Einojuhani Rautavaara, often hailed as Finland's finest composer since Jean Sibelius, has died at age 87. The Associated Press reports that Rautavaara died Wednesday in Helsinki after complications from hip surgery.
A prolific artist, Rautavaara produced a wide range of works including nine operas, eight symphonies, numerous concertos, choral works and chamber music.
He was also versatile. In the 1950s, he dabbled in a kind of Stravinskian neoclassical sound. The 1960s brought about experiments in 12-tone techniques, while the following decade found elements of jazz and romanticism entering his music. His 1972 orchestral work Cantus arcticus has become a signature piece, featuring birdcalls he recorded himself in northern Finland. A trilogy of so-called "Angel" works, culminating with the Seventh Symphony ("Angel of Light"), introduced a melodically accessible and mystical final phase of Rautavaara's music.
Rautavaara was born Oct. 9, 1928 in Helsinki. He started as a pianist and musicology student at the University of Helsinki, receiving a second degree in composition from the Sibelius Academy. In the 1950s, Sibelius, the father figure of Finnish music, called Rautavaara the most promising young composer in Finland and facilitated studies at Juilliard and Tanglewood with Aaron Copland and Roger Sessions.
"Maybe the most important experience was to live in Manhattan," Rautavaara told NPR in 1998. "It taught much more about life to me than all those teachers about music." In 2004, Rautavaara paid tribute to his New York days with an orchestral work, Manhattan Trilogy.
Rautavaara became a teacher himself — a lecturer, then a professor at the Sibelius Academy. Minnesota Orchestra Music Director Osmo Vänskä, who knew Rautavaara and conducts his works, says the composer was not a disciplinarian when it came to playing his music.
"He always listened to the opinions of the performers," Vänskä said in a telephone conversation Thursday. "He wanted to give very free hands for you to find your way."
One of Rautavaara's first stylistic changes came in the mid-1960s, after the Fourth Symphony. "He was a tighter-minded composer in the 1950s," Vänskä said. "He felt that he had just done enough with that type of serial music and wanted to open his mind."
Another shift came in the 1980s, when he found his second wife. "It was obvious the second marriage changed his life," Vänskä said. "That was a happy time in his life and you can hear that in his music."
Although Rautavaara's music routinely took on a serious tone, he cultivated a sense of humor.
The "Angel of Light" symphony was about angels, but Vänskä recalled the composer explaining, "We have to remember that there are not only white angels but there are black angels too," and tacking on an evil little cackle. The symphony was commissioned by the Bloomington Symphony Orchestra and premiered in 1995. Four years later Rautavaara fulfilled another American commission, composing his Eighth Symphony for the centenary of the Philadelphia Orchestra.
With an assortment of styles over many decades where does someone new to Rautavaara's music start? Vänskä has some ideas. From the earlier works, Vänskä recommends A Requiem in Our Time, a piece for brass ensemble that won the Thor Johnson Contest in 1954 and brought the composer some international acclaim. "It's a piece I've conducted many times," Vänskä says. "It has this kind of drama, but it's always speaking to the audience."
Vänskä's favorite remains the Cantus arcticus: "It's such a revolutionary idea, to go and record the birds and make them perform with an orchestra in a concert hall."
In 2004, Rautavaara nearly died from a torn aorta, spending months in a hospital. He eventually rebounded, saying his commissions were keeping him alive. Along with many commissions, Rautavaara had strong support from the Finnish government, which named him an arts professor and paid him not to teach but only to compose.
In 2000, sitting in his garden outside Helsinki, Rautavaara told NPR that what really fueled his music was passion. "To be a composer, you have to be a fanatic," he said. "You have to feel that composing is your mode of existence."
Rautavaara was working on a new opera when he died. He is survived by his wife, soprano Sinikka Rautaavara, and three children.