Into the mystic – Einojuhani Rautavaara

‘The subconscious is the best friend a composer has.’ Einojuhani Rautavaara



Most musicians, I suspect, have a ‘best friend they never had’, a composer or performer present or past with whom they feel a spiritual affinity, even intimacy, without ever having met them personally. In my own case I like to think of Olivier Messiaen in this way, as although I heard him play the organ at the Paris church of La Trinité on a number of occasions and have since learnt an almost embarrassing amount about his life through reading the work of fellow Messiaen scholars, I never studied with or even saw him face-to-face, having arrived in Paris a few years after his retirement from teaching. This will always remain one of my great regrets; I can relate to the sentiments expressed by Arvo Pärt when hearing of the death of Benjamin Britten in 1976 which inspired his own Cantus in memory of the English composer he realized that he would never meet:

‘In the past years we have had many losses in the world of music to mourn. Why did the date of Benjamin Britten’s death — December 4, 1976 — touch such a chord in me? During this time I was obviously at the point where I could recognise the magnitude of such a loss. Inexplicable feelings of guilt, more than that even, arose in me. I had just discovered Britten for myself. Just before his death I began to appreciate the unusual purity of his music [..] And besides, for a long time I had wanted to meet Britten personally — and now it would not come to that.’[1]

Although I consider myself extremely privileged to have met Pärt himself on a number of occasions, I am now resigned to not meeting a number of my other ageing musical heroes. Schnittke and Lutosławski left us shortly after Messiaen, while among living composers a particular chagrin of mine was a ‘near miss’ with the great Henri Dutilleux (b. 1916). He actually came looking for me backstage after the première of my Pursued by Bronze Horsemen at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées in 2006 while I was out meeting friends in the lobby (although I’m sure I would have been so overawed by him that I would probably have mumbled something pathetically incoherent in reply to anything he might have said to me).

Well, it now looks as if I can add the name of Einojuhani Rautavaara (b. 1928) to this list. As I write, I am travelling up from Paris to Utrecht in Holland, where later today the Netherlands Radio Choir will be giving the first performance of the elder statesman of Finnish music’s new large-scale a cappella Mass, a work which SDG is helping to fund and which is already scheduled for further performances by the Swedish Radio Choir, the BBC Singers (at next year’s Cheltenham Festival in the UK, which is the focus of our involvement), and in Australia with the Sydney Philharmonia Chamber Singers. The première of a substantial new piece by Rautavaara is a major event, and I had hoped to make an interview with the composer for , but unfortunately health reasons prevent him from attending in person.


This is doubly frustrating, as Rautavaara is not only the author of an impressively copious and multi-faceted output of music spanning half a century, but also one of the most intriguing composers of sacred music working today. What is particularly interesting is the way in which he seems to occupy a position which is clearly ambivalent towards traditional institutional Christianity but which is unwilling to jettison religious language and ancient liturgical texts in favour of New Age spirituality (in this respect he strongly resembles Valentin Silvestrov). Rautavaara instead engages both with the Christian heritage and with shamanism in a way that is not untypical for Scandinavian and ‘Baltic Rim’ composers since Sibelius’s recourse to the legends of the Kalevala.[2] Ambiguity is evident in Rautavaara’s description of himself as a ‘non-practising’ member of the Finnish Lutheran Church in which he was brought up, ‘ecumenical’ in the sense of maintaining a certain distance from all creeds. A self-confessed mystic, Rautavaara freely accepts the label ‘religious’, but restricts its meaning to that of a non-doctrinal ‘aesthetic phenomenon’.[3] This he defines by alluding to the nineteenth-century pioneer of German Protestant liberal theology, a reference which I would have loved to discuss with him:

“People ask me if I’m religious and I quote the German philosopher Friedrich Schleiermacher: ‘Religiosität ist Sinn und Geschmack der Unendliche’. Religion is a sense of, and taste for, the eternal. I have no religion, although officially I am Lutheran; I have only a sense of depth and mystery.”[4]

Elsewhere Rautavaara describes this sense of the infinite in terms of oceanic consciousness, the feeling of being part of a greater transcendent reality which is not unlike that of Walt Whitman or other poets of ‘nature mysticism’:

“It is my belief that music is great if, at some moment, the listener catches ‘a glimpse of eternity through the window of time’, if the experience is one which Arthur Koestler might call ‘the oceanic feeling’. This, to my mind, is the only true justification for all art. All else is of secondary importance.”[5]

It would seem that, with Rautavaara, religious language functions as a symbolic representation or Vorstellung (to use Hegel’s conceptual categories) of a reality that is not ultimately expressible in words. Although much the same could be said from either a Catholic mystical or an Eastern Orthodox perspective, Rautaavara’s own Lutheran tradition has historically been less congenial to this stance. This is perhaps the reason why Rautavaa is more likely to quote Thomas Mann or Rainer Maria Rilke in explanation of his musical poetics than to use the framework of Protestant dogmatic formulations (although he has not been averse to writing works with explicitly theological titles such as Laudatio Trinitatis for organ (Op. 39)).

