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Einojuhani Rautavaara 1928–2016: A stormy life left its mark on the great composer’s work

Einojuhani Rautavaara (1928–2016) was one of Finland’s most significant composers.

Einojuhani Rautavaara (1928–2016) was one of Finland’s most significant composers. His extensive body of work achieved considerable success in Finland and abroad. Rautavaara enjoyed his greatest success after the release of the recording of Angel of Light, his seventh symphony, in the mid-1990s. His earlier work includes Cantus Arcticus (1972), which is one of the most widely performed Finnish compositions.

Cantus Arcticus and Angel of Light reflect Rautavaara’s fascination with mysticism and the search for other realities. In Cantus Arcticus, this is evident as natural mysticism: birdsong recorded in the Liminka wetlands assumes a ghostly quality in places through sound processing. Angel of Light reflects angelic mysticism, with allusions to Rainer Maria Rilke and Carl Gustav Jung, as well as the Christian tradition.

Rautavaara was widely educated, which is apparent from the diverse range of themes he chose for his songs for soloists and choirs and his librettos. With one exception, Rautavaara wrote all of his librettos himself. He was an intelligent conversationalist and a captivating personality whose charisma did not suffer even after his nearly fatal attack of illness in January 2004.

He spent a significant amount of time in intensive care because of an aortic rupture, but continued his composing work at his home in the Katajanokka district in Helsinki after having been released from the hospital in late summer 2004. The illness took its toll on his strength, but he was still able to work for a few hours each day. He completed many of his most important works, such as Book of Visions (2005) for orchestra and Missa a cappella (2010). He often said that two things kept him alive: his work and Sini, his wife.

Rautavaara composed his first pieces of music as a teenager in the late 1940s. At the time, Jean Sibelius had not released any new music for two decades or so. Older Finnish composers who were still active included Uuno Klami, Yrjö Kilpinen and Aarre Merikanto, among others. New names had emerged after the war, particularly Einar Englund (1916–1999) with his first two symphonies.

Englund represented neoclassicism, one of the responses to Sibelius’ legacy – a legacy many younger composers felt was weighing heavily on their shoulders. Neoclassical influences can be heard in Rautavaara’s early works; for example, the piquant harmonies in A Requiem in Our Time. This was his first international success: the piece won a composition contest in the United States in 1954.

Soon after completing A Requiem in Our Time, Rautavaara travelled abroad to further his education for several years. In Finland, he had studied composition with Aarre Merikanto at the Sibelius Academy. After completing his military service in the spring of 1955, he left for Vienna but did not even try to study composition at first. “I had received officer training, which was tough. I was tired of any kind of discipline at the time. I just wanted to enjoy life in Vienna, a hub of old European culture,” Rautavaara said in 2005.

In Vienna, he composed Fünf Sonette an Orpheus, which became one of his most significant early works. In May 1955, Rautavaara received a telegram from Jussi Jalas: at Jean Sibelius’ recommendation, Rautavaara had been granted a scholarship for further education in the United States.

And so Rautavaara left Vienna for America. He attended the summer courses of the Tanglewood Summer School for two consecutive summers, studying under the supervision of Roger Sessions and Aaron Copland. In between, he studied with Vincent Persichetti at Juilliard in New York.

Once Rautavaara had returned to Finland, he felt that his composing technique was still lacking. One of his colleagues, the modernist composer Erik Bergman (1911–2006), suggested that he study in Switzerland – which Rautavaara did, in Ascona, with composer Wladimir Vogel. He studied the twelve-tone technique, one of the key composing methods of the twentieth century. Rautavaara had finally found his way to organise musical material.

He honed his technique over the years, but even the first works that he completed in Switzerland combine a modern technique with a softly consonant, romantic harmonic thinking. These features can also be heard in his later works, including his most successful compositions from the 1990s.

Rautavaara’s marriage to Mariaheidi Rautavaara (1927–2004) was one of the major turning points of his life. The couple were married soon after Rautavaara had returned from his last study trip, from Cologne in 1959.

Their marriage turned into a nightmare. Einojuhani and Mariaheidi Rautavaara were an obvious mismatch, and the marriage was riddled with jealousy, fights and violence from the beginning. The situation escalated to the point that, during a fight in the early 1960s, Einojuhani hit his wife in the head with an axe. Mariaheidi also resorted to violence. Until the end of his life, Einojuhani Rautavaara suffered from dizziness and bad hearing as a result of having been hit in the ear. In addition, his ophthalmic nerve became paralysed and his eyesight was impaired as a result of a blow.

