Author: Jenni Kirves

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. More…