Composer  Einojuhani  Rautavaara
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


Einojuhani Rautavaara was born in Helsinki in 1928 and studied with Merikanto at the Helsinki Academy (1948-52), with Persichetti at the Juilliard School in New York (1955-56), and with Sessions and Copland at Tanglewood (1955). He first came to international attention in 1955 when the neo-classical A Requiem in Our Time for brass and percussion won the Thor Johnson Composer’s Competition in Cincinnati. He studied serialism and soon integrated twelve note techniques, without displacing his essential Romanticism. For instance, Symphony No.3 (1961) may be the first totally serial Finnish work, yet it is also a tribute to the symphonies of Bruckner, complete with Wagner tubas.

In the late 1960s Rautavaara distanced himself from serialism and his mystical character came more to the fore in music of rich colour and sweeping melodic profile, at once accessible and evocative. His operas have often explored issues of creativity and madness, such as Vincent (1986-87), Aleksis Kivi (1995-96) and Rasputin (2001-03), and his symphonies and concerti have increasingly been commissioned by orchestras outside his native Finland, including Symphony No.8 ‘The Journey’ (1999) for the Philadelphia Orchestra, a Harp Concerto (1999-2000) for the Minnesota Orchestra and a Clarinet Concerto (2001-02) for Richard Stoltzman and the National Symphony in Washington.

Recent works by Rautavaara include the orchestral work Tapestry of Life (2007), the concertos Incantations for percussionist Colin Currie (2008) and Towards the Horizon for cellist Truls Mork (2008-09), and Summer Thoughts (2008) toured by violinist Midori. His new Missa a cappella (2010-11) has performances scheduled in the Netherlands, Australia, the UK and Sweden.

Rautavaara's music has been recorded on the Ondine, Finlandia and Naxos labels and DVDs have been released of his operas The Gift of the Magi, Alexis Kivi and Rasputin.

Einojuhani Rautavaara is published by Boosey & Hawkes.

==  June 2011 - Reprinted by kind permission of Boosey & Hawkes  
==  Names on this page which are links refer to my interviews elsewheere on my website.  BD  

In this internet age, we think nothing of holding conversations across the globe via Skype and other modern marvels.  However, we need to remember that only a few years ago, a long-distance phone call from the U.S. to Europe was still a big deal.  Very early in the morning of June 5, 1996, I had the pleasure of telephoning Helsinki from my studio in Chicago for an interview with Einojuhani Rautavaara.  He is a significant composer, said to be the most important Finnish master after Sibelius.

When we spoke, his English was quite good, and his thoughts flowed smoothly.  Only once in awhile did he have to pause to think of the correct word which was needed to indicate his exact feeling, but he was able to convey his ideas clearly, and seemed pleased with the questions I posed.

Being in radio for so long, naturally I asked him immediately how to correctly pronounce his name . . . . .

Einojuhani Rautavaara:    AY-no-yoo-hah-nee ROW-tuh-vah-rah.  [Note:  AY rhymes with the letter a; ROW rhymes with how, not low.]

Bruce Duffie:    [Repeats is exactly as it was heard]

ER:    Right!  That's pretty good.

BD:    Thank you!  I've met several of your friends, including Ralf Gothóni and Jorma Hynninen.

ER:    [Pleasantly surprised]  Oh, you did!  Yesssss, yes!  Hynninen.  We will have again cooperation with him.  Right now I'm writing an opera where he will sing the main role next year in Savonlinna.

rautavaara BD:    Is it easier for you to write something when you have a specific performer in mind?

ER:    Certainly it is, and mostly it has been in the operas; it really has been Jorma Hynninen.  This is the third one he always had the leading role.  When I write for baritone I feel like writing for Jorma Hynninen.  I've been very happy to have him around.  In fact, this opera I'm writing now, Aleksis Kivi, about the Finnish writer of last century, we met with Jorma Hynninen at the airport of Helsinki.  He was coming from somewhere, and I was going somewhere, and we met for ten minutes and talked.  Suddenly he asked me, "Don't you think I rather look like Aleksis Kivi?"  He has the same kind of little beard, and his profile really reminds you of him.  I said, "Yes, yes," so he said, "What about writing an opera on him?"  I said, "What a wonderful idea; don't tell anybody else."  [Both laugh]  Then I started writing it.  When starting an opera, or any vocal work, I cannot always know who is going to do all the minor roles.  But I've been very happy to know the main role, and I write specifically for that voice.

