Mar 30, 2015

Axel Carpelan: mentor and spiritual ally of Sibelius

When I was talking to Bo Carpelan, a relative of Sibelius and a well-known author – who also wrote a semi-fictive story entitled Axel – we discussed how this must have been an incredibly rare kind of friendship at the time in Finland, where there was no real understanding of Sibelius and his music. Audiences were ecstatic about his early successes such as Finlandia, Valse Triste and the 2nd symphony. Therefore, when Sibelius attempted to break free from the obvious expectations that came with writing this kind of National Romantic music, he really needed someone to talk to and put his ideas to the test. This person was Axel Carpelan.

in the year 1900, at the World Expo in Paris, Finland made a huge effort to present itself as an independent culture, despite the fact that it was still part of Russia at the time. Painters, architects and the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra were all sent to the Expo, and Sibelius’ music was performed, conducted by Robert Kajanus. Carpelan was worried that Sibelius would not appear European enough; insufficiently civilised and stylish, as he wanted to ensure that the composer would be accepted by Parisian audiences. He bought him a cylinder hat, white gloves, and was present at the harbour when he set off by boat. He told Sibelius that, when facing the applauding audience, he should make sure people would be able to read his lips saying “Je vous remercie de tout mon coeur”.

He planted in Sibelius’ mind the idea that Finland was an essentially uncivilised country – a notion a number of Finns held about themselves at the time – and the idea behind going to Paris was with the purpose of appearing in a sophisticated environment. Carpelan was very worried about Sibelius’ physical appearance. He tried to stop him from eating and drinking too much, and once, when having lunch at Ainola, he even took away his fork, saying “No more potatoes”.

When Axel Carpelan died, Sibelius was deeply distraught, writing in his diary “to whom should I now write music?” This shows how incredibly important his mentor was to him.

I think for someone who was as extreme as Sibelius was, musically speaking, it was profoundly important to him to have someone to communicate with. The audiences in Finland were not so sophisticated at the time, and even the critics didn’t comprehend the extent of his greatness following the success of his early popular works. He was quite alone in writing his music, and therefore the friendship of an individual such as Axel Carpelan was very significant.

This idea serves as an introduction to another topic: the different versions of his 5th symphony. Sibelius remarked of his own creative process that it seemed as if God was casting the pieces of a puzzle in his direction, while he had no idea how to put them together. Work in progress when somebody like Axel Carpelan was present, forming comparisons and judgements, was then even more valuable.

I have a great interest in this because it describes the kind of cultural environment Sibelius lived in during this time. He had an urge to communicate with Europe but still was quite isolated. This is exactly what makes Sibelius interesting; his place in the music world which was so different from the current schools of composition. He was not a Central European composer, nor a National Romantic one, but one which was totally independent. Nevertheless, he needed someone to guide and advise him in his struggle to arrive at the right solutions.

I am intrigued by the seeking element of Sibelius. His musical world was unique even to himself. These little fragments of understanding and advice became very important to him. Many artists who were ahead of their time needed guidance and encouragement, and he was fortunate to have someone like Axel Carpelan providing this in the Finland of his time.

Jukka-Pekka Saraste, 24 January 2015