‘Well, one does what he can.’ Wagner to Faltin on Liszt

Serious Studes Commence

Three months after his twentieth birthday, Sibelius entered the musical institute of Wegelius, a private institution little aided by the state, as a student the 15 September 1885, his principal subject being the violin. He spent four years there (1885-1889), during the course of which he studied theory, then composition. Little is known of Janne’s first violin teacher, Mitrofan Vasiliev, probably born towards the end of the 1850s. He appears to have studies in Saint Petersburg, where he was member of an imperial string quartet, and arrived at the Wegelius institute with a letter of introduction from Anton Rubenstein (1829-1893) and perhaps the Czech violinist and teacher Jan Hrimaly (1844-1915). According to the Russian musicologist Janna Kniazeva, he was from the region of Smolensk and when he left Finland in 1887, he played with the Bolshoi Orchestra in Moscow as violinist. After having asked and obtained in 1893 a years leave he disappeared without a trace. A photograph shows Vasiliev surrounded by six students amongst whom, standing behind him, were Sibelius and Anna Tigerstedt. Sibelius described him to Uncle Pehr as a man ‘of delicate appearance, rather tall, thin, with black hair, a moustache and wiskers and two deeply set black eyes. He spoke Russian, German, French and a little Swedish. The lessons were given in German. Vasiliev is an excellent professor who suits me very well. His violin is an authentic Stradivarius of 1710 (or 1723, maybe), he got it from a Polish baron. […] In counterpoint, I am working on a cantus firmus for three voices one of which is in counter movement’ (28 October 1885). Two weeks later, 14 November, Sibelius announced to Pehr that after having played the concerto in G major by Viotti, he was going to attack that of Aminor by Rode. The 1st December he played for the first time at the institute, playing an allegretto and a scherzo of the Austrian pedagogue Jajob Dont (1815-1888) with other students. Unfortunately the same evening the critics had gone to listen to another concert for the first presentation of Tchaikovsky’s concerto for piano in B flat. Pehr received a letter from his sister Evelina saying that ‘Janne seems to be incapable of studying four hours a day, as his professor had insisted, but had however made great progress in his playing. […] It is rare for a student to be invited to play at a public concert of the Institute at the end of his first trimester.

This success drew the attention of Uncle Axel: now a teacher of mathematics and physics in Mikkele, he was worried by the state of progress of his nephew’s legal studies. At the end of 1885 Janne took an examination at the University in Finnish, but apparently did not present himself for the least law examination. The inevitable happened. ‘One day one of my maternal uncles – I have three, all teachers of in the provinces – arrived without warning to see where I was. He [Uncle Otto] went towards the window and saw a book open with its pages yellowed, which showed that it had been open for a long time. This led to certain conclusions as to my studies in general. He gave up talking any more about it, and said to in a resigned tone: ‘After all Janne,  given the interest you have for your studies, you would be better consecrating yourself entirely to music’ (Sibelius to Karl Ekman, towards 1934).

In March 1886, hoping to obtain a grant from the University, Janne asked and obtained two letters of recommendation, one from Wegelius, the other from Richard Faltin. The first merits being cited, because in it is the first mention of the name under which the composer was to be known: ‘The student Jean Sibelius, enrolled since 15 September at the Institute of Music, who has studied the violin and theory in particular, and has made great progress in both subjects, in addition he has distinguished himself by his exceptional musical talent, in particularly by his remarkable gift with the violin. The ability acquired with this instrument had enabled him to play with success as first violinist in this city’s Academic Orchestra. Reproducing this attestation in a letter to Pehr dated the 31 March, Janne indicated after having explained he had no more money: ‘Jean is my musician’s name.’ Sibelius had apparently followed his uncle’s, who died at sea in 1864, example who had the habit, when he was abroad, of internationalising into Jean his first name Johan. He had the idea when he discovered by chance in an old drawer a packet of visiting cards that had belonged to this uncle. He appropriated the cards and entered into the world under the name Jean Sibelius.

Directed since 1871 by Faltin, the Academic Orchestra mentioned by Wegelius was the oldest in Finland. Since 1828 it had been associated with the University of Helsinki, but its origins went back to 1747, date of the foundation of the ‘Academic Capelle’ of the University of Turku. It was mainly in this orchestra that Sibelius played first violin, second violin or viola during his years of studies. The Wegelius Institute did unfortunately not have a students’ orchestra or an orchestration class. This is one of the reasons that Sibelius was almost exclusively fixed in chamber music before 1891. Wegelius in addition considered the Orchestral Society of Kajanus – mainly composed of German musicians – as a competitive organisation, and did not approve of his students participating in its concerts, inaugurated the 3 October 1882 with notably Beethoven’s’ Fifth Symphony. In simple terms it could be said that the chamber music was due to Wegelius and the orchestra of Kajanus, and Sibelius at that time had only occasional contacts with Kajanus. The differences between Wegelius and Kajanus increased in 1885, when the latter founded a school to train orchestral musicians (finally absorbed by the institute in 1914). Their personalities were totally opposite. Kajanus had also studied in Leipzig, then in Paris (conducting with Johan Svendsen), again in Leipzig and finally in Dresden, but as composer and conductor was above all interested in musical accomplishment. His orchestral works included the Funeral March for Kullervo (original title The Death of Kullervo) opus 3 (1880) or the symphonic poem Aino (1885, rev. 1016), composed for the fiftieth anniversary of Kalevala with for the finale a male choir singing in Finnish, Kajanus was still the most well known creator in the capital, and contrary to Wegelius very much appreciated Russian music. He was also author of two Finnish Rhapsodies (1181 and 1886), he directed the first presentation of in Finland of Beethoven’s Ninth.

