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  • Writer's pictureGraham Abbott

The Music of Einojuhani Rautavaara

Here’s a some music to get us started. [listen]

Mention the nation of Finland to most music lovers and the one name which will probably come to mind is Sibelius. That's not surprising, as Jean Sibelius is far-and-away the best-known Finnish composer. His music helped define Finnish national identity, and Finland's final struggle to become an independent nation - something only achieved around 1919 - coincided with the middle of Sibelius's career.


For such a small nation - the current population is only about five-and-a-half million - Finland is amazingly well-represented in the musical world. Its ability to provide the world with first rate conductors is particularly worth noting but that's only a small part of the story. And among composers, there is one name which has dominated Finnish music since the death of Sibelius in the late 1950s, and that composer is the focus of this article. His name is Einojuhani Rautavaara and this program is designed to introduce you to his sound - or sounds - and provide an overview of his work.

The music which opened this post was Rautavaara's 1972 arrangement for string orchestra of a piano work he composed 20 years earlier during his student years. Here's the same music in its original version. [listen]

Einojuhani Rautavaara was born in Helsinki in 1928. According to Grove he studied musicology at the University of Helsinki and graduated in 1952, the year he wrote the piano suite Fiddlers, part of which we just heard.

Rautavaara went on to study composition at the Sibelius Academy and received his diploma in composition in 1957. Sibelius himself recommended Rautavaara for a Koussevitzky Foundation scholarship in 1955. This enabled him to study in the United Stated with Vincent Perischetti, Aaron Copland and Roger Sessions. In the later 1950s he also undertook further studies in Switzerland and Germany.

Einojuhani Rautavaara (1950s)

A long and distinguished career at the Sibelius Academy then followed. He was a lecturer there from 1966 to 1976, as well as being artist professor from 1971 to 1976. He was then professor of composition from 1976 to 1991.

Rautavaara's works span a fascinating variety of styles and forms and display a wide range of influences. Fiddlers, his earliest work still regularly played today, shows the influence of Bartók in its use of folk melodies, and folk sources are occasionally in evidence throughout his career. But another influence, perhaps not surprising, was Stravinsky, and specifically the neo-classical Stravinsky. A four-movement work for brass and percussion called A Requiem in Our Time appeared in 1953 and the shadow of middle period Stravinsky is clearly in evidence. This is the work's third movement, "Dies irae". [listen]

A Requiem in Our Time won for Rautavaara the first prize in the Thor Johnson Competition in Cincinnati, a prize he went on to win on another fourteen occasions.

Another early influence was Finland's strong Evangelical Lutheran tradition, although as many of his works demonstrate, Rautavaara's religious influences extend far beyond this. His 1955 piano work, Icons, is a good example. Its six movements are musical portraits of icons from the Orthodox tradition. Chorale-like phrases and chords designed to evoke mysticism are placed beside more aggressive and modernist elements. The third movement, "The Black Madonna of Blakernaya", reminds me of the spirit, if not the letter, of Debussy's sunken cathedral. [listen]

From the late 1950s, Rautavaara's music displayed some fascinating juxtapositions. On the one hand, he started to become more "modern", for want of a better word. He embraced aspects of serialism, not merely in the sense of pitch (such as we normally think of with Schoenberg's twelve-tone serialism) but in the sense of having serial patters of intervals, rhythms, tone colour and volume markings. Such things are very hard to pick up aurally; they are usually only evident with close scrutiny of the score. But as a framework for composition, Rautavaara took this view of serialism further than any other Finnish composer in the late 50s.

But such ideas were often combined with styles many other composers regarded as old fashioned. There is a strong streak of romanticism in his works from the late 50s, a sound world which was regarded as more 19th than 20th century. Yet combining this with principles of serialism set Rautavaara apart. The composer called this "non-atonal serialism" and it produced some wildly different works. The second string quartet of 1958 is a good example, displaying one side of the "serialism plus romantic" equation. [listen]

Yet combining serialism and romanticism could have a completely different result in Rautavaara's hands. The second quartet seems to evoke the spirit of Alban Berg. The third symphony, though, completed three years later in 1961, evokes the spirit of a very different composer with the same initials: Anton Bruckner. This is the symphony's finale. [listen]

Rautavaara with his wife Mariaheidi and their two children (1961)

The world of the third symphony was completely rejected when only two years later Rautavaara completed the work which eventually became known as his his fourth. This was originally a stand-alone orchestral piece called Arabescata. It wasn't until some years later when he withdrew his original fourth symphony that he decided to give Arabescata the status of a symphony and make it the fourth in his cycle.

