One of Einojuhani Rautavaara’s proudest possessions is a fading scrap of paper, framed and hanging in his study. It is dated 18 May 1955, and declares: ‘Sibelius suggests to you the Koussevitzky Scholarship for study in Tanglewood US six weeks from July STOP possibility to continue at Juilliard for a year STOP’.
Photos on the piano of Rautavaara with Olga Koussevitzky, the conductor’s wife, and with composer Roger Sessions testify to the Finnish composer’s response. Rautavaara’s life has been a rich tapestry. Music archivist, rector and professor of composition at Helsinki’s Sibelius Academy (1976-90), he has justified Sibelius’s faith in him in an ever-evolving life of prolific composition. He has moved through neo-Classicism to avant-garde constructivism and serialism, and on through a period of unashamed Romanticism to the mysticism which soft-focuses his renowned Seventh Symphony, ‘Angel of Light’. Now, at the age of 86, Rautavaara continues to compose energetically, but with specific performers in mind, and returning to the literary inspiration which has shaped so much of his creative life.
Rautavaara today lives high in a 1910 apartment block in Helsinki’s old port area of Katajanokka. With its prison-turned-hotel, its newly chic red-brick restaurants and its salty marine history, this quarter is now very much the place to live. From his top-floor flat, there’s a distant view of shipping in the harbour. And, between the two windows, hangs a painting of a six-year-old boy in a sailor-suit, with sad, dark eyes. Rautavaara’s father was to die when he was 11; his mother when he was 14. He didn’t think childhood was much fun, and always dreamt of an old age in which he would be living in a tower. ‘Not an ivory tower!’, he hastens to add. ‘But somewhere high up, where I could be alone, and do my work. And send my compositions out through the window, and they would float down.’
Well, he’s up in his tower, and still convinced that he had an irresistible spiritual vocation to compose. He has always felt he was an instrument to be played upon; and, when he read a famous essay on Wagner by Thomas Mann, about the metaphysical ‘Will’, he appropriated that Will to the muse of music, which uses human beings as instruments to realise her creative energy.
At the age of 17, Rautavaara began studying the piano. He went on to read musicology at Helsinki University and composition at the Sibelius Academy where, from 1951-3, he was a pupil of Sibelius’s younger contemporary, Aarre Merikanto. And then in 1955 came that telegram, and Rautavaara was off to America to meet Sessions and Aaron Copland. He continued his studies with Wladimir Vogel in Switzerland and a year later with Rudolf Petzold in Cologne. So, a broad training in all that was happening in Europe music-making at that time. His first three symphonies anchor themselves in neo-Classical tradition, yet show a restless itch to renew it. From the Fourth Symphony of 1962, ‘Arabescata’, the rigorous influences of serial (12-tone) organisation make themselves apparent; and thereafter Rautavaara moved towards the easy, fluent accommodation of serialism and Romanticism which has come to define his orchestral voice.
Despite prolific and constant production of music in every possible genre (Rautavaara has had a lifelong Finnish state bursary), it was his Symphony No. 7, ‘Angel of Light’, which enabled his music to travel internationally. After a marketing campaign in the 1990s by the record company Ondine, angels became the musical icon of the decade. Works such as Angels and Visitations (1978), Angel of Dusk (the 1980 concerto for double-bass, two pianos and percussion), and Playgrounds for Angels (1981, for four trumpets, four trombones, horn and tuba) were already in Rautavaara’s oeuvre. And it needed only the final seal of renaming his Symphony No. 7 (originally called ‘The Bloomington Symphony’ after the city in which it was premiered in 1995) to boost sales of recordings, and to make Rautavaara one of the most frequently performed of all Finnish composers. Rautavaara – by turn shrewd, canny, gentle and darkly laconic – relished the recognition, but declared his were angels more akin to those of poet Rainer Maria Rilke: ‘go-betweens, emissaries, yes – but, in the end, terrifying!’
Rautavaara also likes to quote the words of the German philosopher, Friedrich Schleiermacher, who said that religion was purely a ‘feeling for infinity’. It’s not difficult to hear this kind of thinking in Symphony No. 7. The first movement, with its serene waves of string writing, flecked by bells and rising to a fugitive hymn-like motif which reaches its apotheosis in the finale, is the stuff of which musical new-age dreams could be made. The language, though, even here is still derived from Rautavaara’s beloved serial principles. The most powerful influence on him was his German teacher, Vogel, a strict Schoenbergian who gave Rautavaara his technique just when he needed it. Rautavaara still believes that the vocabulary of music is that of 12 temperate tones, used more or less equally.
