Sibelius, That High-Functioning Drunkard

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The notion that partying is somehow intrinsically linked with the culture surrounding musicians is unfortunately nothing new. From Motown to EDM, the hard drinking and illicit drug use prevalent in music’s party-heavy culture have been, and remain, an integral part of how musicians create, record, and perform music despite the trail of dead, addicted, and destitute songwriters and performers the lifestyle has left in its wake.

But while we typically associate the party lifestyle with pop, jazz, rock, rap, and country musicians active over the last century, the seemingly stuffy European classical composers were just as susceptible to wild, debaucherous habits as anyone else.

Chief among them was Jean Sibelius. And — in case you’re already confused — Sibelius is not a guy who created a composition software program named after himself and drank away all the profits. Rather, Sibelius was a massively influential Finnish composer active in the late-Romantic/early Modern era.

He was so beloved in his home country that his big ol’ face was featured on the Finnish 100 mark banknote up until the country adopted the euro in 2002. But while the composer led one of classical music’s most prolific and celebrated music careers by all accounts, Sibelius’ drinking habits plagued him throughout his entire life and nearly ruined his health, marriage, and career on multiple occasions.

In addition to his excessive drinking early in his career, Sibelius became well known for spending money more quickly on lobster and society events than he could earn it.

The composer developed a taste for parties and gambling while he was studying music in Vienna in 1889. Drinking only around friends in social settings, Sibelius’ early partying habits more or less reflected the not always healthy, but basically normal exploration that most college students engage in today. But while the majority of young adults learn to drink and use drugs in moderation as they transition into adulthood, historians say that as he began to achieve more fame and notoriety for his music, Sibelius’ partying habits started to become a serious problem. In addition to his excessive drinking early in his career, Sibelius became well known for spending money more quickly on lobster and society events than he could earn it.

He would often disappear into a fog of Helsinki restaurants and bars for days on end with his artistic cohorts, including conductor Robert Kajanus. On one such occasion, Finnish artist Axel Gallen-Kallela famously painted the two drinking together (Kajanus on the middle right, Sibelius on the far right).

Axel Gallen-Kallela’s portrait of Sibelius and friends drinking, entitled “Symposium.”

Things devolved so quickly that his raucous lifestyle caused his wife to retire to a sanitarium in 1907 for a short period of time. In response, old Jean made his first attempt to quit drinking but started back up again shortly, and with a vengeance, and nearly died the following year. Possibly due to his other vice — his smoking habit — Sibelius developed throat cancer during this time, and had to have a tumor removed. After the operation, he vowed to stop drinking once and for all.

This very real brush with death is said to have been the motivation behind composing his pieces Luonnotar, Op. 70 and his fourth Symphony, both of which he wrote during the period immediately following his surgery.

The “sober period” that followed is now recognized as one of the healthiest and creatively prolific of Sibelius’ entire career. In addition to meeting with Claude Debussy and composing a slew of celebrated works for orchestras and ensembles, Sibelius’ marriage steadily improved and his health got back on track during the years after his surgery. But while this happy and productive period did manage to last nearly a decade, his old drinking habits returned full-tilt in 1917, resulting in renewed arguments with his wife.

From 1927 until his death thirty years later, the composer didn’t publish one piece of music and it’s not exactly known why.

We’re not entirely sure what led the composer back to the drink, but his escalating money troubles may have been a contributing factor. By 1920, Sibelius reportedly could only finish compositions with the aid of a jug of wine.

How he managed to compose any music at all, let alone such an impressive body of symphonic work, while being so inebriated during this time period is nothing short of astounding. In addition to holding concerts and conducting his music across the world, Sibelius finished his sixth symphony and composed now famous pieces like Hymn to the Earth, Op. 95, and Valse Lyrique, Op 96a during this time. As a birthday gift in December of 1920, Sibelius received a donation of 63,000 marks from the tenor Wäinö Sola. Though he used much of the money to responsibly pay off a bit of his debt, story has it that Sibelius also used a big chunk of that money partying in Helsinki.

Up until 1926, as Sibelius’ reliance on alcohol became more acute, he continued to compose prolifically. From 1927 until his death thirty years later, however, the composer didn’t publish one piece of music and it’s not exactly known why. He spent much of the rest of his life out of the public eye, living in the countryside with his wife. It’s unknown whether he finally kicked his drinking habit or not, but the man did manage to make it all the way to age 90, so either he eventually found sobriety or was just one lucky dude.

If he did manage to find sobriety during this period, it is surprising that his late-life decision to stop drinking coincided with his decision to end his creative career as one of the 20th century’s most celebrated composers.

There is evidence that Sibelius worked on an eighth symphony later in life, but the famously self-critical composer never showed it to a soul.

“If I cannot write a better symphony than my Seventh, then it shall be my last,” he famously told his close friends.

Sibelius’ battles with alcoholism and money issues prove that some aspects of music manage to stay the same in a universe of continuously shifting trends and technological advancements. While Sibelius luckily did not physically succumb to his addiction, drinking has of course, tragically killed countless musicians, including Billie Holiday, Jim Morrison, and Hank Williams. Let this be a cautionary tale that the dangers of overconsumption and addiction are real and can alter the course of your life and career as an artist.

Be safe out there, and pursue music responsibly.

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