Describing the music is almost as difficult as describing the man. Rautavaara has an extensive output that covers nearly all genres: symphonies, concertos, operas, chamber music, solo songs, works for solo instruments, and choral works. He began his career in the neoclassical style that was the mainstream in Finnish music after the Second World War. In the 1950s, he took up dodecaphony and even dabbled in total serialism before turning to a free-tonal, neo-Romantic style in the 1970s. Despite these apparently abrupt shifts, however, his idiom is always recognizable, and the style of his late period is a synthesis of everything that has gone before. It can be a surprise to realize that his rich and sonorous neo-Romantic textures are actually governed by twelve-tone rows, as we shall see later.
It is impossible to be seriously involved in choral music in Finland and not come across Rautavaara’s music. Many of his pieces are choral household names, and not just in Finland—his Suite de Lorca is internationally one of the most popular Finnish choral works of all time. Yet he never had any particular ambition to write choral music, and the motivation for writing many of these works was financial desperation. In his free-form autobiography, Omakuva (‘Self-portrait’, 1989), he remarks: ‘I never considered myself a choral composer in particular, nor did I try to become one. But choirs were very active patrons of music in those days [the 1970s] and commissioned new works. My great choral works such as Vigilia and True & False Unicorn would never have been written without a choir taking the initiative, and many, ultimately innumerable choral works were written for a specific need, as competition pieces or for a choir tour.’ Another great a cappella choral work we might mention is the expansive and demanding sixteen-minute Katedralen.
Rautavaara has often compared composing to gardening. Both are about the observing and monitoring of organic growth, not so much about constructing or assembling from pre-existing parts and elements. Accordingly, in his output, pieces and genres feed on one another as he revisits and reshapes musical material from new aspects or for new purposes. A musical idea may emerge in a choral work and end up dovetailed into a symphony or an opera, or vice versa. For example, some of Rautavaara’s early piano music fed into his opera Aleksis Kivi, which in turn yielded the choral suite Halavan himmeän alla (‘In the shade of the willow’). It is illustrative of Rautavaara’s stylistic progress that when he revised a quasi-aleatoric orchestral work whimsically titled Regular Sets of Elements in a Semi-Regular Situation (1971), he named the revised version Garden of Spaces (2003).
from notes by Jaakko Mäntyjärvi © 2010