Sibelius's inability to stop drinking caused him to go under the knife

In May 1908 Sibelius’s dissolute lifestyle leads to the surgeon’s table

Published: May 16, 2022 at 3:47 pm

This boozing – in itself an exceptionally pleasant occupation – has really gone too far.’ Sibelius wrote these words in 1907, when two decades of self-indulgence and carousing were finally catching up on him. As well as regularly downing liberal quantities of alcohol – one famous painting, Akseli Gallen-Kallela’s The Symposium, shows the composer, seated with his companions, decidedly the worse for wear during a drinking session – Sibelius was a connoisseur of fine cigars, a habit he may have picked up from his father.

Advertisement

Together, the tobacco and alcohol were taking their toll. In November 1907, while in St Petersburg conducting his Third Symphony, Sibelius complained of hoarseness in his voice. This persisted, and in the New Year he was hospitalised for a period. ‘He will soon be dead,’ his mentor Axel Carpelan wrote, ‘unless he stops smoking and consuming spirits.’

In May 1908, things reached a tipping point. Informed by a specialist in Helsinki that he had a throat tumour, Sibelius had an exploratory operation on 12 May, when part of the tumour was removed. It was non-malignant, but Sibelius was nonetheless referred for further testing to Professor Fränkel, a specialist in Berlin. The problem was, how would he get there? Sibelius’s extravagant social habits meant that he was often short of money, and he struggled to raise the loan necessary for the journey. Eventually securing it, he set out for Berlin with his wife Aino at the end of May.

The medical treatment he received there was far from smooth and unproblematic. ‘I was obliged to submit to 13 operations on my throat without any result,’ Sibelius complained later, perhaps exaggerating a little. In the end, it was Fränkel’s young assistant who managed to excise the offending area. ‘A strong jerk, a shout of triumph, and he pulled out the instrument,’ Sibelius reported. ‘I was released from torture.’

There were, however, various repercussions from the operation. One was to do with Sibelius’s bohemian lifestyle. ‘Fränkel has forbidden me alcohol for the remainder of my days,’ the composer dolefully informed his brother. Tobacco was outlawed too, leaving Sibelius bereft of his habitual creature comforts. ‘Life is something totally different without these stimulants,’ he mused. ‘I never imagined it could have come to this.’

For Sibelius’s wife Aino, Fränkel’s prohibitions were a godsend. For years she had been forced to tolerate her husband’s drinking binges, when she was left at home to raise their infant children. Occasionally, the pressure proved too much. In 1898, when pregnant with the couple’s third daughter, Aino warned Sibelius that his dissolute behaviour was ‘right on the borderline’, and that he risked becoming ‘strange and really unpleasant’. Nine years later, the accumulated stress of living with a heavy drinker led to her being temporarily admitted to a sanatorium.

Life was easier after Sibelius’s throat operation. Shaken by the experience, the composer gave up alcohol and tobacco for the next seven years, a period described by Aino as the happiest of their marriage. During his abstinence, Sibelius produced major pieces such as Luonnotar, the bleak Fourth Symphony and the string quartet Voces intimae, and stayed at home instead of disappearing on benders for days on end.

But not long after World War I broke out, he began smoking and drinking again – moderately at first, but by 1917 the bingeing had resurfaced so badly that a divorce was being mooted.

Advertisement

It never happened. Sibelius lived another four decades, dying aged 91 in 1957. Aino followed 12 years later, aged 97. ‘All of the doctors who ordered me not to smoke or drink alcohol died a long time ago,’ Sibelius reputedly said. ‘But I go on living.’ Terry Blain

Authors

Terry BlainJournalist and Critic, BBC Music Magazine

Terry Blain is a classical music journalist and broadcaster, writing for BBC Music Magazine, Opera magazine, Star Tribune, Culture NI et al.

Sponsored content