The news of the passing of one of Finland’s greatest composers was slow to filter out into the world, and even slower for people to get a grasp of the fact that this man, who has been called “A Giant of Beauty”, had actually died. He was 87 years of age and had become one of the leading lights in Scandinavian and Baltic contemporary music over the years. He was a luminary in what is slowly becoming known as the Baltic Spiritualist, or Baltic Minimalist, group.
His music had grown out of the avant-garde of the 1950’s and 1960’s, a period in music which had a great impact on composers. Some began to question its ideals and attitudes and began looking for an alternative to what they saw as its alienating language. Rautavaara was one such composer who began to search for a new mode of expression, along with the likes of Arvo Pärt, Pēteris Vasks, Henryk Górecki, Wojciech Kilar and others in this part of Europe.
He, like the others, found the solution in an almost ultra-simplistic language that harked back to tonal sounds and harmonies, but without strict structuring along more traditional lines. The music became atmospheric, and almost ambient at times, allowing many of the composers in this region to imbue their music with the light and colours of their native lands. His was a musical soul that had been hinted at in the works of Sibelius, Nielsen, Simonsen, Eller, Pettersson and Holmboe, but this time round had a full and strong Baltic influence that the previous generations had not imagined.
Rautavarra studied music with one of Finland’s most modernist composers, Aarre Merikanto (who had also taught the likes of Aulis Sallinen and Paavo Heininen). At first he accepted the use of 12 tone composition techniques but, as time progressed, he found this limiting and alienating to audiences and began to find a new path that would stay true to his modernist/avant-garde credentials but which would also allow him to express the world that he saw around him, in its beauty and natural essences. He wished to create a new Finnish language that expressed these things, but actually ended up creating a Baltic nationalism that was expressed in his large scale symphonies and concertos.
Personally, I first came across his music in the early 1980’s when the Finnish CD label Ondine put out a recording of his first three symphonies. This was serial music but imbued with the Aurora Borealis, like nothing that I had ever heard and, as I was well into the Manchester school and the Darmstadt Group at the time, it perplexed me and confused me as to where it stood in contemporary music of the day. It was fresh and open, speaking of big expanses of sky and lakes, in a way most of the music being written then did not, and could not. At the time, I rejected it as being old fashioned and irrelevant. However, as tastes changed the Baltic Spiritualists began to come to the fore with the music of Pärt, Vasks, and others. Rautavarra’s name once again cropped up with Cantus Arcticus: Concerto for Birds and Orchestra, probably his most famous piece, and this time it convinced me that here was a man to learn about colour and light from.
This one work alone is astonishing in its simplicity of idea and concept, and yet eloquent in execution with skillful use of material. It is based on bird calls found in the lakes of his native Finland that are recorded and played back as part of the work. These are then used as another layer of texture and colour within the orchestral palette. It does not use traditional keys but a modality that stems from the bird songs themselves and this therefore reflects the nature that he knew so well and loved. Nature is in the key of atonality and bears no connection to manmade controls, and so this composition works on a level that speaks to our natural rhythms and sensibilities outside that of society. It is a work of wonderful contrasts and subtleties that has no real time, no real structure other than nature and its own slowly evolving senses. A work of pure and honest love by Rautavaara and is a form of homage to what he knew and understood best. A true colour of genius and beauty in a wonderfully varied score.
His other works are very often on the Sibelian scale in grand orchestral terms and his other famous work is his Symphony No.7 “Angel of Light” written in 1994 and originally known as “The Bloomington Symphony” in honour of it being commissioned to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the founding of the Bloomington Symphony Orchestra in Indiana, USA. It belongs to his “Angel Series” of works that are inspired by childhood dreams and revelations. The symphony has gained wide popularity for its deep spirituality since its premiere.
His Harp Concerto, while not gaining the recognition it rightly deserves outside of the Scandinavian world, should be much more widely recognised for the great beauty it contains and, although it is not a ‘showy’ work, it stands as one of the finest harp concertos of the times.
Discover the music of this fascinating composer and his influence on the post-modernist ideal and its thoughts. He may not still be a household name but his music will always remain with you.
Also published on Medium.