Remembering Rautavaara and His Music

Today I learned some sad news—the passing of Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara at age 87.  I’m saddened by the loss, as he was not just a brilliant composer, but one of my favorites.  Long-time readers may remember that I’ve referenced his music many times here on my blog, and included his Angel of Light symphony on my list of the greatest works of the 20th century.

I first ran across his music through a recording of his breakout hit, Symphony No. 7, Angel of Light.  It was one of those gripping works that, while thoroughly modern, was written in a thoroughly approachable manner and contained a profound, palpable spirituality.  I started tracking down other works, which was made easy by the heroic efforts of the Finnish label Ondine—a company committed to releasing recordings of his new works nearly as soon as the ink was dry on the page.

As I’ve mentioned before, I had the good fortune to hear the world premiere of his Harp Concerto in 2000, performed by none other the Osmo Vänskä and the Minnesota Orchestra.  It was Osmo’s first performance with the Orchestra, some years before being appointed Music Director.  The inclusion of a world premiere by one of my favorite composers, coupled with a performance of Sibelius’s Sixth Symphony (one of my all-time favorite works of music) sealed the deal for me; even though I was living in Kansas at the time, I drove eight hours each way to hear the concert, and felt it was more than worth it.

Rautavaara’s career spanned many decades, and encompassed many different styles. To honor his life and music, allow me to share a few recommendations, for those who might wish to know him better.

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Symphony No. 7, Angel of Light As I mentioned before, this work makes a powerful statement that the symphony is hardly dead—great works are still being written, and they are still finding an audience. In fact, this symphony sparked a renewed interest in this composer’s body of work. Luminous, thrilling, and profoundly moving, it has more than earned its popularity.

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Symphony No. 8, The Journey Commissioned by the Philadelphia Orchestra, this work is again a stunner that straddles the line between being romantic and modern. Gramophone magazine hailed it as “a craggy‚ organic‚ frequently sensual and mostly tonal essay‚ a calming listen and light years removed from the restless ‘isms’ of the avant­garde.”

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Symphony No. 3.  This is a most curious work—a symphony assembled by twelve-tone techniques that still manages to sound closer to Bruckner than Schoenberg.  It also has the benefit of being a sunny, optimistic work.  I wish it were better known, as I think many people would fall under its spell.

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Vigilia.  What an astonishing work!  In describing the music, Rautavaara noted that he was inspired by a boyhood trip to an isolated Orthodox monastery.  Decades later, the experience, and the otherworldly music, continued to haunt him. Ultimately, he created the a cappella “All-Night Vigil in Memory of St John the Baptist” as part of a joint commission from the Helsinki Festival and the Finnish Orthodox Church; the original Evening and Morning Services date from 1971 and 1972, respectively, with this concert version following later. It has superficial similarities to Rachmaninoff’s famous All-Night Vigil (or Vespers), but it is a bold, modern work all its own, with fascinating vocal effects.

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On the Last Frontier.  Again… what an astonishing work.  Based on The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym by Edgar Allen Poe, this is a work for chorus and orchestra that tells of a journey into unknown regions.  Dramatic, thrilling, metaphysical and vaguely terrifying, this is a work I would kill to sing.

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Requiem in Our Time This work for brass ensemble was one of Rautavarra’s first break-out successes, written in 1953.  Rautavaara was clear that the title was meant to imply it was a modern interpretation on an ancient ritual—it was not meant to be an apocalyptic reference to a requiem for our time.   Again, although the work is an early one, it is powerfully infused with the composer’s hallmark sense of questing faith and spirituality.

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Cantus Arcticus Another international hit, this work is a concerto for birdsong and orchestra. Rautavaara recorded the sounds of various birds in flight and created a lush orchestral rhapsody to engulf them.  The rushing of the migratory swans at the end is… quite beyond words.

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Rasputin Rautavaara composed many operas over his career.  Perhaps the most sensational is Rasputin, dealing with the Russian imperial family on the eve of the Revolution.  As Opera Today describes it, it “takes its place in the Faustian tradition as an innovative portrait of a malevolent but charismatic figure and the havoc he wreaks in a society of false piety.”  This is a modern masterpiece.

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Piano Concerto No. 3, Gift of Dreams This outstanding work has an interesting origin.  Famed pianist and conductor Vladamir Ashkenazy commissioned it as a concerto he could conduct from the keyboard as the soloist.  Rautavaara embraced the challenge, and created a work of stunning luminosity.

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Anadyomene (“Adoration of Aphrodite”) This gorgeous tone poem also has an unusual origin story.  Rautavaara first set out to write a twelve-tone work inspired on Finnigan’s Wake.  But as he describes it, as he soon learned that the music had no interest in being locked into the strict constraints of serialism, and demanded to go in other directions.  Ultimately, it morphed into a very different work, rising like Aphrodite from a swirl of sea foam.  In its new form, it celebrates the idea of creation.

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There are many other options to explore, including concertos for violin, flute, cello and percussion, as well as a rich legacy of symphonies, orchestral works and vocal music.  Please explore them—you will not be sorry.

Rest in peace, maestro.

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Xochipilli

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One thought on “Remembering Rautavaara and His Music

  1. Thank you for the recommendations! I woke to the news this morning, accompanied by some of his music but I don’t recall what it was. I liked it, though. So, I’m bookmarking this post! Thank you! cinda

    Like

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