Karsh Signature

Yousuf Karsh, master photographer of the 20th century

Jean Sibelius

Jean Sibelius, 1948

Finnish composer Jean Sibelius was born on this day, December 8, in 1865 (d. 1957). Karsh traveled to Helsinki to photograph Sibelius during a trip to Europe that included sittings with Bertrand Russell, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Harold Wilson, Francois Mauriac and Jean Cocteau.

Karsh wrote: “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.

For two days, I photographed Sibelius. “This is my last hope of having a good photograph,” he said (but without sadness) when he gave me permission on the first afternoon to return the next day for more pictures… The old gentleman’s hand was shaking all the time I was with him and the frailty of age was apparent in his voice and bearing. But the camera has the almost limitless power of selection, and although the signs of age and the ebbing of life were there, it could still capture, in a fleeting second, the noble soul and the immortal music of one of the world’s finest composers.”

See a second portrait of Sibelius.