Maria Sibelius with her children Linda and Janne in 1867
Johan Christian Julius Sibelius was born on the 8th December 1865 in Hämeenlinna, a small garrison town in the Grand Duchy of Finland. The country was at that time part of the Russian Empire. His father was Christian Gustaf Sibelius, a 44-year-old medical doctor who was City Medical Officer and physician to the Hämeenlinna Sniper Battalion. The composer’s mother was Maria Charlotta Sibelius, née Borg, who was aged 24 at the time of his birth.
The couple decided to call their son Janne in memory of Doctor Sibelius's brother, Johan
"Janne" Sibelius, who had been the captain of a merchant ship. Later on it became Janne’s habit to modify his official first names, writing them in the order Johan Julius Christian. During his student years, he began to use visiting cards which he had found in the estate of his uncle, Johan Sibelius. In the fashion of the times, his uncle had written his name on the cards using a French form. Thus Johan Christian Julius
"Janne" Sibelius became known to posterity as Jean Sibelius.
Janne's father died of typhoid fever in July 1868, during years of severe famine. Janne was left with a vague recollection of a cigar-scented father, who had clasped the boy in his arms and shown him a picture book with a picture of a white swan.
Doctor Sibelius had had to pay about 13,500 euros (in today’s money) to settle the debts of friends for whom he had stood guarantor. Moreover, the debts of the estate with funeral expenses amounted to 15,000 euros. The estate was declared bankrupt, and most of the personal property was taken over by creditors. Maria Sibelius’s widow’s pension was not sufficient to maintain a house of her own. She and the children had to move in with her mother, Katarina Borg (née Haartman), who was the wife of a Dean.
Katarina Borg (1812-1892), the composer's grandmother
Little Janne had a vivid imagination. When his mother was playing the square piano, he crawled under it and tried to associate the notes he heard with the colours of the stripes of the rag rug. He made up stories about fairies, and about fires which he imagined he had seen in the neighbouring houses. Janne's relatives took him to concerts from an early age, and from the age of four he tried to pick out chords and melodies on the piano.
The family spent the summers with Janne's paternal grandmother Katarina Fredrika Sibelius and his aunt Evelina Sibelius in Loviisa. There they attended summer concerts where Janne would make loud comments on the music from the audience. In Loviisa, the Sucksdorffs, who were related to the Sibelius family, arranged musical and poetry evenings at which little Janne was present.
"Loviisa was my sun and joy. Hämeenlinna was my school town, Loviisa was freedom," Sibelius recollected later.
An example of the young Sibelius’s imagination: an illustration in a letter to his aunt Evelina, December 1875.
In the autumn of 1872 Janne started at the Swedish preparatory school of Eva Savonius. The boy was restless, and he was often put under the teacher's desk as a punishment. During these years, Aunt Julia tried to give Janne more systematic piano lessons, hitting him
"on the fingers with a knitting needle" after every wrong note. The method did not suit Janne, who soon lapsed into improvising and criticising Aunt Julia's music students.
Nevertheless, under his aunt's instruction – if not before – the boy learned to read music. In the years that followed he played music that interested him, both solo pieces and piano duets with his big sister Linda. Linda recollected later that Janne also wrote compositions
"at quite an early age" for piano and violin.
Janne’s mother tongue was Swedish, but in 1874 he was transferred to Lucina Hagman's Finnish-language preparatory school, since he had to learn Finnish in order to be admitted to the Hämeenlinna Normal Lyceum. Hämeenlinna was an unusual Finnish town for its time: there one could become a secondary school graduate in Finnish, but not in Swedish. Finland had been part of Sweden until 1809 and the dominant language of the educated classes was still Swedish, not Finnish.
At school, Janne's best friend was Walter von Konow from Lahinen Manor in Sääksmäki. Janne's imagination was now in full flow: the boys and their friends improvised fairy plays, and they started up a little orchestra which used instruments such as
"triangles, harmonicas, toy ocarinas and bells". Janne conducted the concerts from the piano.
"Janne" Sibelius as a young secondary school student
In 1876 Janne applied for and was admitted to Hämeenlinna Finnish Normal Lyceum. Music played no significant part in the syllabus of the school, and
the singing lessons did not really reveal Janne's talent. During the first years, his mark for singing was eight (i.e. fairly good).
Sibelius was considered an absent-minded pupil, who preferred to write music notes in the margins of his exercise books. However, he did well in mathematics and botany. In his leisure time, Janne was a bookworm, and later he took up hunting. He read a great deal and admired Runeberg, the poet, so greatly that when he visited the poet's tomb he felt that Runeberg’s soul had flowed into him.
Johan Ludvig Runeberg (1804-1877)