BD:    If he had been a tenor rather than a baritone, would your writing style have changed?

ER:    It might be!  I would have written different kinds of operas with a tenor in main role.  That makes the opera different.

BD:    It sounds a little like your music is a victim of circumstance.

ER:    It very much is!  Everything in life is more or less a victim of coincidences.  They have been very important in my life, certainly, in many ways.

BD:    I can certainly understand it where you have a text and a singer, but what about absolute music, such as a symphony or perhaps even a concerto?  Does this reflect circumstances and coincidence?

ER:    Yes, in fact it does.  My latest symphony, the 7th Symphony, called Angel of Light, was first performed in Bloomington, Indiana.  The Bloomington Symphony Orchestra commissioned that work.  It just happened that the conductor, David Pickett, was going to be in Helsinki, and he called me wanting to know some details in Cantus Arcticus, a work he was going to conduct.  We met and talked, and that was fine.  Then we had some correspondence and suddenly he called me and asked would I write an orchestra work for the upcoming 25th jubilee of the Bloomington Symphony Orchestra.  So I said, "Yes, right now I don't feel like writing a short piece, an overture which you probably have in mind.  I would like to do something larger, like a symphony."  He said he would find out if it was possible.  So I did write the symphony.  I don't think I ever would have thought of it then without this coincidence of meeting Pickett and him wanting to commission this work.

BD:    Is it at all fate that you have now composed seven symphonies, just as your mentor, Sibelius had?

ER:    I think so.  I would probably have done something else, like this opera I'm writing now.  I would have started it earlier without the symphony, which has been important for me now.  There has been so much publicity about it.

BD:    Will you not compose an eighth symphony?

ER:    I'm sort of shy doing it.  Sibelius had seven, so why should I write more?  [Both laugh]  [Note: His 8th Symphony did appear a few years later.]

rautavaara BD:    When you're writing and you have the page in front of you, are you controlling the pencil, or does your pencil lead your hand to various places?

ER:    I've been accused for mysticism in my work as composer.  I've often said that I'm not the mother of my works, but kind of a midwife.  I've been ridiculed for that very much, and criticized, but really I always felt that the aspect of composing which is beyond rational control is very important; for me it's been especially important.  Lately I found a great writer, Thomas Mann, who seems to agree.  I read this wonderful essay he wrote on a Wagner work, where he says, "It's difficult not to think, not to believe in the kind of metaphysical will of the work; that the work wants to become.  The work thinks of the creator, the composer or writer, only as an instrument.  There is something to this, and I was very glad to find that Thomas Mann, whom I respect very much, seems to agree with me that there is something more to it!

BD:    Do you ever have a fight with the creative forces, when you want to go one place and it wants to go another?

ER:    When I was teaching composition at the Sibelius Academy, I used to warn my students, "Don't ever try to force your music, because music is very wise and it has its own will.  It knows where to go.  You have to listen to it, to listen your material which you have chosen.  Start with that and then the material will dictate where it wants to go.  It's much wiser than you are.  Don't push yourself, but try to find out what the music wants to become."  Maybe that doesn't work with everybody, but for me, with my temperament at least, it does.  I feel very humble in front of my music.  This idea came to me very, very early, when I had composed something that I felt was perfect!  That piece was exactly as it should be.  It was like an egg, that piece.  There was nothing to change, nothing to add, nothing to take away.  I had a very strong feeling that I wouldn't be able to make anything like that.  It must have been there, somewhere.  I have just helped it to come down, helped to realize it.

BD:    You were a conduit?

ER:    Yes, something like that.

BD:    Do you spend a lot of time ruminating about the piece before you even write the first note on the paper?

