While drinking among musicians in the 20th century is usually linked to rock and roll and other music streams that were popular among the youngsters, there was one classical composer that would probably outrock most metalheads. Jean Sibelius (1865-1957), a national icon in his country Finland, was a true party animal. Taking under consideration that he was piss drunk on a regular basis it’s quite impressive that he wrote 7 amazing symphonies and is considered the last great composer in European classical music. Sure his alcohol intake got Sibelius in trouble with the missus multiple times in his life, gave him serious financial debts and was partly responsible for his throat cancer. But in the end he died a very respectable old age of 91 years and stil together with his wife, leaving the world an amazing musical legacy. Speaking of well-functioning drunks…
Jean Sibelius first gained his reputation as a hardcore drinker when he started his student years in 1890 in the Austrian capital Vienna. His escapades were legendary since he was far from a lone drinker. The bigger the crowd, the bigger the party. His frequent escapades to restaurants, bars and brothels made sure the Finnish student was always dealing with great debts. Something that would only get worse after he became more famous as a composer. Where some people find moderation in drinks and drugs with their student days behind them, this was clearly not the case for Sibelius. In his own diary, which is published under the name My Music, My Drinking & Me, the composer acknowledged his tricky relationship with booze, as it was leaning towards alcoholism, but also claimed he needed to drink in order to write his best work.
While living in the Finnish countryside Sibelius often went to the capital Helsinki for an “inspirational” drinking spree with other artists. This to the disliking of his wife Aino Sibelius, who had to come drag her drunk husband home from bars at a regular basis. Upset by his scandalous behaviour she stopped to accompany Jean on his trips, but he didn’t seem to get the hint. And when Aino once dared to ask when he planned to be back from a drunken trip to the capital the musician simply answered: “What am I, a prophet?!” But in 1907 Aino Sibelius got so sick and tired of her husband’s drinking that she left his house to live in a sanitarium. In order to save his marriage the composer stopped drinking for a short period, but soon enough answered again to the calls of the bottle.
A year later this renewed excessive alcohol intake together with his heavy smoking probably led to throat cancer. The tumor was succesfully removed from Sibelius throat, but the doctors adviced him to really quit drinking this time, which the musician did for 7 years. But despite the fact that he had quite a flourishing career during these years of sobriety Sibelius missed the booze or as he called it later “my most faithful companion”. By the year 1917 he was back in his old shape, which again led to troubles with missus Sibelius, and three years later it was commonly known that the artist couldn’t finish a composition without having a jug of wine. By that time Finland was already suffering from a prohibition of alcohol that lasted from 1919 to 1932, but like a true rock ‘n roll star Sibelius never had difficulties getting his hands on some decent wine or aquavit..
In 1927 Sibelius stepped out of the public domain and never wrote a piece of music again. It’s unclear if he continued his drinking habbits in the Finnish countryside, but for sure he lived another 30 years to see the respectable age of 91. With sense for irony he once said: “All the doctors who wanted to forbid me to smoke and drink are now dead.”