Music: The Composer of the Angels

Robert Reilly recently spoke with Finland’s most popular composer, Einojuhani Rautavaara (b. 1928), several days after the week-long celebrations in Helsinki for Rautavaara’s 70th birthday on October 9. Rautavaara studied at Helsinki University and the Sibelius Academy. In 1955, a Koussevitzky Foundation award allowed Jean Sibelius to choose Rautavaara for a scholarship to study in the United States, which he did at the Juilliard School in New York. Once associated with an extreme form of modernism (he is the only Finnish composer to have written a completely serial symphony), Rautavaara has achieved broad celebrity well beyond Scandinavia through recent works that are almost embarrassingly beautiful. Reilly was able to explore with the composer his extraordinary musical sojourn that has produced seven symphonies, seven operas, and a multitude of other substantial works.

Reilly: Let’s start early in your career, when the great Jean Sibelius picked you as the most promising young Finnish composer. That must have been quite a weight to bear.

Rautavaara: It certainly was. On the other hand, many Finnish composers have felt that they were under his shadow. But I never really felt that way. Sibelius was very important, but I don’t think he influenced my music that much. Once, one of my operas was performed in Germany, and the critics there remarked that it was typical Nordic music in that the melodic line is eternal and expressive. This is a typical thing for Nordic composers. Maybe that is true about my music also.

Because of the grant Sibelius arranged for you, you were able to study in the United States with Aaron Copland, Vincent Persichetti, and Roger Sessions. I’ve tried to detect American influences in your music.

Did you find any?

Yes, but not from them. This may strike you as odd, but it’s Roy Harris I hear sometimes. You say your Seventh Symphony searches for its own form and finds it. That is very much the way that Roy Harris’s symphonies work, too. And the way you deploy these marvelous sheets of string and brass sound are redolent of him, though not in an imitative way, nor in so direct a way as you harken back to Bruckner in the Third Symphony.

Somebody has said that before. But it is impossible that Harris would have influenced me because I didn’t know his music well enough. It’s interesting to hear that again, though.

The other influence I hear, particularly in your wind writing in the symphonies, is from Norwegian composer Harald Saeverud. Did his music have any impact on you?

Yes, of course. His music has not been around for a long time now, but in the ’50s I really studied him and I liked him very, very much. And I think he was quite close to what I wanted to do at that time.

What about other influences? Composer Kalevi Aho talks about the influence of Prokofiev in the second movement of your First Symphony, of Stravinsky in one movement of your Second, and of Bruckner in your Third. Do you accept these descriptions?

Why not? Those were the masters that I studied very much and whose music I loved very much. Of course, there are signs of this in my way of writing. That’s very natural.

Speaking of your symphonies, Maestro, it has been often remarked that your styles are wildly heterogenous. And you said in an interview, I’m sure somewhat humorously, that you were a little shocked at the differences among them. Kalevi Aho has used Hegel’s “thesis and antithesis” to try to explain the large divergences in styles between one symphony and another. In a way, it’s typical for a young man to write full-throated, open-hearted, romantic music, and then, perhaps as he ages, to turn to a more harsh, hermetic, and sometimes dodecaphonic style. It seems that you have reversed this sequence of events. With your later music, you are writing this gorgeous, rich, melodious, romantic music, both in the Seventh Symphony and your recent String Quintet. That’s unusual.

I think so. The explanation may be that the only way for me to learn things was to write music in the techniques and styles I encountered. When I was young, I thought it was important to follow my time. So, I was a modernist. I was an avant-gardist. I was in the Darmstadt movement. And I wrote serialistic works. When I had more or less learned all those techniques, I realized that, if you follow your time, you come after it. You are not leading. The only way for me was to write the kind of music that I liked. That was the only criterion possible. I wrote the kind of music I wanted to hear at the moment. For instance, I learned the classical twelve-tone technique in my youth, and I wrote several such works. But there was always the problem that harmony was extremely important for me, so important that it was impossible for me to follow the path the avant-garde took in the late ’50s and ’60s. I had to keep harmony. But still, even today, I think that the twelve-tempered tones are the vocabulary of the composer in this century, and it’s only the question of syntax, of the organization of that vocabulary. My solution has been to seek a synthesis of the modern and of more or less tonal harmony.

In this country, many composers were completely under the influence of Schoenberg. However, many of the younger composers such as John Adams, who at one time were totally indoctrinated in serialism, turned against it. George Rochberg was one of the leaders in doing so. What’s curious is that, in almost every case, there was some profound personal experience in their lives that showed them the inadequacy of the serial technique to express real grief or joy. In Rochberg’s case, he lost his son. There was a death in the family of Ellen Zwillich that turned her against it. So, it’s curious that this inadequacy was discovered through these means. Has anything like that happened to you?

I can’t say I have had similar experiences, but I realized that I was not able to express myself according to the laws of Darmstadt, of serialism.

