The 150th anniversary of the birth of the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius falls in 2015. Not many people know that he also composed for the piano, although his sole concerto is for the violin.
Born on 8 December 1865, Sibelius’s parents called their son Janne in memory of his father’s brother, Johan “Janne” Sibelius, who had been captain of a merchant ship. Later, during his student years, the young composer began to use visiting cards which he had found among the possessions of his uncle, who in the fashion of the times wrote his name using the French form. This is why Johan Christian Julius Sibelius is known to posterity as Jean Sibelius.
Little Jean had a vivid imagination. When his mother was playing the old piano that stood in the house, he crawled under it and tried to associate the notes he heard with the colours of the striped rug underneath. He made up stories about fairies and fires and from the age of four tried to pick out chords and melodies on the piano.
When Sibelius was seven or eight years old, efforts were made to teach him the piano more systematically, but there were penalties. One story says that, if he made a mistake during the lessons given by his aunt Julia, he “was wacked across the fingers with a knitting needle”. In any case, Jean soon switched instruments.
“When I was child we had a square piano which was about three-quarters of a tone flat. My whole world was contained in it, and when we got a new piano with normal tuning, everything fell to pieces. I became alienated from the piano and began to move over to the violin,” Sibelius later recollected. He developed into a capable violinist, but he also continued to play the piano, since it was a compulsory subject at the Helsinki Music Institute, where he registered in the autumn of 1885. He got the highest marks in ear training, violin playing, and many other subjects, but in piano playing he had to settle for a pass.
As a composer Sibelius would often try to work out his themes on the piano. And he would rush to a piano almost as soon as he saw one and start to improvise. Sibelius’s pupil and friend Georg von Wendt later recalled:
“These wonderful fantasias kept a hold on you from the first note to the last chord and it was as if the listener were intoxicated. It is a great pity that they were never written down. Those who heard Sibelius improvise in the 1890s, at the time when he was doing it the most, were able to enjoy the greatest beauty that contemporary music can offer.”
Sibelius composed dozens of piano miniatures, many of them for Finnish publishers. But he is on record as saying, “I write piano pieces in my spare moments. As a matter of fact, the piano does not interest me, as it cannot sing.” Yet he continued to play the piano in his old age and there is even a short piece of silent film showing Sibelius at the piano.
Sibelius wrote a remarkable concerto for the instrument he really admired: the violin. In 1951, Isaac Stern played the concerto at Sibelius’s house in Finland while the composer conducted an invisible orchestra and from time to time attempted to play the extremely difficult orchestral part on the piano. Stern was unimpressed, but Sibelius was 86 at the time!
Sibelius saw and heard the world in terms of the orchestra. Inspired by nature, his metamorphic symphonies are at the pinnacle of human creativity. Behind them stands a small, shy boy who hid beneath a piano, imagining colours and hearing cranes “flying south in full cry with their music.”