After a weekend spent at an intensive rehearsal session with our choir, I'm back in the city grading papers and doing the laundry, trying to avoid looking outside. The winter is setting in, when pundits like to trot out suicide statistics and other fun topics. I read somewhere – I can't be bothered looking up such depressing things – that most suicides in northern Europe occur toward the end of winter, when people just can't take it anymore. But as far as I'm concerned, the greatest endurance test living in southern Finland is the six- to eight-week stretch between November and late December. It keeps getting darker, with no relief. It rains constantly, and the impenetrable, ever-present cloud cover makes it seem like the sun never rises. (True story: my first year here, I saw the sun exactly twice during November – flying to Germany and back.) There's no snow to brighten the landscape, and the weather gets into your head like a fog. You're tired all the time, and every nerve in your body screams when your alarm goes off in the morning. It's a time to draw family and friends close, talk, laugh, drink, and get each other through it.
I think it's part of the reason the recent Jokela school massacre has hit the populace so hard. Make no mistake: people are well and truly rattled here. Such things are generally thought of as happening "over there" – a generic location meant to describe anywhere but peaceful, law-abiding Finland. Anytime such a tragedy occurred, it would have cut Finns to the heart, but for it to come at this darkest time of year doesn't help. There is a great pain in the air that will take time to heal, and won't be helped along helped by inane commentary based on clichés and non-sequiturs that passes for news analysis in some circles, nor by a smug, condescending follow-up to perfectly justifiable outrage. There's been the predictable response: shock, mourning, calls for limiting access to handguns, or an outright ban on them, entirely reasonable to an anti-gun person like myself. And then there's a tabloid media awash in pictures of the leering, self-appointed "natural selector" who perpetrated this unthinkable deed, and precious little mention of the victims. All of it set against that dark, dark backdrop.
I was selfishly glad to get out of the city, then, to a place that holds a special significance for me. Our choir retreats there for the weekend before each big concert to work up our repertoire, and it makes a huge difference, giving people the intensive workout big pieces require, and letting the singers relax and bond in a way that's not really possible during the normal work week. It's an old farming estate cum course/concert center owned by the Sibelius Academy in the town of Järvenpää, on the shore of Lake Tuusula just across a field from Ainola, Sibelius' country house. (It's also close to Jokela, a fact not lost on anyone in attendance this past weekend.) I've been going there regularly since I moved to Finland in 2001. It's a Sibelius Academy tradition to take its incoming foreign students there for a weekend in the fall, and it's where I had my first authentic experience of the Finnish landscape.
Some friends and I had walked to Ainola, discovering to our dismay that it was closed for the winter. Deciding to explore the surroundings, we met a man in his fifties walking a trio of identical, fluffy pocket dogs who, hearing us speak English, asked (the man, not the dogs) where we were visiting from. When we mentioned the Academy, it immediately sparked his interest. He seemed to know an awful lot about Sibelius and Ainola, and the history of the area, and asked us many questions about our interest in Finnish music. Puzzled, we finally asked about the source of his information, and he told us he was Sibelius' grandson. With a shock of recognition, we all realized why he'd seemed so familiar. His eyes were identical to his grandfather's: that same piercing, blue gaze, friendly on our new acquaintance, but austere and slightly discomforting in the late pictures of the composer. We thanked him for the chat, said goodbye and went on our way, but there was another shock waiting for me.
Early the next morning, unable to sleep, I went for a walk near the lakeshore, a short distance away across farming fields. Despite a small highway cutting through the landscape and houses along the edges of the fields, I imagine it looks very similar to the way it did when Sibelius and the visual artists of the Järvenpää group were living there a century ago. It was very quiet, and a heavy mist hung in the air, making the pine trees by the lake appear as shadows. I couldn't see the lake itself, but I could hear birds out on the water, their calls echoing in the utter stillness of the morning. All of a sudden, in a completely instinctive way, it hit me that I was literally looking at the beginning of Sibelius' violin concerto, at the moment when the plaintive violin melody, supported by quietly murmuring strings, is finally answered by a lone clarinet that disappears back under the strings almost immediately. I knew this in a way that had nothing to do with research, without knowing where the piece had been written – I still don't know if the concerto was composed at Ainola – only that this view was undoubtedly the origin of a music that had haunted me since I first heard it as a teenager. I'd thought of the violin concerto as being about a composer's love for his instrument, a drawn-out, adoring tribute to the violinist he never became. I realized then that it was also about a deeper love: that which Sibelius held for his landscape.
It's very rare to perceive such a strong connection between nature and music, and I get the sense very often that even overtly depictive pieces – Respighi or Strauss, or places like the opening of Mahler's 3rd, famously connected to the cliffs near his summer house – have more to do with an idealized amalgamation of landscape features than any specific scene. Yet here was this thing confronting me, the connection obvious, in an uncomfortably inexplicable, yet deeply thrilling way. It wasn't that the music depicted the landscape, it was the landscape, this landscape, at that very moment; the two were inseparable. I still can't hear or see one without calling up the memory of the other. It was like a private conversation between me and Sibelius, much like the experience with Debussy I blogged about earlier, in which the composer revealed something that was for me only to know. It know this sounds terribly self-aggrandizing, but somehow, learning this intimate thing about Sibelius, and about his connection to the land, made it my landscape too, and made Finland my home, months before I consciously made the decision to stay. He was of the north, so was I, and I'd stay and write about this land, this sky, those trees, all so similar to Canada, until I felt I'd gotten it right. (The best, most moving compliment I've ever gotten came from an expat Finnish composer friend who lives in the US, who said that my music always made him think of home. I was a little verklempt.)
Going back to that place is always comforting, knowing that even if the weather's different, I can call up the image of that morning at will. It reminds me that, no matter how alien the culture may be at times, how far I am from the place of my birth, how I need to get a better command of the language if I want to call myself a Finnish composer, this is my home. And it makes the darkness lighter, more bearable. So does turkey stew with biscuits.