Janne moved to Helsinki together with his mother and sister Linda, who began her studies at a post-graduate institute. His little brother Christian stayed on in Hämeenlinna for a few years to continue his education under the care of his grandmother and aunts.
The transition from Hämeenlinna with its few thousand inhabitants to Helsinki, with a population of 60,000, was thrilling for Janne. His conception of the world was changing: August Strindberg's novel Röda rummet (The Red Room) had destroyed some of his youthful innocence, and Janne had shocked his aunts with his anti-religious comments.
It soon became clear that Janne did not spend his time at the university. All his interest was taken up by the Helsinki Music Institute, which Martin Wegelius had founded in 1882.
Janne’s violin teacher was Mitrofan Wasiljeff, who considered his pupil a
"musical genius". During the very first autumn Janne had to practise the concertos of Viotti and Rode. In theory, counterpoint and harmony he was instructed by Martin Wegelius himself. The principal soon became enthusiastic about his pupil, who had already written several chamber music works. Gradually, the theory lessons developed into composition lessons, where Wegelius, according to his own words, learned from Sibelius as much as Sibelius learned from him.
Martin Wegelius 1846-1906,
In the spring term of 1886, Sibelius started to use the visiting cards of his uncle, the sea captain.
"Jean is now my musical name," he wrote to his uncle Pehr on the 31st March. His only connection with the university was as violinist in the Academic Orchestra of Richard Faltin.
Sibelius' skills as a violinist were noted: at the institute's spring demonstration on the 27th May 1886 he played David's concerto in E minor, accompanied on the piano by Doctor Paulus Leontjeff's daughter Antonie. He was praised
"for his advanced technique" by Karl Flodin, the critic of Nya Pressen. In his spring report, Sibelius had a row of tens, but he gained only seven in piano playing. On the spring excursion of the Music Institute, Wegelius gave a speech in honour of Sibelius, saying that he hoped Sibelius would achieve all the things that Wegelius had only dreamt about.
During his second year, the star of the Music Institute started to take on the role of a great artist, his audience being Adolf Paul, a first-year student who became one of his closest friends. His life now included cigars, alcohol and great plans for composition.
In the autumn term of 1886, he performed four times as a soloist, and in the spring term of 1887 he frequently performed as a chamber musician. But his dreams of becoming a violin virtuoso suffered a blow with an unsuccessful concert performance of the Andante and Finale of the Mendelssohn violin concerto. In a review, the music critic Richard Faltin found fault with his thin and harsh tone.
This was as far as Sibelius advanced as a violinist. However, he still played diligently in orchestras and in chamber music ensembles. His violin teacher became Hermann Csillag, who invited him to play second violin in the institute's string quartet. At home, Sibelius played in a quartet with his brother Christian, who had moved to Helsinki, the other members of the quartet being Richard Faltin junior and Ernst Lindelöf. During Sibelius’s years of study, they managed to go through most of Haydn's string quartets and some of the quartets of Mozart and Beethoven.
In the spring of 1888, Wegelius and Sibelius together wrote music for Gunnar Wennerberg's Näcken (The Water Sprite). In a review, Richard Faltin senior wrote that Sibelius was even more interesting as a composer than as a violinist. In May 1888, the string quartet (or Theme and Variations in C sharp minor) was well received. Karl Flodin, the critic of Nya Pressen, praised
"the fine theoretical skill and remarkable imaginative power".
During the summer in Loviisa, Sibelius composed one of his best early pieces of chamber music, the Loviisa trio in C major for piano, violin and cello. It was becoming evident to the musical circles of Helsinki that Sibelius would primarily be a composer, not a violinist.
In the autumn of 1888, the Music Institute had a stroke of luck, when Wegelius managed to engage as a piano teacher Ferruccio Busoni, the future pianist, composer and conductor. The young virtuoso became acquainted with Sibelius and with Armas Järnefelt, the other star of the Music Institute, and with Adolf Paul. The companions called themselves the Leskovites after Busoni's dog Lesko, and they spent time in Busoni's apartment and in the cafés of Helsinki.
Ferruccio Busoni (1866-1924)
Busoni encouraged Sibelius in his compositions. In the autumn, Sibelius had a composition published for the first time. The piece was Serenad (Serenade) to the words of Runeberg. It was published in the booklet Det sjungande Finland II (Singing Finland II).
In the autumn of 1888, another momentous event occurred. Armas Järnefelt, who had become acquainted with Sibelius at the Music Institute, took him to visit his family. It was there that Janne met his future spouse.
Seventeen-year-old Aino Järnefelt had moved to Helsinki with her mother Elisabeth Järnefelt and her sister Elli. They were living at the Resvoy house, at the address Mikonkatu 17. Aino's mother Elisabeth came from a Baltic baronial family; her maiden name was Clodt von Jürgensburg. She had grown up in St. Petersburg and her mother tongue was Russian. Aino's father Alexander was the governor of the county of Kuopio, but he had been transferred to the governorship of Vaasa. Alexander and Elisabeth were both ardent
"Fennomans" (supporters of Finnish language and culture). Elisabeth had learned the Finnish language, which she spoke with a charming accent.
Armas Järnefelt later recollected that Aino had stopped to listen to the boys playing, when the embarrassed Sibelius made a mistake and stood up to apologise to Aino. Their eyes met, and the young people immediately fell in love. According to Aino, she had actually been dancing to the music until she was captured by the
"passionate gaze" of Sibelius.
During his last spring at the Music Institute in 1889 Sibelius spent plenty of time at the Järnefelt residence. He became acquainted with the brothers of Armas – with Eero, who was studying to become an artist and Arvid, who was planning a new Finnish newspaper along with the novelist Juhani Aho and Eero Erkko, who would be the editor. Thus Sibelius drifted into the circle of the newspaper Päivälehti, the forerunner of Finland's biggest newspaper Helsingin Sanomat. The first issue of the newspaper came out in November 1889.
This group was influential in moving Sibelius in a culturally progressive direction, with an emphasis on the Finnish language.
"I was almost a 'Svecoman' (supporter of Swedish language and culture) until the Päivälehti circle awakened a new spirit in me," Sibelius recollected later.
Two chamber music works crowned Sibelius's studies in Helsinki, a suite for violin, viola and cello, and a string quartet in A minor. The suite was performed for the first time on the 13th April 1889. According to the critics, it gave cause for
"the boldest hopes". There was an even more unanimously favourable reception for the A minor quartet.
"At a single stroke he has joined the vanguard of those who have been entrusted with the future of the art of music in Finland," wrote Karl Flodin in Nya Pressen. The performance was such an overwhelming experience that Robert Kajanus, the celebrated composer and conductor of the Helsinki Music Society, declared that he would immediately give up his own work as a composer. In fact, Kajanus still continued to compose, but he was to become world-famous as a champion of Sibelius’s music, and the first conductor to record his music.
Sibelius was now the greatest prospect in Finnish music. The young composer received a grant of 2000 marks to enable him to go to study in Berlin in the autumn (about 8000 euros in today’s money).
At the same time there was a temporary change in his private life. The budding romance with Aino Järnefelt did not progress, since in the spring and early summer Sibelius was going out with Betsy Lerche, whom he had met at the Music Institute. Sibelius even composed a sprightly waltz for her. The relationship with Betsy ended quickly, but Aino and Janne did not have time to become reconciled, and they did not write to each other during the year when Sibelius was studying in Berlin.