Kalevala Program Presentation

Saima Park

February 24, 2018

by Kirsti Gamage


(Sung) “Olipa impi, ilman tyttö
Kave, Luonnotar korea....”
“She, the virgin of the air,
Luonnotar, the daughter of nature....”

Growing up I heard those words and
that music countless times. They
comprise the opening phrase of
Sibelius’s tone poem for soprano and
orchestra entitled “Luonnotar,” which
he wrote in 1913. The text is from the
first part of the Kalevala; and like
mythological tales from numerous
cultures around the world, it begins
with the creation of the world,
invoking Luonnotar, the Spirit of
Nature and Mother of the Seas.
Today I will share with you my family’s
connection to Sibelius’s tone poem
“Luonnotar”, to the Finnish-American
community, and to the Spirit of Nature that we Finns cherish.

I’d like to start with telling you about the first time my mother met Jean
Sibelius. It was 1955 and she was a soloist at the Sibelius Festival in Helsinki,
along with Jussi Björling and Kirsten Flagstad. Sibelius himself approached
my mother after her performance, saying, “I hear you singing in my heart. I
know that you know how to interpret my music.” On shaking hands, Sibelius
then said, “You’re now shaking the hand that shook the hand that shook the
hand of Beethoven.” He explained that his scribe, the person who
transcribed his musical scores, had also scribed for Beethoven (1770-1827).
That means that I am two handshakes away from Sibelius and four
handshakes from Beethoven. It seems Sibelius was a bit of a name-dropper,
but still it’s pretty cool, eh?
But let me get back to my story, beginning with my father...

1. Reino’s early life and career
My father, Reino Aarnio, was born in Turku, Finland and emigrated with his
family to the U.S. in 1920 when he was 8 years old. They settled in a section
1of Brooklyn that was nicknamed “Finntown.” His parents were of solid
working class stock – his father, Viljo, a house painter and his mother, Hilma,
a seamstress. Their social life was centered with the local Finnish hall,
Imatra, and the Finnish church. Sadly, Viljo died suddenly in 1925, leaving
Hilma to raise a strong-willed teenager on her own. My father became a
successful architect and talented watercolorist. Reflective of his Finnish roots,
he had a great love of nature. His buildings were designed to harmonize with
their natural surroundings and his paintings were generally landscapes. In
1953, he met with two other similarly nationalistic-minded Finns. Together
they created the Finlandia Foundation, whose charge it was to inspire,
celebrate and connect the Finnish-American community in the U.S. with
ancestral ties in Finland. My father designed the organization’s logo of two
joined hands reaching across the sea. He had great professional and social
aspirations, and his path would eventually lead him to meeting the most
prominent artists and heads of state from Finland.

2. Sylvia’s early life and career
My mother, Sylvia Backman, was born in Superior Wisconsin in 1920 to
parents who met at the Finnish Hall in Superior. Kaisa Kelloniemi Backman
was originally from Lumijoki near Oulu and Kalle, nicknamed “Kassu,”
Backman was from Ähtäri near Tampere. Like my father’s folks, they were of
solid working class stock. Kassu was a dock worker and Kaisa a homemaker.
Their daughter, Sylvia, showed an early affinity for music. Imagine during the
Great Depression what a dock worker sacrificed in order to cultivate his
daughter’s passion for music, purchasing a piano and paying for weekly
piano and singing lessons! When Sylvia was accepted at The Juilliard School
of Music at the age of 19, all three moved to New York. That’s devotion!

3. Reino and Sylvia meet and marry
In December of 1940, Reino and his mother attended the Itsenäisyys Juhla,
or Finnish Independence Day Celebration, in Manhattan. Performing Finnish
songs that evening was Sylvia Backman, the young soprano who had
recently enrolled at Juilliard. According to family lore, Reino turned to his
mother and said, “She sings like an angel; undoubtedly, she must also have
the soul of an angel. That’s the girl I’m going to marry.” Never mind that he
hadn’t yet met Sylvia face-to-face. As the story continues, when Reino went
backstage after the performance to congratulate Sylvia, despite being only
28 years old, he carried himself with such confidence that she assumed that
he must have been one of the Finnish big-wigs she’d been introduced to
recently. When he invited her on a date, she was afraid to offend an
important member of the Finnish-American community. They married the
following summer.

4. Sylvia’s singing career
2After graduating from Juilliard, Sylvia went on to perform with some of the
most famous orchestras in the world, singing in 14 different languages. After
Sibelius met her in 1955, he asked her to perform his favorite piece,
“Luonnotar,” at his 90 th birthday celebration later that year. What followed
was a whirlwind of coaching sessions at Sibelius’s home, Järvenpää, outside
Helsinki. My parents told the story of their first visit to Sibelius’s home. He
offered my father the cigar that I still have [hold up cigar]. During that first
coaching session with Sibelius, my mother was quite understandably
enthralled and nervous about being in the presence of this godlike figure.
Her hands shook so much that she spilled her coffee on his white Damask
linen settee. Sibelius gave no notice to the settee, jumping up to assure that
his guest was unharmed. Twenty years later, when I was introducing my
husband, Chuck, to my Finnish roots, we visited Järvenpää, which was then a
museum. I told my mother’s story to the guide, who allowed me to go
beyond the rope barrier to sit on the white Damask linen settee, as my
mother once had. And, yes, the coffee stain was still there! Back to the story
of my mother rehearsing Sibelius’s “Luonnotar” -- One musicologist
described the “cruelly taxing and fiendishly difficult nature of the solo part
for the soprano. There are leaps and drops of almost an octave, sometimes
within a single word.” Clearly, with those sorts of demands, any singer
performing the piece needs to be highly trained, with a nimble high-soprano
voice. My mother went on to perform “Luonnotar” for Sibelius’s 90 th birthday
celebrations in Helsinki as well as New York. The conductor was Sibelius’s
son-in-law, Jussi Jalas. At the age of 7, I remember having my first girlhood
crush on the charming conductor. Because of my mother’s singing
engagements primarily in Finland, Sweden and Denmark, for the next 2
years we lived in Europe. I have vivid memories of seeing my mother as
Tosca being thrown from the parapets on a nightly basis only to be
resurrected in time for curtain calls at the end of the opera. After each
performance her dressing room was crowded with well-wishers and, oh, the
bouquets of flowers!