ER:    Very much indeed because it's very important to make the choice of the material which must be able to create that kind of work which I want to compose, and to define the starting point.  But there are different ways to create a composition.  I have a series of works with "Angel" in the titles, and I've been asked why I chose these fancy titles; people want to know if I want to make them easily noticed, and things like that.  I have always been rather embarrassed about these titles.  I did not invent them now; I started with the angels in '70s, before it was so fashionable as it is today!  Those titles were simply the starting point for the compositions, the impetus, the first source of the inspiration.  It came to the mind, Angel of Dusk, and I thought it's a wonderful pair of words.  It started repeating in my mind, like a mantra, and when it had been going on long, long time, then musical energy started to grow around those obstinate words, and it became music.  This is my theory.  I am sure it is like that in these cases
— Angels and Visitations, Angel of Dusk, and Playground for Angels.  I thought it would be more dignified to call them just Music for Orchestra, or Concerto, or Symphony and not to use these titles, but I felt I was obliged to; I owed them these titles because they have given the music to me.

BD:    You must make the audience come to you, and to your vision?

ER:    Yeah, maybe so.

BD:    Should you make the audience come to you and your vision, or is it your responsibility to go to them?

ER:    I have come to the conclusion in 40 years of composing that it would be hopeless to think of the audience with whatever it wants, and to try to write something which would be accepted by the audiences; if you do that it never really succeeds.

BD:    For whom do you write?

ER:    I'm writing for myself.  I'm afraid that I am very, very self-centered.  Personally, I've been so amazed when one of my works has been accepted and liked, and has gotten good reviews and so on.  The work itself is important.  Composing is so wonderful, I think that would be sufficient for me.  I would be quite happy if I am able to stay home and compose; what happens to the piece, after all, is not so terribly important.  When I started as a very young man, a young boy, actually, composing was kind of escapism for me.  But life was very hard; life is always difficult and chaotic when you are in your teens and even later.  I was very successful in school.  People were always telling me what to do and what not to do, like teachers and parents and so on.  In composing, I found a world where I was the master, where I could dictate the laws of what happens in this little tiny universe I was creating; and that was wonderful.  That was great.  Nobody could come and tell I was wrong, or I was good or bad.  This was my private world; this was my starting point in creating a universe for myself to live in.  That was composing for me.

BD:    Are we, then, intruding on your world by listening to your music?

ER:    No, I'm very happy if you listen to my music, and if audiences like it, it's good for my ego.  That's very nice, but it's not so terribly important.  It's not the most important thing.  The most important thing is the act of composing itself.  I couldn't live without it.  I've always said that even if I were put in jail, with no possibility to send any music out of it, I would still compose.  That's my way of existence.  Whichever the result, if people like it or not, I'm OK.  If they do it's wonderful, but I could live without it.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    You say you're the master of your world.  Do you allow any leeway for interpretation on the part of the performers, or do you want your pieces performed exactly as you've written them?

rautavaara ER:    I don't think so; I have always been very interested and happy if a performer finds a new way in a work I have written.  It's not a question of that.  When it comes out of my hands, it's not mine anymore.  It belongs to the performers, and if they find new aspects, I'm only glad.  I never want to push my ideas.  Of course, if the performance is bad, technically not sufficient, then I protest, but I have seven concertos for various instruments, and there you have to leave it to the performer; otherwise there's no idea.  So far it's been happy.  When I was young, I studied with Wladimir Vogel in Switzerland.  He was a fierce modernist, and I studied 12-tone with him.  He played two recordings for me of the Lyrische Suite by Alban Berg.  One recording was from beginning of '30s, and the second recording was from the current time, about '57, I suppose.  What a difference!  He said, "Listen what a difference there is; they are like different works."  In the old recording, the music was extremely modern and the performers hardly understood the language.  You can feel that it's good technically, a wonderful performance, but it doesn't speak the language.  Then the later performance is like the mother tongue of the performers; they feel it.  Both were acceptable; both were good performances, but they were entirely different because they were played in different times.  The same probably is true with Beethoven.

BD:    Will the same be true of your music 20, 40, 100 years from now?

ER:    Yes, if it exists then.  I'm happy if it will live.  There has been a lot of music
interesting music, good musicwhich has been completely forgotten, because there is something in that music which cannot be made interesting for a new feeling of the new time.  There are other pieces which can be understood even after 100 years, but I don't say they are better.  [Sighs audibly, then speaks wistfully]  We have been become different; we don't understand them anymore.