His Rilke-inspired exploration of the theme of the angelic, expressed in pieces such as Angels and Visitations , the Fifth Symphony (1985, with the working title ‘Monologue with Angels’), or the celebrated Seventh, Angel of Light (1995), is a good example of his poetic stance. On one level, this would seem to parallel the multiple references to angels in Messiaen from La Nativité du Seigneur and Quatuor pour la fin du temps to St François d’Assise or more recently the Fourth Symphony ‘Los Angeles’, structured around the Canon to the Holy Guardian Angel, by Pärt (himself an ex-Lutheran). However, while Rautavaara shares with Messiaen (whose second mode of limited transposition he employed in his early works without formal knowledge of the Frenchman’s modal system) and Pärt a sensitivity to the invisible, his attitude towards angels is more agnostic than theirs –

‘I have set several of Rainer Maria Rilke’s poems to music. He speaks of angels as terrifying archetypes common to all civilizations. My conviction is that there are other kinds of realities, other kinds of consciousness. They are real but beyond rational approach. If you want to use words you can say “angel,” for lack of a better word.’[6]

At the same time, Rautavaara’s thinking is mystical, not ‘de-mythologized’. His use of the word ‘angels’ goes beyond mere human projection, implying an external referent, however obscure:

‘From this alien reality, creatures rise up which could be called angels. They may bear some resemblance to the visions of William Blake, and are certainly related to Rainer Maria Rilke’s awe-inspiring figures of holy dread: ein jeder Engel ist schrecklich (every angel is terrible).”’[7]

Part of music’s attraction for Rautavaara lies in its ability to touch upon this trans-material reality and somehow to provide insight about it (the title of Messiaen’s late orchestral work Eclairs sur l’au-delà – ‘Flashes on the beyond’ – comes to mind here) at the point where verbal concepts break down:

‘Music is a language where we can probe those other realities, without words. Besides immense pleasure, music gives to the listener information. The information is not anything you can transcribe in words.’[8]

Paralleling similar remarks by Gubaidulina and Silvestrov, Rautavaara views composition metaphysically as the uncovering of a pre-existing reality independent of the composer’s intentions, somewhat akin to a realm of Platonic Ideas. His description of how the music seems to have a will of its own which transcends that of the composer is one that resonates strongly with my own artistic experience –

‘In the end […] the work of art is unpredictable and creates its own laws. When it’s complete, then there is nothing to add, nothing to take away. When the work is performed, I’m always full of admiration for it. I ask: How is it possible for this to be born? I am not able to make anything like that. It must have been somewhere, somehow in existence even before I found it. I’m not really mother or father but the midwife. I am just a nourishing medium for it.’[9]

It is this which leads Rautavaara to see a correspondence between his compositional work and the shamanistic tradition:

‘A shaman – in Siberia or within the Sami culture in Finnish Lapland – wants to act as a mediator between us humans and the transcendental world, often through the act of singing an incantation. This relates to my work as a composer.’[10]

Rautavaara seems to intuit transcendence, a ‘kind of universal metaphysical will’[11] within the immanent processes of music as well as within nature, in a way that closely resembles Sibelius at his most existential in symphonic poems such as The Oceanides orTapiola.  This link between transcendence and immanence is however clearly difficult for Rautavaara to reconcile with the austere and dualistic Lutheranism (positing a strong disjunction between the ‘two kingdoms’ of God and World) in which he was brought up[12] and which he nevertheless does not simply wish to discard. This perhaps explains why he is attracted to the sacramental, mysterious aspect of liturgy in Catholicism and Orthodoxy traditions which are for him ‘exotic’, but which suggest an alternative to dualistic thinking from within Christian tradition.


