Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Sibelius, or The Landscape of Music

It was raining when we arrived in Helsinki, Finland. The weather was cold and the sky was grey and dreary.
I didn’t bother getting off the M/S Royal Princess. What was the point? There would be other, more sunny days, in which to explore this city on the Baltic. Today was not one of them.
This is not to say that I didn’t expect this climate in this part of the world. Gloomy weather and Finland seemed to be one and the same thing. When I looked out at the miserable weather and the general feeling of gloom that it invoked in me, I kept hearing, like an insistent drone, the music of Jean Sibelius. Somehow, imagining that music, I found the scene less dreary.
Two weeks later, our ship returned to Helsinki. The sun came out this time. In celebration, the people of the city laid out a market on the waterfront . Stalls overflowing with Finnish food, vegetables, fruit, flowers and craftwork attracted crowds of tourists. The park nearby exploded with flowering trees and hedges. Musicians played on an outdoor stage and street corners. Cosmopolitan-looking habitues sipped coffee on tables neatly set up on the sidewalks. The stores buzzed with shoppers. I even bought a pair of Nikes.
What happened to the rain? Did I still hear Sibelius’ music among the squares, churches and cafes of the city? No. For that, I had to go further.
I went to the Helsinki train station, an art deco building with statues adorning its façade that looked like those on Rockefeller center in New York City. Metro buses lined up outside the station. One said: “Sibelius Park”. I took it.
Transcendent experiences sometimes start in the most plebeian way. You buy a ticket to somewhere, say, to Nepal, and start your climb up Mount Everest. In this case, I took a bus to this particular park because it featured on its grounds a monument to Sibelius.
The bus dropped me off some distance from the monument.
I put on my iPod and started listening to Sibelius’ Second Symphony.
I walked along the shore of a placid lake. Wild ducks, their plumage shimmering in the sun, hunted for food among the reeds. Thickets of wild rose bushes crowded the banks. So, too, did stands of yellow and purple irises. A wooden shack stood at the edge of the lake. The sun shone down and danced on the rippling waters. The landscape reminded me of Alaska - same scenery and vegetation, even the feel of the weather.
And, as in pre-US Alaska, the Inuits fought the same foes as the Finns did, namely, the Russians. The Finns eventually overthrew the yoke of Russian imperial control, and paid a heavy price for it in territory and people lost. Helping them along as a kind of accompaniment, descriptor and rallying point was the music of Sibelius. Ask any Finn, and he’ll tell you that the music of Sibelius is the soul of Finland.
After a short walk, I arrived at the Sibelius monument. I could understand why this monument ignited some controversy when it was first installed here. On first glance, it doesn’t look particularly grandiose or monumental. It just looked like some artist hung silver pipes among the trees and plopped down the equally silvery head of a frowning Sibelius on a piece of rock.
Yet the more I looked at it, the more the sculpture made sense. The silver pipes, backgrounded by the native trees of Finland, looked like the pipes of an organ or an Aeolian harp, and thus signified the music of the composer. And the head of Sibelius seemed not so much stuck as growing out of the granite. Through this tableau, the sculptor simply showed us that Sibelius and his music were an organic part of Finland, no more and no less.
I stayed for an hour or so, sitting on a bench opposite the monument, listening to the music of Sibelius on my iPod. Finnish is a particularly difficult language to understand, but I did not need to know a single Finnish word to feel the soul of Finland through its landscape, this monument, and the music of its greatest composer.

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