What was it you couldn’t express through those means?

I had an intuition to do it a certain way, and that idea was not possible to handle in terms of serialism. This force of intuition has grown more and more important for me with the years. Many claim that I am mysticizing my composing by saying that I am not the father or mother of my music, but a mediator helping it down from somewhere where it already exists.

In saying so, you certainly share Sibelius’s view of composition.

I do. What the music tells you to do, you have to do. I taught composition at the Sibelius Academy for about 30 years, and I often said to my students, “Please don’t force your music. Listen to your music when it starts to grow, and find out what it wants, because it’s so much wiser than you are.” Music is very wise, and it has its own will.

Sibelius made the marvelous remark about the composition of his Fifth Symphony that “it was as if God the Father had thrown down pieces of mosaic out of the heaven’s floor and asked me to solve how the picture once looked.”

That was a very beautiful metaphor, really, and I quite agree with him. In Thomas Mann’s wonderful essay on Wagner, he says that it is difficult not to believe that a work has a will of its own, for which its creator is just a tool for its becoming.

Maestro, you have spoken of your taste for eternity.

Yes, I’ve always been interested in metaphysical and religious texts and subjects.

What is your religious background?

Evangelic Lutheran, but my most important early experience was in the Monastery of Valamo, which is an Orthodox monastery. When I was ten years old I was taken there by my parents. It was 1939, the last summer when it was still possible, because today it belongs to Russia. In the Winter War, Russia occupied it and took it from Finland. But on that island monastery I had the deepest experience I’ve ever had. I was so young, and everything was so strange. All the ceremonies, all those bells and icons, the colors and the sounds. It was really a religious experience. It was very important for me.

That experience seems to have born fruit many years later in Vigilia (All-Night Vigil in Memory of St. John the Baptist) which is, vocally, extraordinarily beautiful. I wish to quote something that you said about Vigilia: It’s “a vast mosaic. In the midst stand two figures, St. John the Baptist and the Virgin, Mother of God. They are surrounded by the apostolic congregation and on the periphery—through the mystery of ecumenical unity—by all of Christendom and all of Western culture.” That’s a stunning statement. To me, that sounds like the mystical body of Christ.

Yes. I’ve written so much on different religious or metaphysical subjects. My first work was called Requiem in Our Time and then, later, Canticum Maria Virgines. I’ve been asked, are you very religious? And I found an answer in the citation from Friedrich Schleiermacher, the German theologian, from almost 200 years ago. He wrote, “Religiosity is an interest in an inclination to the infinite.” And I said, if that is a good definition, if this is really what religion is, then I am religious. I am not very much for churches and denominations. But I am for the infinite, absolutely. And religion, of course, is something we in Western culture cannot separate ourselves from, because I think Western culture, all of it, music and everything, is based on this dichotomy of two opposite forces, Greek philosophy and Christianity. These two are very different, very opposing, very inimical ideologies. They were united in the first millennium and became the core of Western culture. Therefore, Western culture is completely based on Greek philosophy and Christianity. We never escape from them, and because they are such opposing forces, it makes for an interesting culture.

Maestro, your openness to the infinite is shared in the United States by a number of composers, who feel the emptiness of our commercial, consumerist culture and the inherent inadequacy of the modernistic techniques, which you yourself turned from. They feel the need to reconnect with the musical traditions that, as you just said, fundamentally arose from a view that was synthesized from Hellenism and Christianity.

Yes, somehow this is in the character of our time. My basic conviction is that there are other kinds of realities, or rather I would say other kinds of consciousness, beyond rational concepts and words. I’ve expressed this in works with “angel” in the title, like Angels and Visitations, Angel of Light, and so on. There actually is no word for the concept “angel,” but, if you want, we can speak of angels. Music is a language where we can tell about those other realities almost with exactness, but without words. Therefore, music is much better.

So music is the language of angels?

It’s the language of angels, right.

You must find it quite ironic that you have been swept up in the contemporary angel craze, since you have been writing pieces like this for several decades.

It’s been somewhat embarrassing that angels have today, in the ’90s, become so fashionable that the image is banalized. What we see today is the angel of Christian kitsch, a pretty blonde in a nightgown, with the swan wings, and so on. But my musical angels were born in the ’70s when nobody spoke about angels. They were not fashionable at all. Angels and Visitations was the first work with “angel” in the title. Those angels were related to the angel from Rainer Maria Rilke, who said every angel is terrifying. It is an archetype for me.

You have had experiences, Maestro. Could you tell me whether they were dream experiences or otherwise? Was it a force you experienced, or was it a personal presence?

