Jean Sibelius was a good pianist, and he charmed his friends with his improvised performances. He used the piano as an aid to composing and he also produced a large number of piano works. However, the piano always took second place to the violin in his personal preferences. He was not altogether satisfied with the characteristics of the piano. "The piano doesn't sing," he said.
Sibelius started to play the piano at his home in Hämeenlinna, even before he went to school. When he was seven or eight years old there were efforts to teach him more systematically. The newspaper Hämeen Sanomat wrote later that if the child made a mistake during the lessons given by his aunt Julia he "was slapped across the fingers with a knitting needle". In any case, Janne soon refused to take piano lessons. "The pleasure of free musical fantasies was everything to me," he confessed later.
In Sibelius's adolescence the violin became his main instrument. "When I was child we had a square piano which was about three-quarters of a tone flat. My whole world was contained in it, and when we got a new piano with normal tuning, everything fell to pieces. I became alienated from the piano and began to move over to the violin side," Sibelius recollected later.
Sibelius developed into an able violinist, but he also continued to play the piano. The piano was a compulsory subject at the Helsinki Music Institute, where he registered in the autumn of 1885. He got the highest marks in ear training, violin playing and many other subjects, but in piano playing he had to settle for a pass.
At the beginning of his career as a composer Sibelius would try to work out his themes on the piano. In the 1890s Sibelius would rush to a piano almost as soon as he saw one and start to improvise.
"When Sibelius was improvising it was important for him to get a few glasses of, say, a Burgundy, one that he was very fond of, because he was a violinist and his technical shortcomings as a pianist produced a certain performance threshold. When that was overcome, no one could have guessed that this Jean Sibelius who was improvising was not an eminent pianist," Sibelius's pupil and friend Georg von Wendt recollected later.
"These wonderful fantasias kept a hold on you from the first note to the last chord and it was as if the listeners were intoxicated. It is a great pity that they were never written down. Those who heard Sibelius improvise in the 1890s, at the time when he was doing it the most, were able to enjoy the greatest beauty that contemporary music can offer," von Wendt said.
Aino Sibelius, too, had warm memories of Sibelius's improvisations. "When he was younger he was very happy to sit at the keyboard. I particularly remember wonderful piano improvisations that utterly intoxicated the family audience, and audiences of his friends in late evening sessions. It was utterly fascinating."
After the move to Ainola in 1904 he improvised at the get-togethers of the artistic community living by Lake Tuusula and played classical duets with his wife when family members were present. He would have liked to compose without the help of the piano, but this did not succeed entirely.
"Night tunes, that was what we called his quiet playing during the night, when he was composing after the others had gone to bed. These nights had a powerful atmosphere which I can still feel when I return to childhood in my thoughts," the composer's daughter Margareta Jalas related later.
In the summer of 1914 Sibelius attracted attention in the United States not only as a conductor but also as a pianist. "He was happy to demonstrate the tempi of his works to some of the conductors who were present," Carl Stoeckel recollected. "He hummed the examples or played them on the piano, reminding us that he was not a pianist but that he played the way a composer plays. And yet it was such brilliant playing, full of emotion, strength and nuances."
As a child Sibelius could "talk" by playing the piano: he composed apologies on the piano if he had been scolded by his family. He retained this habit even as an adult. Matti Kivekäs described this inclination as follows:
"Sometimes he can, in the middle of the liveliest conversation, go to the piano and play a note or two. 'Like this, this is what I mean,' he says.
'Words are not enough; they must be supplemented by music.' Or else he portrays the spring and the scent of lilacs.
'Is it not just like this?' he asks, striking a strangely melodious chord."
According to Kivekäs Sibelius also played dance music on the piano for the youngest daughters of the family.
Sibelius composed dozens of piano miniatures, many of them for Finnish publishers, because he was so beset by financial difficulties. According to Bengt von Törne he said in 1916: "I write piano pieces in my spare moments. As a matter of fact, the piano does not interest me, as it cannot sing."
Yet he continued to play the piano in his old age. The only recording of Sibelius as a pianist is a silent film which - according to the pianist Olli Mustonen - shows that the composer had natural control over the piano.
The violinist Isaac Stern was one of the last musicians to hear Sibelius play the piano. In 1951 Stern played Sibelius's violin concerto at Ainola; at the same time the composer conducted an invisible orchestra and from time to time played the orchestral part on the piano. "His playing skills were - decent," Stern later said laughingly.
The grandchildren had the opportunity to hear grandpa playing at Christmas, when the composer performed his own Christmas songs. He used the pedal unstintingly. "At Christmas Grandpa gave a magnificent performance of On hanget korkeat, nietokset [High are the snowdrifts]. It was a tradition," Ruth Snellman's daughter Laura Enckell recalls.
"The children were taken to the dark nursery. They were called to the drawing-room when the Christmas tree was all lit up. It really had to dazzle you with its brightness. He played On hanget korkeat, nietokset, and he played so loud, with the pedal down, as if he were playing the organ. It was as if he would have liked to have an orchestra there as well. We sang this song and then we sang En etsi valtaa, loistoa [Give me no splendour, gold or pomp]. This was all very jolly. It wasn't pious or gloomy at all."