Ainola, Finland – Jean and Aino Sibelius’ place.

I was in Finland in August and September 2022 and, when I was staying in Helsinki, it was relatively easy to get a train for the 24 mile journey to a place I had read about often and wondered what it would really be like there. I mean Ainola – the home of Jean Sibelius and his wife Aino and their six daughters. Ainola to me was a place of mystery. What could it be like, this place where the great composer wrote most of his profound, majestic and life-affirming music? Like a lot of non-Nordic Sibelius fans, at first I imagined Ainola as a cottage deep in the forests of the great frozen North – the land of the midnight sun, probably up a mountain and decidedly epic. Well, Finland is flat, for a start, but it is a land of forests, but not just spruce trees, in the south of Finland the forest is a mix of deciduous and pine. So I didn’t have to climb a mountain or clamber through thick snow, it was late summer, but I wasn’t disappointed by what I found at Ainola, in a district called Järvenpää, near Lake Tuusula, deep in the wooded land where Jean and Aino Sibelius lived for most of their lives together. It is in a very different place to my long-held but ignorant image, but it is beautiful and it was a moving experience to linger amongst the trees where the great composer walked most days, breathing in the photosynthesis that we can also hear in Sibelius’ symphonies. Yes, I was sitting in Sibelius’ garden.

Young Jean Sibelius, the promising but struggling composer of the Kullervo symphony married Aino Järnefelt, the daughter of a Finnish general, in 1892. Jean Sibelius might have been struggling to make a living, but , believe this or not, he had a wealthy bachelor uncle who died in 1893, leaving his nephew enough money to buy 2.5 acres of land in a place called Järvenpää and to pay an architect to built them a house. In 1904, the young couple, with their growing family of daughters, moved into the new house that was to be called Ainola, meaning Aino’s place. It was to be their home together for the most of the sixty-five years of their, not always easy-going marriage.

The house still stands today and has been kept largely as it was and is now a Sibelius museum and, not just for me, a place of pilgrimage for anyone interested in the composer of some of the 20th century’s greatest music.

Ainola station is decidedly not epic in appearance – it is in a quiet rural location and that means passengers traveling to the Sibelius house, have a country walk down a wooded lane and past cultivated fields.

Today it was hot and sunny, and Finland was showing us that in summer it is capable of being a bee-buzzing, bird-singing paradise garden.

It was a truly special moment to arrive at Ainola on such a perfect day and to be able to walk in Sibelius’ footsteps at a time when, surprisingly, few tourists were around.

This really was where Sibelius walked.

and where the sometimes party-loving, dandified composer liked to entertain his arty friends from what was at that time a budding artists’ community in the countryside around Lake Tuusula.

Life here wasn’t as easy as that photograph implies. The land was stony, not very fertile, and for a lot of the year it was very very cold. It was a very fertile place for writing symphonies though and the composer was more than fortunate that his wife was a strong and determined woman. She was a gardener, she had to be. She cleared whole areas of stoney ground to create the vegetable plot that had to feed her now six growing daughters. The girls were all home-educated and, as a family, they also had to be careful not to be too loud or boisterous, when the great man was at work in his study.

The garden survives with its vegetable plot and it is only fair to state that this really was Aino’s place.

Jean and Aino had their difficult times – it is well-known that the composer was an alcoholic for many years and Aino had bouts of depression stress, needing to go to a sanitarium for a time. Lovers of Sibelius’ 5th Symphony might be surprised to learn that he wrote the piece, one of his most life-affirming, through long nights at Ainola with the help of a bottle of whisky, something he claimed he needed to write his best work. When he was diagnosed with a throat tumour and had successful surgery to remove it, he was advised to give up alcohol which he did for seven years. Aino recalled them as the happiest years of their marriage.

Walking round their house and looking at some of the photographs taken of the two throughout lives together, tells their story and it is true to say that the couple really lived a life here and that their spirit definitely lives on in this extraordinary museum.

‘I am happy that I have been able to live by his side. I feel that I have not lived for nothing. I do not say that it has always been easy – one has had to repress and control one’s own wishes – but I am very happy. I bless my destiny and see it as a gift from heaven. To me my husband’s music is the word of God – its source is noble, and it is wonderful to live close to such a source.’ (Aino Sibelius).

The house has really retained the feeling of being a home and I wasn’t expecting to find myself walking into Sibelius’ sauna. I could almost detect the smell of one of the composer’s cigars.

Jean Sibelius died at Ainola in 1957 at the age of 91, Aino remained at the house until she died in 1969, aged 97. They are buried together in the garden of the house that had been their home for so long.

It was an extraordinarily beautiful day for the trip to Ainola for the Sibelius House but also to see and experience some of the countryside that so inspired him – nothing more so, I suspect, than Lake Tuusula. Sitting here silently by the water as the sun began to sink, I couldn’t help wishing tht a swan would fly overhead or swim across the gleaming water.

‘Today at ten to eleven I saw sixteen swans. One of my greatest experiences! Lord God, what beauty! They circled over me for a long time. Disappeared into the solar haze like a gleaming silver ribbon. Their call the same woodwind type as that of cranes, but without tremolo…
a low-pitched refrain reminiscent of a small child crying. Nature mysticism and life’s angst! The Fifth Symphony’s finale-theme: legato in the trumpets!‘ (Jean Sibelius, Diary entry for 21 April 1915, Ainola). He was talking about the ‘swan call’ in his 5th Symphony.

No swans flew over when I was sitting here – but I can honestly say that I heard Sibelius’ swan calls.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.