Jean Sibelius was born in H?meenlinna, Finland in 1865 – one hundred and fifty years ago this December. He is considered one of the most important composers of the late Romantic period. In addition to his seven symphonies, some of his most famous works are the Finlandia tone poem, the Karelia Suite, and his Violin Concerto.


In 1949, when he was photographing a Shell Oil executive in London, Yousuf Karsh overheard his subject taking a call from Finland. The caller was Jean Sibelius, the reclusive Finnish composer, of whom Karsh had always wanted to take a photo.

Karsh was already famous in the English-speaking world, but not well-known on the continent, and he requested the oilman to make arrangements for him to travel to Sibelius? villa in Lake Tuusula.

Karsh remembered their session: I arrived at Sibelius?s home ?Ainola,? named for his wife Aino, laden with gifts from his admirers ? an inscribed manuscript from composer Ralph Vaughan Williams, a warm letter from Olin Downes, the celebrated music critic of the New York Times, a box of his favorite cigars and a bottle of old cognac from the Canadian High Commissioner in London. This last we shared with little Finnish cookies and coffee. His daughter interpreted for the straight-backed patriarch of eighty-four, although there was such a meeting of minds that words became scarcely necessary.

The structure of his face reminded me of carved granite, yet with infinite warmth and humanity. This photograph was one of the last taken. He was visibly moved as I told him how the Finnish workers, in their northern Canadian logging camps, doubled their wartime output when his Finlandia was played for them.

The structure of his face reminded me of carved granite, yet with infinite warmth and humanity.

Sibelius had semi-retired from conducting and composing since the late 1920s. He led a lowkey life during the Second World War [during which Britain and Finland became only two democracies in history to ever declare war on each other] and spent his last years quietly obsessing over an eighth symphony he would never get around to composing.

By 1949, when he met Karsh, his health was failing. His hands shook, his speech slurred, but the aged composer himself was enthusiastic about session with Karsh. He ran a power line from the road to his house for Karsh?s floodlights and gave the photographer two whole days for photos.

He told Karsh that it was his ?last chance at a good photograph?.

The endless fascination of these people for me lies in what I call their inward power. It is part of the elusive secret that hides in everyone, and it has been my life?s work to try to capture it on film.

Yousuf Karsh