To this day it remains the only completely serial Finnish symphony, and one of Rautavaara's most challenging works. It was in this work that he tried to draw on absolutely everything the European avant garde had to offer. This is the brief third movement. [listen]

Rautavaara's style didn't stay in this very aggressive, modernist stance. From the late 1960s he entered what Grove calls a "new romantic" phase. It became clear to him that he preferred to work within the bounds of tonality, to some extent, and to try to combine modern and traditional elements. The two piano sonatas written in 1969 and 1970 are part of this shift, and the second sonata, The Fire Sermon, is one of his most popular piano works. [listen]

The fact that so far in this article I've only referred to Rautavaara's instrumental music shouldn't suggest that he didn't work in other genres. Over the course of his career he wrote operas, incidental music, songs, chamber music and choral works. One of the latter is True and False Unicorn, a cantata comprising twenty short movements composed in 1971 and revised in 2000. Setting texts by the American poet James Broughton. Rautavaara's work incorporates some ideas which stem from specifically American roots, such as jazz, spirituals and musicals. [listen]

In the year after this, 1972, Rautavaara wrote one of his better-known works, the Cantus arcitcus (Song of the Arctic). This is scored for orchestra with the addition of the songs of arctic birds which the composer himself recorded near the arctic circle in northern Finland. It's a three movement work which Rautavaara described as a "concerto for birds and orchestra". This is the first movement, called "The Bog". [listen]

Cantus arcticus reflects most of Rautavaara's preoccupations in the 70s: modal melodies; rich, chordal harmonies; chance elements; and pre-recorded sounds. In the early 70s these ideas were combined with the rich heritage of ancient liturgical chant in a number of choral works. The first of these was Vigilia, completed in 1972. This is major work for unaccompanied choir and solo voices setting Vespers and Matins for the All-Night Vigil in memory of St John the Baptist. [listen]

Einojuhani Rautavaara

Like his older countryman Sibelius, Rautavaara was inspired to create music which reflected stories from the ancient Finnish epic, the Kalevala. One of these was Marjatta, the lowly maid, composed in 1975. In this recording the narrator is Einojuhani Rautavaara himself. [listen]

One of Rautavaara's most spectacular works is Annunciations, composed in the late 1970s for the Stockholm Organ Festival. It's essentially an organ concerto in a single movement lasting half an hour. Rather than being accompanied by a full orchestra, the composer has restricted (if that's the right word) the accompaniment to a symphonic wind ensemble (which includes percussion) and a separate group of brass instruments. It's a dynamic, theatrical and gripping piece. [listen]

In the late 70s and early 80s Rautavaara composed what came to be known as his "angel trilogy", three works with some connection with the idea of angels. The first of these was the orchestral work Angels and Visitations, written in 1976; the last was the fifth symphony of 1985. In between - completed in 1980 - came the double bass concerto, called Angel of Dusk. These three works comprise the form of a traditional orchestral concert - overture, concerto and symphony - and the double bass concerto is a sumptuous work which exploits almost every possible sound available in double bass technique. [listen]

In the 1980s Rautavaara produced two operas on historical figures. Thomas, completed in 1985, tells the story of the 13th century Finnish bishop whose struggles to form a national church are seen as the beginnings of Finnish independence. And Vincent, completed in 1987, is on the life of Vincent van Gogh. Thomas has aspects of a sacred oratorio about it, whereas Vincent is a passionate drama of madness and excess. The van Gogh opera led to the sixth symphony, called Vincentiana. This borrows ideas, both musical and narrative, from the opera and expresses them in purely instrumental terms.

Angels appear again in the seventh symphony, called Angel of Light, written in 1994, and this is regarded as an extension of the series of angel-inspired works mentioned earlier. There's no program or story in these works; Rautavaara simply writes music connected (in his mind) with idea of a constant spiritual companion. The seventh symphony inhabits a brighter, more light-infused, world than some of the earlier angel works. [listen]

Rautavaara's works since the mid-90s included a television opera, The Gift of the Magi, and two other historical operas, one on the life of the 19th century Finnish writer Aleksis Kivi, and another on Rasputin. In 2004 he suffered an aortic dissection and his recuperation for about half of that year kept him from composing entirely. He recovered, though, and created major works in his final years. The Book of Visions, Manhattan Trilogy, Before the Icons and Lost Landscapes were completed in 2005, and A Tapestry of Life was completed in 2008. His last works include Incantations and a second cello concerto, and in 2011 - the year he turned 83 - he completed an unaccompanied Mass and a work for string orchestra called Into the Heart of the Light.

Einojuhani Rautavaara died in Helsinki in July, 2016 at the age of 87. He was a composer whose music, drawn from a wide range of inspirations, refuses classification into a narrow school or style. This makes his work puzzling at times, but that's the nature of the man's art. In my experience his music rewards open-minded exploration and closer study, and there is no doubting that the music of this Finnish master has much say which is potentially gripping and fascinating.

Einojuhani Rautavaara (2014)

I'll end with part of Rautavaara's Book of Visions, which he completed in 2005. This is the last movement, called "A Tale of Fate". [listen]

This article is based on a Keys To Music program first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in August, 2013.

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