Dayton Hare: A Rautavaara Retrospective

Thursday, October 27, 2016 - 5:10pm

I have a confession to make: I should have written this a long time ago. And I’ve been thinking about doing so for months now, balancing on the edge between action and inaction, resolution and hesitance. But I waited, caught up in the tide of life, busy with study and art. About a week ago, I realized that I should wait for a very specific amount of time. I should wait until now. Today is almost exactly three months to the day since the Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara died, and I have some things to say.

There is a running joke of sorts amongst some of my colleagues at The Michigan Daily — namely, it’s often remarked that I’m the person who can be relied upon to write about dead composers. This is undeniably true — after all, with my strong interest in classical music, I write an awful lot about composers who have been dead for decades or more. But this isn’t what they mean when they say I write about dead composers. They mean that I write about our world’s recently deceased artists, the composers who were among us and then suddenly aren’t anymore. And I suppose I’m well-suited for it, having both the requisite knowledge base and the melancholic temperament. Last winter I wrote about Boulez and Bassett, feeling that they were people who deserved a moment of our attention, a little piece of silence away from the noise of existence. When I heard of Rautavaara’s death, this summer I knew that he deserved the same.

I wouldn’t characterize Rautavaara as an extremely popular or well-known composer, but among those who were familiar with his work, he was loved. When I heard of his death this summer, I was in Paris studying music with a number of fellow composers — unsurprisingly, that night there was a large section of dinner-table conversation dedicated to Rautavaara, and among us there wasn’t a single negative opinion. Such was the breadth of his appeal; within a group of composers, a disparate handful with interests and aesthetics ranging from modernism to minimalism to traditional tonalism, Rautavaara had something for everyone. And I think this is because, over the course of his 87 years, it was almost as if Rautavaara was several different composers.

Not everyone knows this, but the word “retrospective” actually has two definitions. The first is common usage of “looking back,” but the second deals specifically with surveying the life’s work of a particular artist. In Rautavaara’s case, there is a lot to talk about. Ever evolving, Rautavaara wrote both music that is atonal and serialist, and music that is lusciously tonal and Romantic in sentiment. But, at least to my ears, one of the most striking aspects of Rautavaara’s music is its remarkable Finnishness.

Finland isn’t famous for its composers — over the course of its history, there have been maybe only a handful who have entered the mass consciousness of what we’d call Western civilization. Even I, with a significantly larger than average knowledge of the field, can name only a few, most of whom are active today (including Kaija Saariaho, whom I adore and wholly recommend seeking out). The titan of Finnish classical music is the great symphonist Jean Sibelius, and it was this “greatest Finnish composer” who was an early champion of a young Rautavaara’s work, a man who in recent weeks has been lauded as “the greatest Finnish composer since Sibelius.” Taking these two greats together, though focusing on the latter, one can hear some of the fundamental characteristics of Finnish classical.

Finland is a country caught between worlds. A nation associated with — yet distinct from — Scandinavian culture, it also bears strong influences from its eastern neighbor, Russia. At the crossroads of the Cold War, Finland balanced in an awkward position of neutrality, remaining independent of both NATO and the Warsaw Pact while the Soviet Union simultaneously stuck its hands into Finland’s politics. German politicians of the day even coined a neologism for this type of practice — Finlandization. On top of all that, Finland counterintuitively speaks a language whose closest relative is Hungarian.

All of this can be heard in Rautavaara’s music. Or at least, in an abstract sense it can be. Like his compatriot Sibelius, Rautavaara composed large-scale orchestral works in the dramatic vein of the great German symphonists (Brahms, Bruckner, Mahler and the like) that also embraced a sound world that is often described as a “brooding Nordic atmosphere.”

But when listening to a work like “Symphony No. 7, ‘Angel of Light’ ” for instance, one can’t help but notice a striking similarity to the Soviet composer Dmitri Shostakovich in the orchestrations and colors. You can find this sort of cross-cultural influence everywhere. Rautavaara’s early opera “Kaivos” is loosely based on Soviet policy during the Hungarian uprising of 1956, but its musical language is distinctly Western — throughout the opera, he sounds quite close to the aesthetic of the Second Viennese School, a manner of writing that at that time was dominant in European and American universities, yet never took hold in Russia. Specifically, he reminds one of the supple and expressive atonality of Berg, and he was directed influenced by Schoenberg’s opera “Moses und Aron.”

Rautavaara himself was well aware of this dichotomy — writing in the foreword to the score for his “Missa a cappella,” he notes “I was born and live in a country on the borderline between East and West: Finland, between the Orthodox and Roman Catholic/Lutheran religions.” The reason he includes mention of this in the score for a mass was because he had already written an Orthodox Vigil. To balance this with a piece of Catholicism seemed only fitting.

But whatever the pushes and pulls on his music are, no matter what you listen to, it remains uniquely his own. Despite the numerous influences, when you listen to Rautavaara, it is always Rautavaara as an individual you hear. Whether you put on Rautavaara the modernist, or Rautavaara the neo-Romantic tonalist, it’s always his voice. From the bleakness of “Kaivos” to the sweeping drama of “Piano Concerto No. 1,” to his concerto for arctic birds, “Cantus Arcticus,” Rautavaara remains Rautavaara. And he will be missed.

Suggested Listening:

“Piano Concerto No. 1”

“Cantus Arcticus”

“Cello Concerto No. 1”

“Cello Concerto No. 2, ‘Towards the Horizon’ ”

“Symphony No. 7, ‘Angel of Light’ ”

“Missa a cappella”