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A visit from Mr Composer

by Ilona Korhonen

What happened when Jean Sibelius and Larin Paraske met? This is one way to imagine the scene, from the runo singer’s point of view.

The clouds had been hanging low over Porvoo all day. I was just at the door peeping out at a market stall holder giving his son a tongue-lashing when I saw the Reverend Neovius approaching across the square in a great hurry. Something important must have happened.

Neovius told me to change into my Sunday-best sorokka, the finest headdress I had, and a clean apron, because some important gentlemen had just arrived to hear me sing my chants, on their way from Loviisa to Hämeenlinna. One of them was a young composer named Sibelius. I’d heard that there was some talk about him in high society. “Come to my study when you are ready, the gentlemen are already having their lunch!”

It was the year of our Lord eighteen hundred and ninety-one. The Reverend Neovius had invited me to live in Porvoo so that I could finish singing my chants to him. Once upon a time he was a curate at Sakkola, and back then I heard it was said that he was collecting folk songs. So I plucked up my courage and went to the vicarage on some pretext and let slip, just casually, you understand, that I might know a verse or two myself. I sang what I could remember for the curate, and he wrote it all down in a notebook. Sometimes he even gave me a coin for my trouble. What I heard later was that he was right properly amazed that I could recite such a lot of verses though I didn’t know my letters, not even to write my own name. But sure I remembered it all, everything I’d heard, from my mother’s home village of Vaskela since my childhood, from Mäkienkylä in Lempaala, from Sakkola and what have you. And what I hadn’t heard I made up myself. I reckon the Reverend never cottoned on to that.

When Neovius moved to Porvoo, a parting lament burst out of me. We had somehow become friendly, or at least we had an understanding, so far as there could ever be such a thing between a poor old woman living in a hut and a gentleman such as him.

Kaurila of Larila, my wastrel of a husband, had died some years earlier. It was cold in my little hut, and every day I was starving. Bits of work to earn a livelihood were hard to come by. So why shouldn’t I take up the Reverend Neovius on his invitation? I didn’t care about the mockery of the jealous villagers and didn’t think about what the future might bring. I just left. I travelled from my home to Porvoo by hitching rides on carts. Many a long day it took. I brought with me a change of finer clothes, some craft things that I thought I might sell to fine ladies, and a bite to eat. If something better were to be offered, I wouldn’t say no.

So here we were. I swept up the floor in my room, put on my red-embroidered Sunday-best sorokka, washed my hands and walked around the corner to the vicarage. The market stall holder’s son sat on the stoop, looking sour and whittling a stick of wood. Neovius’s study was on the first floor, and its windows were towards the square. It was always shadowy and calm, maybe because of the thick curtains and the heavy furniture upholstered in velvet. I heard the gentlemen talking in Swedish in the parlour, not that I could make out more than a word here and there. I looked in cautiously at the parlour door and nodded to Neovius to tell him that I was there. I must have dropped a curtsy too, although I didn’t use to do that sort of thing.

Neovius came into the study first, and then two other gentlemen.

“This gentleman is Mr Jean Sibelius the composer, and this is his friend Mr Yrjö Hirn. They would like to hear some of your chants.”

All three gentlemen seemed kindly and were in a good humour, but this Mr Sibelius, this composer, looked at me closely, as if examining me. He inspected the red embroidery and the wrinkles on my hands. We chatted about this and that, and Mr Sibelius told us a funny story from the gentlemen’s travels, about the weather-beaten pockmarked roads between Loviisa and Porvoo. I wouldn’t have minded chatting a while longer with these pleasant gentlemen, but Neovius told me to sing. Mr Sibelius said that he had heard of Kullervo and asked me whether I knew that tale. Of course I knew the tale of Kullervo and promised to sing it and some others besides. I said that I would finish with a lament about my longing and the long days of my life.

When I sing, it’s like the snow thawing after a long winter. First there’s some sunshine to warm the breast, and a tiny trickle of water comes forth. Soon there are many brooks, and they join into a stream, a river, and finally the sun is blazing down on me like on a summer’s day and the river overflows. Then time stops. That’s the end of me and the beginning of what I can’t put into words. Maybe it’s something that people call sacred, maybe it’s a piece of heaven, maybe it’s like dying a little. Sometimes when I sing, I just get the little brooks and not enough power to bring forth a river. But that’s something that I can’t decide. The river appears when it wants to, and I don’t know where it comes from. Be that as it may, when I sang for these gentlemen, my river burst all its banks. I can’t tell you how long I sang, maybe for a few minutes, maybe for an hour. The gentlemen listened and scarcely uttered a word.

Mr Composer and Mr Hirn wrote down something as I sang, letters one after the other on yellowish paper. But they never spoke. Neovius muttered a few words to them in Swedish every now and again. In some strange way, the Reverend seemed to be proud of my chants, even though they were mine, not his.

Finally, the Reverend said something to the gentlemen in Swedish that I took to mean that he was offering them a glass of liqueur. Neovius thanked me, and the gentlemen left. Mr Composer seemed quiet, staying behind after the others. He gave me a glimpse of what he had jotted down in his notebook. I couldn’t understand any of it, it was just dots and lines; he said they were music. He looked thoughtful, and his quick thanks to me was heartfelt. I didn’t hear him joining in the merry conversation of the other two gentlemen.

So I went back to my room, across the stone-paved square.


The author completed an artistically oriented doctorate in music exploring the musicianship and art of Larin Paraske and putting herself in Paraske’s shoes.And this text turned into song during spring 2015 in one of Ilona Korhonen’s concerts.

Translation: Jaakko Mäntyjärvi