The Spin Doctor Europadisc's Weekly Column

Return to Finland: Rautavaara, Saariaho & Beyond

  17th April 2024

17th April 2024

Our previous visits to the music of Finland took us up to those composers born in the first decades of the 20th century, including Uuno Klami and Joonas Kokkonen. That generation brought Finnish music further away from its nationalist roots and the shadow of Sibelius, and closer to the modernism of the mid- and late 20th century. Now, on our final visit (at least for the time being), we look at two figures in particular who tackled some of modernism’s most advanced trends, and went beyond them to create outputs of distinctive originality.

Born in Helsinki just a few years after Kokkonen, Einojuhani Rautavaara (1928–2016) came from a musical household (his father was an opera singer and cantor), and initially started playing in a casual way. After the deaths of both his parents, he began more formal tuition at the University of Helsinki, and then entered the Sibelius Academy to study composition with Aarre Merikanto. Rautavaara’s earliest compositions were in the neoclassical vein still fashionable in the immediate post-war years, but it was on the recommendation of the elderly Sibelius himself that he gained a scholarship at New York’s Juilliard School. Following his graduation from the Sibelius Academy in 1957 he undertook further studies in Cologne with Rudolf Petzold, and by the time he gained a more stable footing in his native Helsinki he had embraced the then-dominant serialism of the European avant garde, albeit in a rather selective manner, closer to Berg than to Webern or Boulez.

In the 1970s Rautavaara’s took on a more neo-Romantic flavour, and he began composing a series of biographical operas, two of which were based on subjects from the Finnish national epic, the Kalevala. (Later subjects included Vincent van Gogh and Rasputin, as well as historic Finnish themes.) Even at this time, Rautavaara had begun thinking in terms of a broader stylistic synthesis, and this characterised his prolific output from the 1980s onwards. His music spanned a wide variety of genres, from symphonies and concertos, choral music and opera to chamber and solo instrumental works. Despite health problems in later life, Rautavaara remained highly productive well into old age, and his orchestral and choral works in particular gained wide international appeal.

Of Rautavaara’s eight symphonies, it is undoubtedly the Seventh, subtitled ‘Angel of Light’ (1994), which gained widest acclaim – one of several pieces in a series of ‘angelic’ works which demonstrate the mystical preoccupations of his later music. Of the three recordings currently available, those by Leif Segerstam and the Helsinki Philharmonic on Ondine (1995) and Osmo Vänskä with the Lahti Symphony Orchestra (1999) do most justice to its delicately-hued neo-Romantic colours. For a broader representation of Rautavaara’s stylistic range, however, try the award-warning Ondine disc of percussion and cello concertos (‘Incantations’ and ‘Towards the Horizon’ of 2008 and 2009 respectively) coupled with the grittier textures of the earlier Modificata (1957, rev. 2003). Both the concertos have passages in that hymn-like dissonant homophony that makes much of this composer’s later music so compelling.

Rautavaara was not the only Finnish composer to take what he needed from European modernism in fashioning his own distinctive musical style. Another outstanding example is the late Kaija Saariaho (1952–2023), who overcame early prejudices against the mere notion of women composers, to be regarded as one of the finest composers of her generation, regardless of sex or nationality. After early studies in Helsinki (at the same institutions that Rautavaara had attended a generation previously), she attended the Hochschule für Musik in Freiburg, Germany, but ultimately rejected the strict serialism emphasised by her teachers Brian Ferneyhough and Klaus Huber. At Darmstadt in the summer of 1980 she encountered the music of French spectralists Tristan Murail and Gérard Grisey, and within two years she was working at IRCAM in Paris (where she was to make her home), using computers to analyse the sound-spectrum of individual notes.

The influence of this introduction to spectral music on Saariaho’s works was profound, and they are dominated by the combination of acoustic and electronic sound sources. Her output, like Rautavaara’s, is wide-ranging, from operas, orchestral and choral works to pieces for more modest forces. But where most of Rautavaara’s music still bore the impress – however faint – of more classical forms, Saariaho’s is far less formalised. To what extent it qualifies as ‘Finnish’ is debatable, although she has set many Finnish texts, as well as French ones. Yet the extreme sensibility to timbral shading could arguably be traced back to the later masterpieces of Sibelius, while the uncompromising nature of Saariaho’s music (such as the engulfing 40-minute diptych Du Cristal … à la fumée of 1989–90) shows a serious and fruitful engagement with the boldest trends of the postwar avant garde.

As well as Du Cristal … à la fumée (on the Ondine label), other discs of Saariaho’s music well worth investigating include ‘Reconnaissance’ (an absorbing 2023 BIS album of choral works to French and German texts), and a portrait album from the same label including Verblendungen (1984) – her earliest work to combine orchestra with tape. Saariaho’s death at the age of 70 was a grievous loss to the world of contemporary music, but her immersively involving output illustrates vividly just how far Finnish music has come in the past century-and-a-half, from a relative outlier, its gaze fixed firmly upon questions of national identity, landscape and heritage, to a major player in European art music.

The music of Saariaho’s surviving contemporaries – including Aulis Sallinen, Kalevi Aho, Magnus Lindberg and Esa-Pekka Salonen, not to mention many younger names – is fabulously varied, and much of it demonstrates that seamless interaction between ‘high’ culture and more popular musical traditions (folk, rock, etc.) which Nordic musicians seem able to effect with such ease. In these times where a narrowly ‘purist’ view of classical music seems increasingly problematic, Finnish music and culture still has much to teach us…

Recommended recordings:

Angel of Light (Lahti SO / Vänskä) BISCD1038
Angel of Light (Helsinki PO / Segerstam) ODE8692
Modificata, Incantations, Towards the Horizon (Helsinki PO / Storgårds) ODE11782

Du Cristal … à la fumée (Los Angeles PO / Salonen) ODE10472
Reconnaissance: Choral Music (Helsinki Chamber Choir / Schweckendiek) BIS2662
A Portrait of Kaija Saariaho (Finnish RSO / Salonen) BISCD307

Previous artitles on music from Finland:

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