On the contrary Wegelius, author of the first history of European music written in a Nordic country (1891-1893), was a born organiser and privileged theory. Very much versed in philosophy, literature and aesthetics, he believed a musician should know in addition to the traditional disciplines such as counterpoint, harmony and fugue, the arts and classical humanities. An ardent partisan of Wagner, whose Die Meistersinger was his preferred work, he had been present at the first Bayreuth Festival in 1886, and wanting Sibelius to share his enthusiasm, who if it can be believed, was not prepared to readily accept this. But who could he agree with then? Sibelius declared to Kark Ekman: ‘As a teacher, Martin [Wegelius] was extremely interesting, but at the same time he had an autocratic nature that ensured that a student strictly adhered to the syllabus that had been fixed for him, and became furious once he saw that his instructions were not being followed down to  the least detail. […] When it was a question of familiarising his students with contemporary music, he made his admiration for Wagner a veritable principal. His method on this point was very particular. Brahms for example was never played at the concerts or evening recitals of the Institute. He was the rival of Wagner, and for this reason Martin ignored him. In 1898-1899, Wegelius founded with some friends a Wagnerian society in Finland the existence of which was brief. He also wrote a vast biography of Wagner, which remained unpublished and only parts of it still exist.

Faltin also went to Bayreuth in 1876. Invited to Wahnfried with Wegelius, he described this event in April 1905 in the Finsk Musikrevy and in the following September in the German review Die Musik: ‘An evening at Richard Wagner’s. Beyreuth, 27 August 1876. I was invited to Wagner’s evening and there introduced to the maestro, Frau Cosima and Liszt, and heard the incomparable Liszt play. […] I described him [to Wagner] with all the eloquence I could of the irresistible impression that his music has made on me. He then said with his inimitable playful air: ‘Well, one does what he can.’ He was delighted and interested to learn that I would be present at three performances of the Ring: “Very nice, very nice, dear Professor Faltin, most people come and go from Bayereuth without really being warmed up.” When I spoke to him of our feeble efforts to produce the scenes from his operas in Helsingfors, he declared with a large gesture: “Bah, better come to Bayereuth. But I’m very pleased that there are people who appreciate my music up there.” […] After about an hour of general conversation, Wagner went to the piano [and] standing up played the first four bars of the first movement in F major of Beethoven’s Eighth symphony. In reply to this so to speak invitation Saint Saëns of Paris sat before the instrument, resolved the dissonance of Beethoven, then warmed up on the themes of Dance Macabre, that he then proceeding to play marvellously, with orchestral sonorities that had a great effect.

Sibelius spent the summer of 1886 at Korpo, in the Turku Archipelagos. During this vacation he composed a trio in A minor, the third of the five from his youth: JS 207, called ‘de Hafträsk’ the name of a place on the Island of Norrskata, to the north of Korpo. He then started his second year of studies at the Institute. The 7 November, he announced to Uncle Pehr he had played the quartet in C minor of Anton Rubenstein as part of a quartet at the home of Commercial Councillor Johan Leonhard Borgström (1832-1907), an amateur violinist, founder of a private string quartet and President of the Board of the Institute, adding ‘The councillor played first violin(he plays like a professional), myself second violin, Decker the viola and [Jaromir] Hrimaly [1845-1905, brother of Jan] the cello. […] I again applied for a grant, for this I obtained a letter of recommendation from Martin Wegelius, in which he wrote amongst other things, that ‘I have certainly a fine musical future before me’. I am starting to play the works of Vieuxtemps. […] Recently when I play before an audience I have almost no stage fright. In the same concert, I played the the viola in a quartet by Haydn [in G major, with Anna Tigerstedt at the violin]. You see I have learnt to play the viola. To play it well you have to have strong arms. […] I have not been to any shows and manage my money as well as possible. Yesterday I received a letter from Kitti. He gets on well and leads a choral society with thirteen members.’ Janne played the viola in another quartet by Hadyn – in G minor, opus 20 N°3 or opus 74 N°3 – and the 19 February 1887 in Beethoven’s opus 18 N°1 in F major. In the spring of 1887, Wegelius commenced to teach him composition.