We know, or think we know, two things about Jean Sibelius even if we cannot hum more than a bar or two of his music. He is the man who for the last thirty years of his long life – he died exactly fifty years ago, at the age of nearly ninety-two – wrote virtually nothing; and he was a legendary drinker. As Andrew Barnett illustrates in this new and very solid biography, the first of those assertions is not exactly true; and the second is absolutely so. Sibelius does not seem to have been a man who found composing, or indeed life itself, especially easy. He wrote music not, it seems, because he had any great well of inspiration that he needed to tap and pour out, but because he needed to earn a living. And for him, as for many Finns and others from the Nordic countries, the long darknesses of northern life seem to have gone hand-in-hand with a propensity towards depression, and with it an early recourse to the bottle.
Sibelius was born in 1865. His father, a doctor, died when he was two. Young Jean seems to have had a vocation of sorts for music and to have pursued it, in his first two or three decades at any rate, with something approaching enthusiasm. He was, by his thirties,