Monday 29 March 2010
Sibelius at home
200 words in a BBC Music Magazine article on my top composer houses won't do justice to the four-plus wonderful hours I spent last Thursday at Ainola, the home of Jean and Aino Sibelius just outside Jarvenpaa, half an hour's commuter train journey from Helsinki. So I thought I'd expand on the house, the paintings and some extraordinary tributes from Sibelius's confreres in several blog entries over time.
Hilkka Helminen, the house-museum's director, met me on an icy Jarvenpaa station platform in clear blue skies - the last day, as it turned out, of the extended Finnish winter. Her love and enthusiasm for the spirit of place seemed to be reflected by the other Finns I met - with one exception, who found the house 'oppressive'. I couldn't have disagreed with him more. On a sunny winter day, with the snow gleaming outside, light flooded in from all the big windows of Lars Sonck's humble national-romantic construction.
You approach the house up a snowy track through the wooded hill - or rather I, and a few privileged others, did at this time of year because it's only open to the public from May to September (the last visitors to sign the guest book were Olli Mustonen and his family). Without the cordons that marshal the many visitors in season, and with only Hilkka to guide me, it was just like being welcomed into someone's home by the housekeeper when the hosts were absent. Because Sibelius and his wife lived here from 1904 until his peaceful death in the downstairs bedroom on 20 September 1957, and because, following Aino's death at the age of nearly 98 in 1969, the descendants - who still visit and celebrate on birthdays - passed it on to the Finnish state with all contents intact, it has more the feel of a great artist's living home than any I've visited.
The drawing room is a homely mixture of inherited antique furniture, striking paintings and, crucially, the Steinway grand which replaced an upright in 1915, when 144 admirers of Sibelius clubbed together to buy it for his 50th birthday.
Curiously, the keyboard faces a grim painting, Rukous or Prayer by Oscar Parviainen, in which a young girl is claimed by death just as in Kuolema - and in real life, though the Sibeliuses' third daughter Kirsti was little more than a year old when she died. He claimed that he needed the reminder every day when he sat at the piano. No photograph was taken, so upstairs in Aino's bedroom, part of the house not open to the public, Kirsti is represented above the five daughters who lived by a Van Dyck child.
I'll mention some of the other pictures in a later entry. Now we move into the dining room, pictured with Hilkka in the foreground.
The great green fireplace is one of only two features on which Sibelius himself insisted. Apparently he 'heard' its colour in F major - I didn't know about his synesthesia - just as another Parviainen of a funeral cortege to the left apparently resounded in D major. The dining table is seen below with more treasure paintings behind lining the staircase wall
while a small table and a window seat helped me to place that 1915 photo I posted back in 2008 when I was working on Sibelius 6 for Radio 3's Building a Library.
Off the dining room is the big kitchen and the room for the two servants who stayed with the Sibeliuses for most of their time here and the bedroom in which Sibelius died with his second study (the first was upstairs), his familiar hat and cane on a chair in the corner (pictured above).
Adjoining bedroom and dining room is the comfortable library, converted from children's rooms in 1935.
I could hardly believe I was seeing the original of the triptych with the missing third panel by the great Akseli Gallen-Kallela.
It contains his symbolic (mis)interpretation of Sibelius's 'fairy tale' En Saga with the tousled, attractive portrait and the empty panel which Sibelius refused to fill with a quotation from the tone poem. More anon on the books and the gramophone collection.
We spent the whole morning there, and I was very surprised when Hilkka offered a return visit after lunch at the excellent catering school nearby. This was when we went through the contents of the 78s and I discovered still more wonders. She was also game enough to accompany me through the thigh-deep snow to the site of the graves of Sibelius and Aino, covered at this time of year, of course
and the sauna, designed by the multitalented Aino (whose gardening skills were not, of course, evident at this time of year).
It wasn't until 3.30 that Hilkka dropped me back at Jarvenpaa station.
I was rather amused by this quartet - the old stationmaster and his wife in the photos on the wall, the new generation beneath - in the comfortable waiting room.
Then I labelled my thoughts on the crowded train back, Luonnotar once again running through my head as it had on the outward journey, before stepping out at Helsinki's famous Central Station, designed by Eliel Saarinen and opened in 1919.
To help plan your essential trip to Jarvenpaa, there are further details and photos on the Ainola website. More can be found on the individual artworks at www.sibelius.fi.