Choral music – written for almost every choir that exists in a land loud with choral singing – takes up a huge part of Rautavaara’s work list, but his music for voice has also included major works for stage, such as the mythic Kalevala triptych consisting of The Myth of Sampo (1974), Marjatta (1977) and Thomas (1982). The central work of this trilogy has special resonances for Rautavaara who, in the year of its composition, was locked into what he remembers as a disastrous first marriage. He moved from Helsinki to outlying Espoo, met the renowned Tapiola Choir, and wrote the mystery play Marjatta for them. The title role was sung by a soprano called Sini. She was some 30 years younger than Rautavaara; they fell in love, and she is now Rautavaara’s wife, muse, guardian and carer supreme.
Rautavaara’s very first opera – complete with seven roles, reciter, choir, Wagner tubas, celesta and taped jazz band – was Kaivos (The Mine). Composed to his own libretto, it was first performed in concert in 1963, and still awaits a staging. In 2010 it was exhumed and given a highly acclaimed concert performance in Tampere, relayed on Finnish television, and released as a CD by Ondine in 2011. It’s something of a thriller: in Switzerland, in 1957, Rautavaara met refugees from the Hungarian uprising who told him the story of some miners that joined the revolution and were besieged in their mine, trapped in the depths of the earth. Just the thing to fire Rautavaara’s imagination.
His Van Gogh opera of 1986, Vincent, was successfully staged in Helsinki but failed to travel far. The House of the Sun (1989) caught listeners’ imagination on CD, but again was elusive in staging. Aleksis Kivi, a three-act opera taking a quirky look at the life of the famous Finnish writer, and with a libretto by the composer, was acclaimed at its performance at the Savonlinna Festival; and Rasputin (2001) also in three acts, is a substantial drama and had considerable success in Finland.
A monologue, and four songs from Aleksis Kivi, have been abstracted for concert use, and join a substantial catalogue of works for voice – the most well known and most frequently performed being his early, gently sentient Three Sonnets of Shakespeare (1951); his Fünf Sonette an Orpheus (1954), settings of his beloved Rilke; and his song cycle Matka (The Trip), setting his own poems in both Finnish and English. Of late, Rautavaara has been working on his Rubaiyat, an Omar Khayam song cycle for baritone and orchestra written for Gerald Finley: it will receive its first performance in March this year, with the Helsinki Philharmonic under John Storgårds. Rautavaara has also been returning to his beloved Federico Garcia Lorca, whose poetry he set in his Lorca Suite of 1973, and in his Cancion de nuestro tiempo (1993). His Balada, for chorus, tenor and orchestra, will be premiered in Madrid in May.
In 2004, Rautavaara’s life nearly ended. His aorta became hugely enlarged, and it was thought he would not survive the operation. When he did, he was told he would have anywhere between ten days and ten years in which to live. In 2010, in his 85th year, Rautavaara’s new Cello Concerto, aptly named Toward the Horizon, received its Finnish premiere in Finlandia Hall.
The performance, by Truls Mørk and the Helsinki Philharmonic, was released in 2011, alongside the Percussion Concerto, warmly acclaimed at its premiere in London. Toward the Horizon is characterised by one of those seemingly infinite melodies, so typical of Rautavaara, particularly in his later writing. The dialogue with orchestra and the vigorous passages of ‘furioso’ writing are all finally calmed by the cello, singing a high melody which, in Rautavaara’s own words ‘brought to mind the view of a far horizon…’
Now, more than ten years on from his prognosis, Rautavaara starts composing, indefatigably, every morning at nine. Before lunch, he and Sini go for a walk. After lunch and a nap, he composes again. He’ll pause between 5pm and 6pm to watch the television news, then he’ll work on. Rautavaara is currently composing a Fantasia for solo violin and small orchestra for Samuli Inkinen and the Prague Philharmonic, with its premiere in March 2016. He still harbours a desire to write another chamber opera, this time on a Greek story about a shipwreck, and a boy carried to shore by a dolphin. His libretto is with Boosey & Hawkes, but the music has not yet floated down from that top-floor tower.
This article was first published in February 2015, before Rautavaara’s death on 28 July 2016.