Their marriage lasted for nearly 25 years. It did not end until in 1982, when Einojuhani Rautavaara met Sinikka Koivisto, a woman 29 years his junior. Sinikka Koivisto became Sini Rautavaara in 1984, following the finalisation of Einojuhani’s divorce. Rautavaara’s second marriage was a happy one.

However, the horrors of his first marriage continued to haunt him until his final years: he felt guilty about what he had done and had to work through his traumas. Some of this is undoubtedly reflected in his last works as piquant tension among softer textures.

Rautavaara’s first marriage also had a crucial effect on his music. In his third symphony (1962), he knowingly alluded to the style of Anton Bruckner, a nineteenth-century romanticist, while also using the twelve-tone technique. In the Finnish music scene of the early 1960s, that style was regarded as utterly irrelevant, and the symphony was crushed by the critics. Today, however, Rautavaara’s third symphony is seen as one of his most important masterpieces.

After its first performance, Rautavaara changed his style and began to study serialism, a trend that had been topical in Central European modernism since the 1950s. Rautavaara discussed his change of style in an interview with Hufvudstadsbladet. “We had long discussions about my style and means of expression after my third symphony, or my Bruckner symphony. My wife did not like that style at all. She thought that more modern expressions would be more suitable for me as composer.”

Alongside Erik Bergman, Rautavaara became one of the pioneers of integral serialism in Finland, even though he eventually managed to complete only a few works that employ integral serialism. After his fourth symphony, Arabescata, Rautavaara underwent a crisis after having realised that the method was extremely arduous and there seemed to be little correspondence between the composing method and the resulting music.

Rautavaara did not complete any new music in the mid-1960s. He found a solution in the late 1960s: he began to study different styles in the same manner as he had done in his third symphony. With a cello sonata with influences from Bach and Anadyomene, a work with influences from Debussy, he overcame his creative block. He began to compose pluralist works and experiment with styles and techniques. Over the years, he found his own style, which is characterised by triads, often treated modally, romantically soft orchestral textures, new playing techniques inspired by modernism and, eventually, a control of tonal material enabled by the twelve-tone technique.

The 1970s were a productive time for Rautavaara. Over a short period of time, he composed a large number of commissioned works, most of which have stood the test of time very well. His new, softer sound did not go unnoticed, and he was frequently contacted by choirs, in particular, with requests for new songs. In 1971, Rautavaara composed some of his great choral works, such as Vigilia and True & False Unicorn. In early 1972, he completed Cantus Arcticus, originally intended as a choral cantata. In summer 1972, he finished composing Book of Life, an extensive work for male voice choir.

All the while, he was also planning to compose operas. However, Apollon contra Marsyas, with librettist Bengt V. Wall, turned out to be a disappointment. After that, he studied The Kalevala and composed The Myth of Sampo (1974/1983) and Marjatta (1975), as well as Thomas (1985), which marked the beginning of his mature style as an opera composer. He later completed Vincent (1987), The House of the Sun (1991), Aleksis Kivi (1997) and Rasputin (2003), one of the most outstanding operas of the 2000s.

The fate of his first opera bothered him until the end. In the early 1960s, he had composed The Mine, an opera based on the Hungarian uprising of 1956, but it had never been seen on stage. The Finnish National Opera considered the libretto be too political, and Finno–Soviet relations underwent a crisis in autumn 1958.

Right up until his final years, it was Rautavaara’s wish to have The Mine performed on stage. The opera has already been seen on television, and a critically acclaimed recording was recently released. A stage version is still being waited for – but not for long: its premiere will be in Budapest on 21 October 2016. Rautavaara got his wish.

The Fire Sermon – Einojuhani Rautavaara’s Life and Works by Samuli Tiikkaja was published in Finnish in 2014 by Teos.

Einojuhani Rautavaara

 Born in Helsinki on 9 October 1928 His father, Eino Rautavaara, was an opera singer. His mother, Elsa, was a physician.

 Studied at the University of Helsinki and the Sibelius Academy. Also studied in the United States, Switzerland and West Germany.

 Married to Mariaheidi Rautavaara from 1959 to 1984, with three children: Yrja, Markojuhani and Olof. Married Sini Rautavaara in 1984.

 Artist professor from 1971 to 1976. Professor of composition at the Sibelius Academy from 1976 to 1990.

 His extensive body of work includes eight symphonies, a large number of other orchestral works, thirteen concertos, numerous operas, choral works, songs for soloists and chamber music, among other works.

 Died on 27 July 2016 from post-operative complications.

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