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Fortune’s fantasy (on Einojuhani Rautavaara)

by Samuli Tiikkaja

Chance has played a great part in the life of Einojuhani Rautavaara, one of Finland's most highly acclaimed composers. He turned 80 this year, and continues to compose despite suffering a life-threatening aortic rupture in 2004.

“What determines the direction our lives take? I could well imagine some mindless god sitting by a hoard of good and bad – in other words fortune and misfortune – and tossing them out into the world. And laughing.”

Composer Einojuhani Rautavaara reflects on victory and defeat, success and failure. He has experienced plenty of them all in the course of his eighty years. Rautavaara has become one of the most highly acclaimed composers Finland has ever produced. But the composer has also realised that he has not directed his own life – on the contrary: life has just carried him along.

“Absolutely! After all I’ve been through, I’m convinced that chance is what rules our lives. Fortuna, imperatrix mundi, as is said in Carmina Burana.”

In a career now in its seventh decade, Rautavaara’s recent years have been crowned by honour and glory, but what if chance had taken him elsewhere? If he had made different choices, would he be what he is now?

Late starter

Rautavaara spent his childhood in Kallio – traditionally a working class district of Helsinki – where his father, Eino Rautavaara, had once been the church organist. His mother, Elsa, was a doctor working with the poor. His baritone father, Eino, had made a fine career as a singer, was a founder member of the Finnish National Opera and had been in great demand as a soloist, but by the time his only son was born he had already left his operatic career behind him. Nor did he raise his son to be a musician. It was Einojuhani’s mother who arranged for her son to take piano lessons, even though he did not show any particular inclination for music or for practising.

Einojuhani’s interest in music developed in his late teens in the 1940s. By that time his parents had died, his father in August 1939 and his mother in April 1944. What if they had not died then?

“I think I would have encountered certain difficulties with my father in my teens. He was a rather unbending sort. Nice and kind, but unbending. If I’d got it into my head to become a musician, I’m sure he would have objected. Being a musician himself, he well knew what it entailed. And there was no explicit evidence that I was keen on music,” Rautavaara muses.

“My mother would have been easier to deal with. She was much more liberal-minded than her husband; quite mondaine and liberal for the daughter of a farmer from Oulu.”

Fate nevertheless robbed Rautavaara of both his father and his mother in those turbulent wartime years, but with the other hand she also threw some good luck his way. Einojuhani was adopted by his maternal aunt Hilja Teräskeli. Like Elsa, Hilja had broken away from her strictly religious childhood home and studied medicine in Helsinki.

“Things would probably have been catastrophic for me if it hadn’t been for Hilja. I don’t know what I would have done.”

As Hilja’s foster son Rautavaara first moved to Turku, where Hilja had been appointed Professor of the Department of Ophthalmology then being set up at the University of Turku. While she was at work, Rautavaara had a lot of time to himself and discovered the newly published Sävelten mestareita by Sulho Ranta – biographies of master composers. The book greatly inspired the 17-year-old, who then decided to try his own hand at composing.

The prospects were far from promising. His piano lessons had always fizzled out, and each time he had had to begin from scratch – and even then only out of a sense of obligation. Now he had to begin once again – the difference being that this time he really wanted to learn.

Straight into modernism

As chance would have it, Einojuhani found himself taking piano lessons from Astrid Joutseno, a teacher whose liberal method proved to be just right for him. Instead of forcing Enojuhani to slave away at scales and etudes, she let him wade through relatively modern works that were far too difficult for the beginner.

While these did little for his keyboard technique, they provided a tentative introduction to contemporary piano literature. This was of great significance for the future composer, just as technique exercises would have been for a budding pianist.

“I slotted straight into modernism,” Rautavaara recalls. “The traditional repertoire was a complete blank to me. It was only later that I really got to know it – Bruckner while I was composing my third symphony, for example.”

Another stroke of luck was when Rautavaara was admitted to the Sibelius Academy to study composition with Aarre Merikanto. He had originally applied for the class of Selim Palmgren, but having seen the young Rautavaara’s attempts at composition, Palmgren reckoned what he needed was a grounding in harmony.

“I admired Palmgren tremendously and played his piano pieces. Ultimately this was just one disappointment among others.”

When Palmgren died in 1951 and Merikanto was appointed his successor as Professor of composition at the Sibelius Academy. Rautavaara was immediately admitted to the composition class. Like Joutseno, Merikanto encouraged his pupil on his path to becoming a composer. Rautavaara recalls that Merikanto always tried to find something positive to say about his efforts. He was not, however, a strict task master. Rautavaara did come across some of these later, just as he eventually found himself having to work on his piano scales at the Sibelius Academy.

Sibelius boosts career

In 1955 Jean Sibelius received a scholarship from the American Koussevitzky Foundation as a 90th birthday present. The scholarship was his to give to a young composer of his choice for tuition at the Tanglewood Music Center and a chance to study at either the Juilliard or the Eastman School of Music.

Sibelius chose Rautavaara.

What made Sibelius choose him rather than someone else? Rautavaara assumes that Sibelius, whose chief contact with Finnish live music was the radio, had heard some of his works on the radio and made his choice based on that. At least his folk music-inspired Pelimannit (The Fiddlers) and first string quartet had been broadcast by then. In any case Sibelius must have known of Rautavaara’s breakthrough work A Requiem in Our Time, which had won the Thor Johnson Contest for a composition for brass in Cincinnati the previous year.

What if Sibelius had chosen someone else, such as Usko Meriläinen, who came second in that same contest? Rautavaara would never have received tuition from at least three important composition teachers.

“The most important was of course Vincent Persichetti at the Juilliard, who at the time was still working on his book Twentieth Century Harmony. We students were guinea pigs for the exercises in it.”

