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A life marked by music

by Maria Puusaari

Violinist Maria Puusaari writes to the FMQ readers about music that is significant for her, and about the role of music in her life during important turning points and times of crisis.

This musician’s life, like that of many others’, has included many significant changes, heartaches, arm injuries, professional achievements and setbacks, tears of happiness and disappointment.

What is the role of music in life’s turning points? Through music, we can experience and process a range of feelings from sublime joy to disappointment and sorrow. Music inspires, comforts, and provides security in the midst of changes and moments of crisis. Music itself can also create a need for change or trigger a crisis.

There has been a curious silence in my own life’s defining moments. I cannot recall any self-therapy sessions when I would listen to music for hours on end. Surely this is not how things are supposed to be? Don’t I have any music after all?


When I think of musical works related to the different stages of my life, some unexpected combinations emerge. The beginning of a new relationship – Igor Stravinsky’s Firebird. First date – Richard Wagner’s Götterdämmerung from his Ring Cycle (well, it does give you six hours to hold hands). Crushing grief – the light-filled passages of Franz Schubert’s Symphony in C Major (“the Great”) and Ludwig van Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony (“Pastoral”).

The overall moods of my preferred pieces of music during change and crisis are often entirely different to the events taking place in my actual life. The works I have played or listened during important life moments have become some sort of sonic memorials for my life’s events, with their significance deepening each time I return to them. Some works have helped me identify specific grievances, others have awoken new thoughts or directed my playing towards a new path.

The personal significance of music is often connected to my own playing, with the concentration required helping to forget my acute life situation. Playing has a calming effect in the middle of change or a crisis when my attention is directed to music and interaction with other musicians. I have escaped my current Coronavirus-induced concert hiatus through the everyday routines of a violinist: scales, technical exercises and core repertoire.

Being a musician is a wholistic identity. Some of the worst imaginable crises for musicians include getting injured and losing the ability to work. When I was recovering from a strain injury in my arm, I could not even listen to music as my hand reacted with pain, thus preventing recovery. I had to take a break from music to regain my ability to work. 


I work as a violinist in the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra and in the contemporary music group Uusinta Ensemble. Musicians gradually learn to be sensitive to each other’s body language and to understand the nuances of ensemble music. Any feelings are contagious. I have cried and laughed in both rehearsals and concerts. Music strikes when you least expect it: when I play, I am defenceless against those feelings that music can bring to the surface. The power of music became really clear to me in a rehearsal for Anton Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony, conducted by Herbert Blomstedt.

While he was fine-tuning some of the intricacies of the score, I suddenly overcame with emotion and could not hold back tears. That moment of utter concentration when contemplating music remains one of my most significant and sacred musical experiences.  You can never predict how and when music will strike. Outi Tarkainen’s work Metsän hiljaisuuteen [Into the Woodland Silence], performed at the 2012 Tampere Biennale by Aili Ikonen and the UMO Jazz Orchestra, unearthed something hidden within me, and I could barely thank the composer through my sobbing. Since that moment, Tarkiainen’s music has spoken to me. I predict that my personal musical memento of this Coronavirus spring will be Tarkiainen’s string quartet work Trois Poèmes which I had the opportunity of performing with my colleagues at the Radio Symphony Orchestra’s streamed chamber music concert.

Maria Puusaari (violin), Eeva Rysä (cello) and Sonja Fräki (piano) performing Osmo Tapio Räihälä's piano trio Temptations.

I also perceive my life through the works of my life companion, composer Osmo Tapio Räihälä. His works become dear to me because our life and all its events are present in them. I remember tracing the poems of his quintet Zen in a Buddhist monastery in Paris, the specific art works which inspired his violin and piano duet Three Sketches for Stephan Dill, or how his string orchestra work Stream burst forth. I follow the process of his compositions, give feedback on violin-related details in his works, and in the end often take on the role of interpreting his work.

Sometimes an extra-musical narrative can assist in adding a personal significance to a piece of music. In autumn 2017, Erik Bergman’s violin and guitar duet Janus was waiting on my music stand, but I really struggled to grasp the work. Finally, I decided to learn about Janus, the ancient two-faced Roman god who can see the future and the past at the same time. Holding a key in his right hand, Janus is a god of all beginnings, ends, gates, doors, and change. Through this narrative I finally managed to add to the work my own significances and musical interpretations, rising from my reflections about life at that time. 


I seldom listen to music during my free time. I enjoy concerts, but I find it difficult to sit still as my body would prefer to join in the playing. I listen to music in order to learn new repertoire, to understand small details in the works, or to improve my own performance through recording myself. When I walk, my head is full of music as my mind continues to rehearse, or the tunes from the concert the night before wriggle around as ear worms.

Listening is also a part of playing, and after a workday saturated with sound, I crave silence. Acknowledging this fact is a requirement in maintaining a peaceful home life: progressive rock is only allowed after having a proper rest!  

There is, of course, music that I actively choose to listen to. I never get tired of Franz Schubert’s Lieder or Schumann’s Dichterliebe. Somehow the mood is always right to listen to them. My own life experiences keep adding depth and personal feelings to the songs, which music then helps to process, sometimes through raw pain, sometimes from a distance. And I am guilty of self-medicating my broken heart with an overdose of melancholy ballads and Jacques Brel’s chansons!


When writing this text, I have been listening to Gustav Mahler’s symphonies. In that music, time stands still and my own life, with all its sensitivity and fragility, with my joys and sorrows, is magically present.

My Coronavirus spring ended with two working days at the Radio Symphony Orchestra. After the isolation, it felt immensely important to be able to play together with my colleagues. In the end, the most meaningful thing about music is the interaction with others: when players and audiences come together to experience music.

Mariapuusaari C Maarit Kytoharju
Maria Puusaari
Photo: Maarit Kytöharju

Maria Puusaari

  • b. 1977 in Oulu, Finland
  • studied in Helsinki, Budapest and Paris
  • violinist in the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra
  • contemporary music activist, best known from the Uusinta Ensemble and the Uusinta String Quartet
  • has commissioned and premiered a large body of compositions
  • performs classical chamber music in her own recitals, with the Airo String Quartet and with the Fräki-Puusaari-Rysä piano trio
  • artistic doctoral studies in contemporary violin music at the Sibelius Academy since 2017
  • Artistic Director of the Uuden Musiikin Lokakuu Contemporary Music Festival in Oulu, Finland
  • has performed at various festivals and concert series in Europe and the United States and has recorded solo and chamber works for both CDs and the Finnish Broadcasting Company (Yle) 

Translation: Hanna-Mari Latham
Featured photo: Touko Hujanen