Hearing Finnish music on its own soil, and visiting Ainola
It was good to be back in Finland this weekend, not having been there for a whole 10 days. Some colleagues here at Gramophone have taken to gently mocking my obsession with the music of the Nordic countries. Given the disproportionate amount of discussion I attempt to propagate around them, I can’t really blame them.
Initially I wasn’t all that interested in Nordic music – more by the countries themselves and their cultures. Finnish language, furniture design and sociology drew me there before I became absorbed by the music of Sibelius. But I do remember listening to his Fourth Symphony on a Finnish train years ago, watching the harsh, sparse whiteness whiz by and thinking that this music could perhaps fit into that same cultural jigsaw; that it, too, could illuminate some Nordic (and particularly Finnish) values.
I couldn’t live without Sibelius now – nor Sallinen, Nielsen, Langgaard and many more Nordic musicians, classical and otherwise. It might sound conceited, but I think approaching figures like Sallinen and Nielsen through their respective countries (rather than the other way around) was the only way I could latch onto them and keep my interest on a crescendo.
This weekend I had the almost unspeakable pleasure of hearing the Lahti Symphony Orchestra play Sibelius in their beautiful lakeside concert hall. More on the detail of that anon. But part of the deal was the dubious pleasure of hearing my third live Finlandia in the space of 10 days.
As those fearsome opening salvos snarled outwards in Lahti, my Finlandia fears slipped away. The audience of mostly Finns had been quietly inspired by three consecutive Sibelius symphonies. But with Finlandia comes something different: a pride that has absolutely nothing to do with territorial superiority, and everything to do with the nobility of hope – of the Finns’ belief in every person’s right to good things, and pride in the collective will that ensures that right is realised.
Finns aren’t unemotional, but they do manage the outward communication of their emotions differently. You only need to see Finlandia’s effect on a room full of them to recognise that. It speaks volumes about what the country is built on – literally and spiritually. Perhaps the rest of Sibelius’s catalogue is simply an exploration of some byways within that principle.
Ten days ago I had the chance to travel to Ainola, Sibelius’s home. Our online editor Martin, who has himself visited Ainola, suggested it might make a good blog. But Ainola wasn’t really what I’d expected.
Firstly the house was much further from Järvenpää lake than I’d imagined, trampling one of my key mental images of Sibelius. There was also something regimented about the whole affair – from the layout to the rigid rhythm of the guided tour. I knew a taxi was on its way to meet me alone, so with 15 minutes' grace I slipped away from the group and walked to Sibelius’s grave.
It’s hard to shake yourself free from emotional contrivance when you’re stood for the first time over the grave of a person who has such an acute posthumous hold on your emotions. It was interesting, but felt manufactured. So I walked a few yards down the hill, to Sibelius’s old sauna house.
Inside, dark but for a small window framing a tiny section of sky and trees, I sat and listened to the ‘Hymn of Praise’ from the Swanwhite Suite for orchestra on my iPod. I looked mostly at the floor, as I imagine the composer would have done in his sauna. I managed to shut out the world for three minutes, and to get close to some things at the heart of Finnish life: stillness, darkness, simplicity, the smell of the sauna wood, the skyward reach of the trees. Swanwhite was an impulsive choice, but in the moment it seemed that the music, too, could only be about those things.
The Lahti Symphony Orchestra’s performances of Sibelius’s symphonies, Violin Concerto and Finlandia can be watched free of charge for the next three weeks by clicking here.
Andrew Mellor is Reviews Editor at Gramophone magazine and writes widely for orchestras, opera companies, periodicals and websites in the UK and Scandinavia.