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Rautavaara was one of the best known Finnish composers of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. His works receive frequent international performances. His style ranges from mysticism to serialism and everything in-between, though he was a romantic by nature.
Rautavaara began studying the piano at the age of 17 and later studied musicology at the University of Helsinki, where he graduated in 1952. He then studied composition at the Sibelius Academy with Aarre Merikanto, graduating in 1957. He received a scholarship from the Koussevitsky Foundation through Jean Sibelius to study in the United States. After completing his studies in Finland, Rautavaara went to the Julliard School of Music in New York to study with Vincent Persichetti. He also attended Tanglewood during the summer, where he studied with Roger Sessions and Aaron Copland. Rautavaraa then went to Switzerland to study with Wladimir Vogel in Ascona. The following year he studied with Rudolf Petzold in Cologne.
In 1966, Rautavaara was appointed lecturer at the Sibelius Academy. He was also later appointed artist professor and professor of composition.
Rautavaara’s music spans many styles and genres, beginning with his student years, which were dominated by Stravinsky’s neo-classical influence. This is especially noticeable in the award winningA Requiem in Our Time (1953), which received the first prize in the Thor Johnson Competition. During this period, the influence of Bartók was also present in his use of folk songs, mostly from the Ostrobothnian region of western Finland; this can be heard in the piano suitePelimannit (‘The Fiddlers’, 1952). His use of folk songs returns occasionally throughout his career. Mysticism is also present in Rautavaara’s early works. Motor-rhythms are a key feature of his music.
When the international trend of serialism entered Finland in the early 1950s, Rautavaara’s curiosity was piqued. He used serialism to determine the rhythm and form of his orchestral workPraevariata (1957) and to determine the intervals, rhythm, timbre and dynamics ofArabescata (1963). Rautavaara was the first Finnish composer to apply that degree of serialism to any piece.
Despite his use of serialism, Rautavaara didn’t lose sight of his romantic side and composed what he calls ‘non-atonal dodecaphony’. These works, inspired by Alban Berg, include the Second String Quartet (1958) and the operaKaivos (‘The Mine’, 1957-60). His Third Symphony (1961) provides a fully tonal example, reminiscent of Bruckner.
After his experiments with serialism, Rautavaara entered a period of stylistic pluralism, or new romanticism in the late 1960s. During this period his goal was to combine modern with traditional. Works from this period reflect his preference for tonality. Jazz is used in many works of this period, including in the comic ‘opera-musical’Apollo ja Marsyas (1970). In this stage work, the jazz style represents the vulgar side of music. In the cantataTrue and False Unicorn(1971), he uses not only jazz, but motifs and rhythms inspired by American musicals, many national anthems and a taped interlude. Another use of the tape is found in hisCantus arcticus (1972), a popular concerto for taped birdsong and orchestra. For this work, Rautavaara recorded the birdsongs himself.
Further variety is found in his choral works, many of which use archaic liturgical chant, the first of which is the OrthodoxVigilia (1971-2). He presents his philosophy in five languages inElämän kirja (‘A Book of Life’, 1972). He used the Finnish epic poetry Kalevala as the basis for Marjatta matala neiti (‘Marjatta the Lowly Maid’, 1975) and Runo 42: Sammon ryöstö (‘Canto 42: The Rape of the Sampo’, 1974). The majority of Rautavaara’s works use his own text and librettos.
Rautavaara’s instrumental music includes his piano sonatas, subtitled Kristus ja kalastajat: ‘Christ and the Fishermen’ and Tulisaarna: ‘The Fire Sermon’ (1969-70). He has also composed many concertos, a genre which fascinates him. Within this genre he has also experimented greatly with timbre, tonality and aleatory techniques. These experimentations can be found in Music for Upright Piano and Amplified Cello (1976) and the organ concertoAnnunciations (1976).
Rautavaara’s interest in aleatory techniques is most obvious in his orchestral works, which often feature mystic and dense textures of repeated figures for the strings or woodwinds. From this chaotic-like state waves are formed, creating drama which leads the way to brass chorales. His use of varying textures is prominent in his ‘angel trilogy’ (Angels and Visitations, 1978, double bass concertoAngel of Dusk, 1980, and the Fifth Symphony, 1985). It is also in this trilogy that his synthesis of styles emerges as one unique style all of his own. Other examples of this synthesis include the Seventh Symphony ( Angel of Light, 1994) and the opera Thomas (1982-5), which is similar in nature to a sacred oratorio.
The opera Vincent (1986-7) contains much drama, unlike its predecessor Thomas. This work, which depicts the life of Van Gogh, was the basis of his Sixth Symphony,Vincentiana (1992). The symphony borrows many ideas and themes from the opera, a trait that is common for Rautavaara.
Rautavaara’s output includes eight symphonies, of which the seventh (Angel of Light) is the most frequently performed. Symphony No. 8 (The Journey) was premiered in the spring of 2000 by The Philadelphia Orchestra under the direction of Wolfgang Sawallisch. His concertos include three for piano, a popular Violin Conceto (1977) and also one for Harp (2000) and Clarinet (2001-2). His chamber music output is vast and includes the string quintets Variations for Five(2013) and String Quintet (1997), a fanfare for six bassoons Fanfara per Fagotti(2010), several works for flute and string quartet, many works for brass includingPlaygrounds for Angels (1981). He also composed for a wide variety of solo instruments including the organ, guitar, trumpet, piano, violin and cello.
Rautavaara has achieved much success with his late stage works, including Rasputin(2001-2003), Aleksis Kivi (1995-1996), Tietäjien lahja (‘The Gift of the Magi, 1994-1995) andAuringon talo (‘The House of the Sun’, 1989-1990).
Rautavaara’s last works include Rubáiyát (2014) for voice and orchestra, Variations for Five(2013), Into the heart of light (2011) for string orchestra.