5. Where I grew up
I grew up in River Edge, New Jersey, which is a small town 8 miles due west
from Manhattan’s George Washington Bridge. Our house, which was large
and gracious, was on the highest street in the town overlooking the Hudson
River Valley. In the wintertime I was able to see the lights of the George
Washington Bridge from the balcony off my bedroom. My family’s orientation
was always toward Manhattan – toward its cultural, professional and social

6. Pass the hors d’oeuvres
My parents received recognition from the Government of Finland for their
work. My father was awarded Finland’s Knight of the Order of the Lion and
my mother the Knight of the Order of the White Rose. With my parents’
3careers and stature in the Finnish-American community, they were on the A-
list for events at the Finnish Consulate and attended countless concerts,
exhibits, lectures, plays, and parties. They also frequently entertained
dignitaries at our home. From a very young age, perhaps as early as 6 years
old, I passed hors d’oeuvres to artists, musicians, diplomats, journalists,
writers and even a Finnish-born Miss Universe, with names like Hannikainen,
Kuusisto, Gallen-Kallela, Katajavuori, Kuusela. The list goes on and on! When
President Urho Kekkonen visited New York in the 1960s, my parents sat at
the president’s head table and I was part of the Honor Guard greeting him.
He singled me out for a conversation and I remember struggling to say
something coherent in Finnish. I still cringe when I think of it! Where were
you then, Marita and Liisa (my current Finnish language teachers)?

7. Summers at Beach Pond
Not all of my youth involved wearing fancy dresses and entertaining famous
people. Most of my summers were spent in the idyllic setting of Beach Pond,
CT with my loving maternal grandparents. My parents would drop me off the
day after school ended and would pick me up again on Labor Day Weekend.
How I cherished my summers at that beautiful, remote lake! At that time
most of the lakeshore was virgin forest. The area had a large Finnish
population and the people we interacted with tended to be those of Finnish
descent. My grandmother, Kaisa, never really learned to speak English and
my grandfather, Kassu, was most comfortable speaking Finnish. On a typical
morning my grandfather and I would row across the lake to harvest fallen
trees and take them back to the cottage. I would perch on an overturned tar
can and we would chat (in Finnish) while my grandfather sawed the wood
into lengths suitable for the sauna oven. Speaking of which, our sauna was
the best! Even my cousins visiting from Finland agreed! I spent most summer
days tearing around the lake in my red wooden rowboat with friends,
swimming, and going to nearby Aura Hall for dances. It was in sauna or
sitting around a kokko (bonfire), that I vividly remember elders sharing their
stories and singing songs (when an accordion would often magically appear),
transmitting their knowledge and passion for their Finnish culture to the next
generations. They also spoke about their love of nature, explaining the
attributes and interactions of plants, fish, birds, sky, water, fire... Grandpa
Kassu, in particular, would wax philosophical, making connections between
interrelationships in nature and current political events.

8. I carry on some traditions
I attended Northwestern University in Illinois, majoring in sociolinguistics. In
my senior year I had an extra time slot to fill. Northwestern has a strong
music school so I decided to take some voice lessons. For the next 20 years I
followed, somewhat, in my mother’s footsteps, specializing in the
performance of Finnish folk and art songs. Nowadays I carry on many Finnish
traditions with my family. I love to share stories of my heritage with my sons
4and grandson. We listen to and sing songs. We bake pulla and pannukakkuja
(Finnish coffee bread and oven pancakes). At Christmastime my vast
collection of joulutontut, or Christmas elves, come out of hiding. We read
Muumi stories, Norse myths, and of course, tales from the Kalevala. I’ve also
been known to brag about Finland’s current social, economic and educational

9. Wrap-up
Growing up with parents so committed and passionate about their Finnish
roots and especially since I have an unusual name by American standards, I
have had countless conversations with people over the decades explaining
my name and heritage. In preparing for this talk, I’ve been doing a fair
amount of thinking about what it has meant to be a Finnish-American. What
forms a Finn’s identity? Is it Sisu (or grit)? Is it in our DNA to appreciate
nature? As John Martin Crawford wrote in the preface to his translation of the
Kalevala, “for the Finnish people nature and nature-worship form the center
of their life.” My good friend Tuula Himanka said recently, “For Finns, the love
of nature transforms into a deep listening to the music of the spheres.” When
her father, Jussi Himanka, was in a natural setting he would say, “This is my
church.” I’d love to hear what you think.
So I’ll end as I began – with the section of the Kalevala that Sibelius used in
his piece “Luonnotar”. It concludes with the Goddess of Nature’s eggs
forming the earth, sun and moon, with the brighter colored bits on the shells
rising to become the stars of heaven.
“Ne tähiksi taivalle.”

Thank you for allowing me to tell my story.
Kirsti Gamage