When a growth in Janne’s throat was found in 1908, Janne and Aino, who was again expecting a baby, set off for Helsinki, where they wandered from bank to bank asking for a loan which would allow Janne to be operated on in Berlin. Aino waited in the street and Janne went to present himself to the bank manager. He received one negative answer after another, until an exhausted Aino sank down onto a bench. The next time he stepped out onto the street, Janne exclaimed, ‘I got it!’ The director of an insurance company had, without a word, emptied the day’s takings into Janne’s pockets.

At the end of May, Janne travelled to Berlin to visit a famous throat specialist. The doctor forbade him to drink alcohol for the rest of his life. Janne was terrified of the growth. He was so frightened of its return that he was prepared to follow the doctor’s advice. In a letter to his brother Christian he wrote, ‘In the case of tobacco he wasn’t against “just a little”. But I will probably have to give that up too. I have now gone a month without. Life is completely different without these stimulants. I would never have been able to imagine anything like it.’

For seven years he did not drink or smoke at all. And it became clear that he was able to compose without ‘these stimulants’, for many of his master works were born during this period. Those years were for Aino, she said, the happiest of her life.


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