Really, it was a dream about an angel; I think it was an angel. I remembered it only in the ’70s, when I was already a grown man. I remembered then that Jacob, in the Bible, meets an angel and wrestles it all the night through. Then, I suddenly remembered that I had this dream when I was only seven or eight years old, a dream that was really a nightmare, coming to me night after night. I was scared because it was a huge, rather formless, gray and silent being, which came slowly towards me and took me in his arms, and I felt suffocated. I had to fight and wrestle with him. And, as I later thought, you are supposed to wrestle with your angel, as Jacob did in the Bible. When I remembered this dream some 40 years later, I understood that it really was a visitation, a revelation. This word, visitation, in English, means a revelation.

A revelation of what?

Things both positive and negative. And, therefore, those words, angels and visitations, stayed in my mind, repeating like a mantra, until somehow musical energy started to grow around those obstinate words, and I composed Angels and Visitations in 1978.

Can I ask you about some of the angel pieces? When I listen to your Third Symphony, it’s all of a piece. When I listen to the Seventh, I have the same feeling that I’m entering a world complete in itself. It’s unique. Now, in some of your angel evocations, events take place that don’t appear to grow out of the music. Some of these events sound catastrophic, random eruptions of violence that seem to arise from somewhere outside of the music and that intrude into it. Have I misread this, or is that what you’re trying to express?

I think that might be Angels and Visitations, where there are very opposite, very different, very contrasting things following each other. In the middle of a cantabile, there comes a very violent fortissimo, and so on. I don’t describe anything in that music, but the forces are so opposite, so inimical to each other in a way I simply couldn’t help. That’s the way they wanted to come to the music.

Speaking about your work as a symphonist, you wrote your first several symphonies in relatively quick succession. But after the Fourth Symphony, you didn’t write another one for 23 years. Why? Was it because the serialism in the Fourth Symphony brought you to a dead end, temporarily?

Yes. That is exactly what it was. I went so far, as far as it was possible to go, in this serialistic technique, and that was the Fourth Symphony. Then I realized, “No, this is not my way.” I knew after composing it that I didn’t want to go on in this direction because I felt like I was becoming a programmer instead of a composer. I was writing a nice, beautiful, more or less mathematical plan, a blueprint for a symphony that just has to be written with notes, and that was not interesting. That wasn’t fun anymore. It’s not composing; it’s something else. So, I turned completely away from it.

Maestro, as variegated as your styles have been, hearing the Seventh Symphony, I can now go back and listen to your earlier works and hear wisps of it. I can almost hear the Seventh coming, though not in the sense that I could have ever predicted it. But in the Third Symphony, even in the orchestral parts of the piano concerti, and certainly in some of the cantos, I can hear in gestation the Seventh, which seems to be such a marvelous summing up of a direction in which you were slowly headed. Is the Seventh a grand summing up for you?

Yes, I think every large composition is a summing up. What you say is very interesting and very true. For example, the Third Symphony is, in a way, a twelve-tone work, though nobody believes it. But the twelve-tone series is used all through it, and every note comes from the twelve-tone series, although there are things in it that are forbidden to the twelve-tone technique, like octaves and triads. In the very beginning of that symphony, there is the horn solo. And that horn solo goes through twelve chromatic tones. They are all there. That is the total twelve-tone row, but it is a melody, isn’t it? Beautiful melody. But to find a synthesis of harmony and modernism, that was my problem. And that is what I have been doing most of my life. I knew that this was the music of my time, but what I wanted to create, what I wanted to hear, was music that was emotional and beautiful.

Do you accept the description of yourself as a romantic?

I think I am. I’ve given this definition of a romantic: He’s one who is not right here, but somewhere else.

And where is that somewhere else?

Well, it’s either behind or in front of you, coming or gone.

Can it also be above you?

Also, that. That’s very important, certainly. And he is not right now; he’s in the past or in the future, either one.

I mentioned “above” because I wanted to close by speaking of your new string quintet, Unknown Heavens, which is such a beautiful work and very much of a piece with your Seventh Symphony. They’re almost matching pieces.

Yes, they are very close to each other and there’s only one year between them.

Are you going to continue to write in this kind of idiom?

I have just completed my third piano concerto for Vladimir Ashkenazy to play, as you will see. He will play this next year and record it.

Maestro, some of our readers will be encountering your music for the first time. Where do you think they should begin?

Maybe not from the beginning, as I have done, because it takes 70 years, but from the end—that is, from the late works, the Seventh Symphony and the Quintet.

Is that where you think you sound most like yourself?

Yes. At this moment I think so. Of course, you are different. If a composer writes exactly the same thing now as he did when he was 20 years old, then I think he is infantile, isn’t he? Something happens with a man in his life. And that must influence his creation, his writing.


  • Robert R. Reilly

    Robert R. Reilly has written for many publications, including The Wall Street Journal, Reader's Digest, The American Spectator, and National Review, and is the author or contributing author of over 20 books. His most recent book is America on Trial: A Defense of the Founding (Ignatius Press).

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