Authors on Museums: Julian Barnes explores the house where the composer lived, died, wrote much of his music—and spent decades not writing, or not publishing
From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, January/February 2012
There are two famous silences in the history of classical music: those of Rossini and Sibelius. Rossini's, which lasted nearly 40 years, was a worldly, cosmopolitan silence, much of it spent in Paris, during which time he co-invented tournedos Rossini. Sibelius's, which lasted nearly 30 years, was more austere, self-punishing and site-specific; and whereas Rossini finally yielded again to music, writing the late works he referred to as "the sins of my old age", Sibelius was implacable. He fell silent, and remained silent.
I first got to know his music almost half a century ago in recordings by Anthony Collins and the London Symphony Orchestra. The sleeves of those old Ace of Clubs LPs featured black-and-white photos of appropriately Nordic scenes: snowscapes, fjords, towering pine trees, and so on. I think these images were mixed up with my early appreciation: there was a cool yet turbulent melancholy to them which I also found in the music, and which seemed to harmonise with my unrestful late-adolescent soul. But the music has stayed with me all my life, and, though generally uninterested in the lives of composers, I make an exception for Sibelius. I admire his mixture of puckish humour and obdurate high principle. During a conducting tour of England, he said in one post-concert speech, "I have plenty of friends here, and, naturally, I hope, enemies." He consoled a young colleague for a bad review with the words: "Always remember, there is no city in the world which has erected a statue to a critic." And during his final, silent years—he lived to the age of 91—he noted at one point in his diary: "Cheer up! Death is round the corner." So for years I have wanted to visit Sibelius's house, 40 kilometres north of Helsinki, a region of lakes and pine forests and towering silver birches. For me it has always been a place with a dual, divided reputation: for both creation and destruction, for both music and silence.
Most artists' houses have had previous and subsequent owners. In some you feel only a vestige of the artist's presence; others have had their spirit crushed by museumification, by curatorial intervention and the accretion of study centres. The Sibelius house is one of those rare places where no other presence interferes with the genius loci: it is a house of, for, by, with and about Sibelius. He bought a one-acre plot at Järvenpää near Lake Tuusula in 1903. There was already an artists' colony here, but Sibelius was as much attracted by the empty landscape in which he loved to walk, by the swans and geese passing overhead.
In September 1904 he moved his family into the still unfinished house which he named Ainola (the suffix "-la" meaning "place of") after his wife Aino. Here they brought up their five daughters (a sixth died in infancy). Here Sibelius composed most of his major works, from the violin concerto of 1905 to the last five of his seven symphonies, and here he spent three decades not publishing a single note. When, in 1957, death's long round-the-corner wait ended, he was buried in the grounds; Aino lived on here for another 12 years; their joint tomb, a six-foot square low bronze slab—which has the monumental inevitability of the later symphonies—was designed by their architect son-in-law Aulis Blomstedt. The five daughters, old themselves by the time of Aino's death at the age of 97, sold the house and contents to the Finnish state in 1972, and it opened as a museum in 1974.