BD:    Let me ask the big question
what is the purpose of music?

ER:    That's a big question, yes.  It makes me think of the sentence by David Ruelle, who is a Belgian physicist and not a musician at all.  He said, "The existence of music is a permanent intellectual scandal."  He means that we can understand the message of music, but we cannot say what it means.  That message can be very exact.  In music, it is not a question only of emotions and feelings
they are there too — but it is a question of a certain kind of message.  That is why music is psychologically so important for so many people.  When they are in that terrible, chaotic state in their teens, the young person often notices he or she can process his situation and worldview in music!  A very, very primitive kind of musiclike heavy rockbelongs to that stage.  In that music, which is so popular, it's important for him because unconsciously, intuitively, he's processing his problems in life.  Later, it goes on with other kinds of music and with other kinds of questions about the meaning of life and the meaning of myself in this world.  You have to process those things, and you do it in music because, as Ruelle says, there is this message in music even if it is not expressible in words.  It is a question, and even that question mostly cannot be expressible in words; it's something else and it cannot be easily verbalized.  The question and that kind of answer can be found in music because music is something very intuitive in its concepts.

BD:    I assume that if it were expressible in words you'd write an essay rather than a symphony.

ER:    [Chuckles, clearly enjoying the idea]  Yeah.  When I'm writing music, maybe all this is in it, but I cannot take responsibility it.  This is what is meant when you say that "music touches me."  I find something in it; it's important for me.

BD:    Is that how you know the composition is ready to be launched, because it touches you all the way through?

ER:    Yes.  Of course I have to like it, at least!  I always wanted to write the kind of music I wanted to hear.  This was my way of knowing what I am going to write.  This is why I was a very fanatic modernist in the '50s.  I was in Darmstadt and I studied with Vogel, and I wrote serial compositions like my 4th Symphony.  But I couldn't go on that way, on that path, because that was not the kind of music I wanted to hear.  I didn't want to write that kind of music anymore because I saw that I would be in the position of a programmer
not a creator, but a programmer.  I had to plan all the serial aspects of the music, and that was not very interesting.  That was no fun anymore.  The harmony was always very important for me, and is still.  What I wanted was to try to find a synthesis.  I think that the twelve tempered tones are the music-vocabulary of this century, but the question is the organization of that vocabulary.  That is the great question, and my solution was to seek a synthesis of this modernism and tonal harmony, and to use personal variations of the 12-tone technique.  That kind of organization did not have anything to do with that of Schoenberg or Webern, but was my way of organizing those twelve tones in a way which led me to use the harmony in the way I wanted.  That was maybe the reason why I started to seek for a synthetic style.  For instance, in the beginning of the 7th Symphony, there goes on a series of minor chords for six or seven pages, but the roots of those chords follow a 12-tone row.  So I have both my beloved harmony and I have that vocabulary.  That is very typical for my work.

BD:    Have you basically been pleased with the performances you've heard of your works over the years?

ER:    All my symphonies have been recorded by Ondine.  Those recordings, conducted by Max Pommer in Leipzig, with the Leipzig Radio Orchestra, and then later with the Helsinki Philharmonic with Segerstam, have been perfect.  I really like those performances very much.

BD:    You use the word "perfect."  Is there such a thing as a perfect performance?

ER:    As I said earlier, I like different points of view, different aspects on the same work.  I'm happy that there are very different performances which I like, so in that sense there is no perfect performance.  For instance, Cantus Arcticus, the Concerto for Birds and Orchestra has been recorded many, many times, and the recording in Ondine by Pommer is very, very good indeed.  I like it very much.  But there is also a recording by BIS, the Swedish company, where the birds really are a soloist of the concerto.  They are much more in foreground, so it sounds really different, entirely different in the basic attitude to the music.  And that I love very much, too!

BD:    It sounds like there can be more than one perfect performance!

ER:    Yes.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    You continue writing, of course?

