Sibelius and the bottle

Writing about alcohol is most likely a bad idea. Anyone wanting to add to the booze canon should be deterred by the fact that so many clever people have already written on the topic. It’s a tough act to follow. Hemingway said, “I drink to make other people more interesting”; Oscar Wilde said, “Work is the curse of the drinking classes”; and even the very respectable Benjamin Franklin came up with, “In wine there is wisdom, in beer there is freedom, in water there is bacteria.”


Nevertheless, I’m already a full paragraph in, so here goes. It’s not really a fact up for debate that drinking has been a hot topic for a good portion of human history. Nor is it a secret that many creative types of the past had a long association with having a few too many. Rightly or wrongly, alcohol maintains a certain glamour for many, thanks partly to a long list of great writers, painters, actors and musicians and their respective boozing habits. If you’ve ever felt a tad embarrassed the next morning about your indulgences, a peek into the life of the writer Tennessee Williams should give you a bit of comparative relief. In the early 1960’s, his daily dose of controlled substances comprised two packs of cigarettes, a two-six of liquor (to use Canadian terminology) and a handful of pills.


Quite a number of famous musicians should be included on the hard-drinkers list, although few could surpass the capacity of the great Finnish composer, Jean Sibelius. He could often be found composing early in the morning with a bottle open on his desk; he once stopped a public performance of his music because in his addled state, he thought it was a rehearsal; and a good deal of his masterly Violin Concerto was written in what he described as a colossal three-day hangover.


Questions of how and where Sibelius got his inspiration aside, there is no disputing the fact that he possessed a unique type of genius. He worked alone in remote Finland, undeniably isolated from the epicentre of music that was Western Europe. Precisely because of this, his music sounds like no one else’s. His majestic symphonies alternate passages of eerie foreboding with unparalleled euphoric climaxes. He found inspiration in Finland’s unforgiving countryside; the misty darkness and the hard glint of sunshine on the water are present in every one of his masterworks. For many, his music is a depiction of Finland itself. His great Second Symphony, arguably his best known, is considered by many as a hymn to Finnish independence, written when Finns were struggling against Russian oppression.


Despite Sibelius’s witticisms about alcohol (“All the doctors who wanted to forbid me to smoke and drink are dead.”), he had a lifelong struggle with the bottle, as did so many artists before and after him. However, there were those who believed wholeheartedly their creativity was unlocked only through the partaking. So if forewarned is forearmed, what’s a guy to do? Pour a drink. But just one.