Finland is renowned in the world of classical music for the evocative symphonies of Jean Sibelius, the country’s leading composer. There are many monuments to Sibelius, but one of the best is surely Ainola, the house in which he lived from 1904 until his death.
The music of Jean Sibelius (1865-1957) is often cited as responding to the crisis of Finnish spiritual and national identity. The country’s vexed 19th century political history demanded music that conveyed independence and heroism. Sibelius’s first major compositions – Kullervo (an early symphonic poem for soloists, chorus and orchestra, based on a character in the epic poem “Kalevala”,) Finlandia (written in 1899 and composed for the Press Celebrations as a covert protest against increasing censorship from the Russian Empire), and his first two symphonies – certainly reflect a growing public fervour around Finnish nationalism. Yet, Sibelius was always his own master and increasingly ploughed a lone furrow in a field of 20th century music that included Mahler, Berg, Schönberg, Debussy, Stravinsky, and Richard Strauss.
In 1904 Sibelius moved with his family to large wooden house in Järvenpää on the shore of Lake Tuusula, north of Helsinki, the Finnish capital. It was designed by the Finnish architect Lars Sonck and the only request Sibelius made was that Sonck include both a lakefront view and a large fireplace in the dining room. Water pipes were not installed until after Sibelius died because he didn’t want any distraction while he was composing. The house was called Ainola, meaning “Aino’s land”. It was the name of Sibelius’s wife and also of a lyrical maiden figure in the “Kalevala”. Aino harks back to the Finnish mythology that Sibelius illustrated in orchestral works such as the Legends of Lemminkäinen, Pohjola’s Daughter, and Tapiola.
Ainola’s distance from the hustle and bustle of Helsinki gave the composer the peace that he needed for his creative endeavours. When they first moved there, Järvenpää was in unspoiled countryside, where sheep grazed around the house and elks could be seen from its windows. In a radio interview given in 1948, Sibelius said, “Here in Ainola the silence speaks.” Later, he claimed:
“Many people would say that my home is humble, but it is good enough for me. I am not like Verner von Heidenstam, the Swedish poet, who built a wonderful villa by a lovely lake and then complained that he could not do any decent work since everything around him made him ashamed of what he had written. I have been cleverer. I built a house in surroundings which were not too beautiful. So, when I write my music, it is possible for me not to be ashamed of it!”
Ainola symbolises Sibelius’s profound feelings for the natural landscape of Finland, which can be clearly discerned in his compositions. Symphony No. 5 includes a famous passage inspired by sixteen swans flying over the house, “their call the same woodwind type as that of cranes, but without tremolo… The Fifth Symphony’s finale-theme: Legato in the trumpets.”
The evocation of nature runs even deeper. Symphony No. 1 might be the desolation of winter and the majesty of a snowbound landscape. Symphony No. 2 might be an evocation of Spring, the late budding of trees and the flowering of Lily-of-the-Valley, the national flower of Finland. Every symphony suggests different moods and passions, and each is a work of genius. Ainola gave Sibelius meaning. It was where he walked among the trees, listening to the sounds of the natural world and translating them into music. When Sibelius died in 1957, he was buried there and on a visit in 1961 the Russian composer Igor Stravinsky placed flowers on his grave in tribute.