ER:    I continue writing.  I left my job as professor of composition at the Sibelius Academy in 1990, before my retiring age, because I thought that now I feel I can compose what I want.  Technically I know what to do, I know how it will sound when I write something after 40 years of studying, more or less.  I've always felt that I wanted to find new things and experiment.  All my compositions were studying and experimenting until the '80s, maybe, when I knew what to do and how it will sound.  I felt that before I am completely senile, I must use all those years for composing and not teaching.  That is what I am doing; I am writing quite a lot.  Right now I have that opera I mentioned for Savonlinna, and when that is finished there is a string quartet, my 5th String Quartet for the Kuhmo Festival.  [Note: It seems that Rautavaara never completed a String Quartet no. 5, but this projected work may have metamorphosed into his String Quintet: Unknown Heavens, which was premiered in Kuhmo in July of 1997.]  There are many, many things.  Unfortunately, when you are an "established composer," people and institutions know you, so you have so many commissions that you can choose, and do exactly what you would do without a commission.  That is the interesting thing to do! 

rautavaara BD:    You find the commission that fits what you wanted to do anyway?

ER:    I find one which is very inspiring, and I can always choose what I want to do at the moment.

BD:    Are you optimistic about the whole future of music?

ER:    [With a bit of hesitation]  I don't know...  Certainly there will be changes all the time.  Western music is typically "Western" in that it is Faustian.  It changes all the time, and it is dialectic so that the opposites come after each other.  That is a sign of strength!  It's been going on such a long time, and changing all the time.  I should say I'm optimistic for this Western culture.  I've been accused for this mysticism, for being fascinated with metaphysical and religious subjects and texts.  Still, I always say that I am not an Eastern, passive meditator.  I am definitely a European artist, a Faustian, dynamic artist.  That's what I am; I cannot help it.  Why?  Because this Western culture starts with opposites, from two entirely different things
from the ancient Greek philosophy, and on the other hand the Judaic-Christianity.  Those two opposites are united into European culture, and there is this polarity.  Two poles which are so opposed, so different as possible, and between them energy is born all the time.  This is the reason why I must be optimistic.

BD:    I'm glad you've been able to resolve the polarity, and then use the energy that comes from it.

ER:    [Ambivalently]  Yeah...  As long as I have been in music and in art, I've heard people say that we are in a zeitgeist where you can't go further anymore.  Music is in a problematic situation where we feel it is the end of history and there is always be found a way out of it, a new aspect.  Think of the '50s, when the art music was very modernistic and was dictated from Darmstadt.  Stockhausen and Boulez told you how you should write music, and that was the only way to write new music.  There was no other way, and this was the way to go.  It felt horrible, at last, because in every new music festival you heard the same works over and over, composed by different people from different nations.  It was impossible.  Then the contrast came, and in this dialectic style something entirely opposite came up.

BD:    I'm glad you always stuck to your guns by continuing to write only what you wanted to write.

ER:    Yes.  That was the only way to do it for me.  I didn't to those new music festivals.  I had seen that it was not for me; it was no fun anymore.  It was stuck; it was stagnation.  Then I went my own ways, and I hope I will continue to do that.

BD:    I hope that music continues always to be fun for you.

ER:    Yes!  That is important.  One thing I told my students at the Academy
when there were experimenting with horrible thingswas that basically you can do anything in your music if it's not boring.  That is not as superficial as it sounds because I never heard anything that was without technical knowledge.  I never heard a dilettantic work which would have been just good enough, but which could have been really interesting.  I told them, "You have to get the technical ability, to know all the tricks and all the methods and ways to write music.  Then take care that you are not boring!!!"  I also told them to write the kind of music you like yourself, not the things you hear at the music festivals.

BD:    I want to thank you for being a composer.

ER:    Thank you!  That is the only thing I know, and that's the only thing I want to do in this life.  I am very happy for my fate.

BD:    Good.  I appreciate your taking the time to talk with me, and I wish you lots more continued success.

ER:    It was a pleasure.


© 1996 Bruce Duffie

This interview was recorded on the telephone on June 5, 1996.  Portions (along with recordings) were used on WNIB ten days later, and again in 1998.  This transcription was made and posted on this website in 2012.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.  To read my thoughts on editing these interviews for print, as well as a few other interesting observations, click here.

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Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.