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Rautavaara’s death leaves a huge void in Finnish contemporary music

by Kalevi Aho

"Rautavaara's original output and considerable success serve to remind us of a principle of his that applies to all composers of whichever generation: Dare to be yourself in your music." Kalevi Aho writes about Einojuhani Rautavaara (1928-2016).

My first meeting with Einojuhani Rautavaara (9 Oct 1928–27 Jul 2016): in September 1968, I arrive for my first lesson as a timid composition student. Rautavaara looks through the works I wrote while at school, passes a favourable comment or two, but then declares that I should work my way out of traditional tonality. Thus, we begin to explore the techniques of modern music and modern harmony. Towards the end of my first year, I begin to write an orchestral piece. Rautavaara looks at it and says: this is turning into a symphony, isn’t it? So that was the title sorted. I completed my First Symphony during my summer holiday in 1969.

My last meeting with Einojuhani was in late December 2015, after the funeral of composer Jouni Kaipainen. Esa-Pekka Salonen also attended the funeral, and I suggested to him that we should go see Einojuhani together. Esa-Pekka had also studied with Rautavaara but had not had contact with him for a couple of decades. Einojuhani was physically fragile, but his mind was as sharp as ever, and his eyes retained the familiar keenly exploring and at times mischievous gaze. We spent a thoroughly enjoyable two hours at his home on Katajanokka in Helsinki.

When Einojuhani suffered an aortic rupture in 2004, he spent months in intensive care hovering on the threshold of death. He later explained that he simply could not die yet, because he was still needed and because of his wife Sini. Having recovered, he no longer dared travel abroad, and the sphere of his life became considerably narrower. After this episode, he took a calm view of death, observing simply that it was an option always to be considered, with Death constantly hovering over his shoulder, as it were.



Einojuhani Rautavaara stressed on many occasions that his feeling was that his compositions pre-existed in a kind of abstract Platonic world of ideas. He viewed the composer’s task as that of a midwife, bringing the compositions cautiously into the world without damaging them at birth.

His first successes, the piano suite Pelimannit (Fiddlers, 1952) and the brass band work A Requiem in Our Time (1953), are good examples of pieces that came out just right in every way. Of A Requiem, Rautavaara said that when writing it he had absolutely no experience of writing for brass band and that his composition technique was immature at the time anyway; yet the completed work has integrity and quality and is exactly as it wanted to be born.

There is thus a mystical, metaphysical dimension to Rautavaara’s output. He was not a religious man as such, but he took a keen interest in the myths underlying religions and ancient folk traditions. Rautavaara’s All-Night Vigil (1971) is the most extensive Orthodox liturgical work written in Finland, yet Rautavaara was not himself a member of the Orthodox Church. The piano cycle Ikonit (Icons, 1955) stemmed from a childhood visit to Valamo Monastery. His “angel works” – the orchestral work Angels and Visitations (1978), the double bass concerto Angel of Dusk (1980/1993) and the frequently performed Seventh Symphony, Angel of Light (1994) – refer to Christian mythology without the composer himself necessarily believing in angels.

Rautavaara explored ancient Finnish mythology and how it succumbed to Christianity in a trilogy of works for the stage comprising Marjatta, matala neiti (Marjatta, Lowly Maiden, 1975) for children’s choir, soloists and instruments, Runo 42 “Sammon ryöstö” (The Myth of Sampo, 1974/1982) for male choir, soloists and tape, and Thomas (1985), a full-length opera that is one of Rautavaara’s finest works. Rautavaara wrote seven full-length operas, all except one to librettos written by himself, an approach to the genre reminiscent of that of Wagner.

Another important aspect of Rautavaara’s composer persona, particularly when he was younger, was the capacity for being curious, experimental and playful. This blends very well with mythology, most idiosyncratically in works like True & False Unicorn for soloists, choir and orchestra (1971/2000).

Sometimes the birth process of a composition was less than successful. Rautavaara revisited many of his works to rewrite and adapt new versions after long periods of time, and he also removed several works from his catalogue, banning them from public performance.

At our final meeting, Einojuhani remarked that he had already discovered in the sounds of his inner world all the musical material that he wanted to use. In light of this, it is understandable that he recycled material from earlier works, particularly towards the end of his career. For me, the culmination of his late period is the cantata Balada (2014), a Lorca setting whose vocal solo part contains an anguished passion that was quite new for Rautavaara.


Human being and teacher

Rautavaara was a tolerant teacher. He never tried to impose his own style and ideology of composition on his students or cut them down to size; he always took the student’s perspective and supported their psychological development. He inquired what the student wanted to say with a piece, what its aim was. Having received an answer, he then gave a critical appraisal of the work from the student’s perspective, meaning an appraisal of how well the student had managed to execute the intended vision using the means available at the time. Rautavaara stressed that there must be a vision underlying every work, that composing must not comprise merely the mechanical resolution of abstract musical problems.

Rautavaara’s teaching was far from academic. In my composition lessons, the discussions were about much more than just music, such as literature, philosophy and even politics. Einojuhani was a widely read and educated man with an excellent, somewhat sarcastic sense of humour. You had to focus when talking to him. Composition lessons turned out to be a school of intellectual development for me.

Occasionally Einojuhani sank into a phlegmatic mood, perhaps contemplating his own music as he sat and rolled his eyes. By contrast, he also had a fiery and unyielding side to him, as we may read in his autobiography.



Rautavaara did not make his international breakthrough until the 1990s, but today he must be the most frequently performed Finnish contemporary composer, both in Finland and abroad. Many composers fade into obscurity when they die, but my firm belief is that Rautavaara will not suffer this fate; his works will remain in the core repertoire, and he will endure as a major classic in Finnish music.

There are several reasons for this. Firstly, Rautavaara’s works are always highly original, never sounding like typical contemporary music. Secondly, they are not technically over-demanding, meaning that they can be performed within the confines of a normal rehearsal schedule. Thirdly, his output is huge and includes works in all genres and for many different kinds of ensembles. His extensive output of choral and vocal music is particularly noteworthy. Fourthly, his output includes a handful of major hits: Cantus Arcticus for birds and orchestra, the Seventh Symphony (Angel of Light), several choral works, some piano cycles, and so on, and these serve as gateways to a wider exploration of his music.

His internationally most successful operas are Vincent (1985–1987) and Auringon talo (House of the Sun, 1989–1990). His first opera, Kaivos (The Mine, 1957–1963), based on the Hungarian Uprising of 1956, is to be performed in Hungary in autumn 2016 (See Vesa Sirén’s review here). Rasputin (2001–2003) has been produced in Lübeck and also has potential for wider international appeal.

Rautavaara said that he only wrote music for himself and that he preferred to live in his own blissful seclusion, inhabiting a world created by himself. He also remarked that a composer should not attempt to follow the times, because following the times means by default that you are behind the times. In reality, however, Rautavaara was not completely aloof from the real world; on a number of occasions he took a very clear political stand, as in the opera Kaivos. Also, in some works written in the 1960s he embraced the modernist ideals of the era before abandoning them in favour of a different approach.

Rautavaara never engendered a school of composers; his style is not and should not be imitated by anyone. His original output and considerable success serve to remind us of a principle of his that applies to all composers of whichever generation: “Dare to be yourself in your music.”

His death leaves a huge, Rautavaara-shaped void in the Finnish creative musical arts.


Translation: Jaakko Mäntyjärvi

Photo: Jussi Puikkonen


This article is based on an article published by the Finnish Broadcasting Company Yle in July (in Finnish).