Another important teacher was Roger Sessions at Tanglewood. He was the first to draw Rautavaara’s attention to the overall structure of a work and its key (or at least tonal centre) relationships. This was something none of Rautavaara’s other teachers did, either before or after. Not even Aaron Copland, who taught Rautavaara during the young Finn’s second Tanglewood summer.

“Looking back, I’m amazed that I didn’t play up the success of A Requiem in Our Time more. I never plugged it in the United States, even though it had already been released on disc and I had the record with me.”

“This was a mistake. Serge Koussevitzky’s widow Olga was prepared to help me, but I didn’t know how to go about it. I’ve never been good at exploiting connections. I’m a lone wolf trotting through the forest on my own.”

No career was forthcoming in the United States, and Rautavaara came home – but he soon set off again, this time to Switzerland to study 12-note technique with Wladimir Vogel. There, at last, he learnt to give his music lengthy spans and to handle the overall dramatic structure.

“The potential does exist in 12-note music, where things grow organically out of each other, and I began thinking about these things as a pupil of Vogel’s. I wouldn’t say I learnt them from them, but that I took them from him.”

Music leads to marriage

Rautavaara’s life did a summersault in February 1959 when soprano Maria Heidi phoned him and asked him to partner her at the 20th anniversary of the Finnish Cultural Foundation, where she was to be the soloist in the premiere of Aarre Merikanto’s Genesis.

“A total stranger, a woman, phones me. I should have told her to go away and look for an escort elsewhere,” Rautavaara recollects.

But he did not say this and instead agreed to accompany her. This was the beginning of a relationship that soon led to wedding bells. The marriage was, however, a disaster from the very beginning – nothing short of a violent domestic nightmare – but it nevertheless limped along for over twenty years. On the other hand it did lead Rautavaara towards his present bliss.

“Had I been on my own, I would never, a Helsinki-ite born and bred, under any circumstances have moved out to Espoo. Then the Tapiola Choir in Espoo would never have commissioned my choral opera Marjatta, matala neiti (Marjatta, the Lowly Maiden) in the 1970s. And then I would never have met Sini, the singer of the leading role, who later became my wife.”

Nor, probably, would Rautavaara have composed such works as the first piano concerto, the second piano sonata, Angels and Visitations or Angel of Dusk, so full of primitive energy and extremes of contrast. Paradoxically, the discord in his private life made him all the more creative.

“At least one positive outcome was that I learnt to escape into my work. The situation had the necessary explosive element.”

Rautavaara speaks of the polarities necessary for a work of art to be born. Of opposite poles that, when joined and vie with each other, generate energy. An example of such a contrast in Rautavaara’s output has been folk tradition and modernism, the fusion of which resulted in such works as his operas Sammon ryöstö (The Myth of Sampo) based on the Finnish national epic, the Kalevala, and Thomas. A similar tension has often arisen between singable romantic melody and more spiky 12-note technique.

“The second string quartet, for example, is to my mind interesting because it struggles along halfway between melody and method; it still believes in method and tries to reconcile melody with it. Shuttling between these two creates energy, polarity. If you limit yourself completely to one or the other, you don’t get energy.”

Death alights on his shoulder

In 1971 the University of Oulu commissioned Rautavaara to write a cantata to be performed at its degree ceremony the following year. But the choir that was supposed to perform it was overworked and not in good vocal trim, so Rautavaara decided to produce a slightly unusual cantata. Instead of a choir he used recordings of arctic birdsong. The outcome was the Cantus arcticus, the concerto for birds and orchestra that is still performed more often than any of his other orchestral works. Had he written a conventional choral cantata, it would undoubtedly have been left to gather dust in the university archives after that first performance.

A similar coincidence sent Rautavaara along the road to international fame in the 1990s. He had composed his seventh symphony as a commission from the Bloomington Symphony Orchestra in the United States and called it the Bloomington Symphony. But quite by accident Reijo Kiilunen, director of the Finnish record label Ondine, heard that Rautavaara had originally intended to call the symphony Angel of Light. Kiilunen knew that this title would be easier to sell than something called Bloomington Symphony and persuaded Rautavaara to change the title. The premiere recording of Angel of Light was preceded by an extensive advertising campaign that helped to drum up international interest.

“The discs did indeed have a quite decisive influence. They’ve been good and they’ve won awards. Earlier composers had no such opportunity. Thanks to the discs my music is played much more abroad than it is in Finland,” says Rautavaara.

Rautavaara was able to enjoy his success in the late 1990s and early 2000s, until catastrophe struck. In January 2004 he suffered an aortic rupture that began a long fight for his life. Luckily, Sini happened to be at home when it occurred and was able to call an ambulance. The next six months were spent in hospital, during which Rautavaara set a Finnish record of five-and-a-half months in an intensive care unit. He survived and is now back at work.

“Of course a lot of music would never have been written if I’d died then – Book of Visions and Manhattan Trilogy among others.”

The serious illness was at the same time an acute reminder of human mortality and has left its mark on Rautavaara’s music. There is not likely to be any more of the fury of the 1970s; instead the polarity, the tension springs from a different source.

“Of course having a death sentence hanging over me affects me. The doctors have promised me from one to ten years – four have already gone. Death is sitting on my shoulder.”

So for as long as there is life in him, Rautavaara intends to do what he enjoys most of all: sitting in his study near the Helsinki waterfront, composing. Since his illness he can only manage to work for about an hour at a time, but composing is, he feels, a vital necessity; it keeps him alive.

On the drawing board are plans for an opera based on the life and works of Federico Garcia Lorca, a cello concerto, a percussion concerto and a Catholic Mass. He composes a day at a time, an hour at a time. With no ifs and buts.

Translation: Susan Sinisalo