Valamo/Valaam monastery (photo: Jussihuotari)

In this respect, the composer’s account of the genesis of his largest sacred work, the All-Night Vigil written for the Finnish Orthodox Church in 1971-2 and reworked in 1996, is especially striking.[13] He relates the piece to a childhood visit to the island monastery of Valamo on Lake Ladoga (now in Russia[14]), where the the liturgy’s appeal to the senses made a deep and lasting impact on the young Rautavaara:

‘We went to the island and stayed overnight in the monastery. I had never seen Orthodox churches and services before; it was strange to me. When we came to the island, I saw the onion domes and towers on the chapels, painted with bright colors. The bells started to ring for the morning matins. The universe seemed to be full of bright sounds and colors. There were monks with dark beards and dour countenances, icons with saints’ faces and candles burning everywhere. The sensuous mystery of the place made a profound impression on me.[..]Forty [sic] years later the Orthodox church in Finland commissioned a large-scale choral work from me. I was happy to have that task, because those bells and colorful towers were with me.’[15]

Rautavaara’s relationship with Eastern Orthodoxy again demonstrates both his proximity to and distance from Arvo Pärt. While both composers are in some respects looking to an ‘ecumenical’ musical and spiritual reconciliation of East and West, Rautavaara opts not for the meditative way favoured by Pärt, but for a more dialectical approach which assumes the Western European heritage in all its ambivalence and attempts to live with its internal conflicts. Though he is perhaps best-known for his richly lyrical, overtly neo-Romantic works such as Angel of Light, his catalogue is extremely varied in terms of compositional idiom, for example including the totally serial Symphony n.4 ‘Arabescata’ (1962) or the fiercely abrasive writing of the double bass concerto Angel of Dusk (1980) Against the frequently heard charge that his music is stylistically disparate, Rautavaara asserts that the synthesis of highly diverse techniques actually constitutes the essence of his one style seen as a unity. This distinguishes his output from that of his Estonian colleague, whom he nonetheless greatly admires:

”I love Part’s music very much,” […] ”But his attitude is Oriental, monotonic. I’m very much a European, Faustian. Extremes and contrasts are important to me. European culture is built on polarity, which creates great energy. That is why Western culture is still strong and alive after 2,000 years.”[16]

This train is late. Very late. I am normally a big fan of the Thalys high-speed rail link that gets you from Paris to the Belgian capital in a mere 80 minutes. But not today. We broke down somewhere in the fields near the Franco-Belgian border, only arriving in Brussels three and a half hours late. Not only will I miss Einojuhani Rautavaara, but also the final rehearsal of his new Mass which I was hoping to attend. But never mind. The delay has given me a chance to think a little more deeply about Rautavaara’s trajectory, meaning that I will be listening to tonight’s performance with a greater intentionality and intensity than might have been the case had everything gone according to schedule. If nothing else, writing this article has reinforced my conviction that with Rautavaara, there is – in every sense – much more than meets the eye.

Einojuhani Rautavaara’s new Mass was performed to a standing ovation by the Netherlands Radio Choir under Michael Gläser in the Jacobikerk in Utrecht on Friday November 2011. The broadcast can be heard on-line at (the Rautavaara Mass begins at 1:33:40)




[1] ECM sleeve note, quoted in Paul Hillier, Arvo Pärt (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 102.

[2] Rautavaara is fully aware of the complexity of the relationship between Christianity and paganism: ‘As a Finn I became aware how this ancient shamanistic culture had been embattled on two fronts, caught between Christian conquerors from the Catholic west and the Orthodox east’ (quoted in ‘Conveying the inexpressible’, interview with Rich Heffern, National Catholic Reporter, 13 December, 2002). He regards the Finnish experience as one of ‘the collision and ultimate fusion’ of the Western Christian and indigenous pagan culture; here Rautavaara’s setting of the final rune of the Kalevala in which the virgin Marjatta gives birth to a child interpreted as the Christ child (Marjatta’s Christmas Hymn, 1976/1995) can be seen as emblematic of a theme treated at length in his opera Thomas (1985).  See Siglind Bruhn, Saints in the Limelight: Representations of the Religious Quest on the Post-1945 Stage (Hillsdale, NY: Pendragon Press, 2003), 130.

[3] Interview with David Allenby on the subject of the percussion concerto Incantations, September 2009.

[4] Interview with Rick Jones, ‘Music is the Mystery’ in The Tablet, 6 October 2007, 25.

[5] Quoted at

[6] ‘Conveying the inexpressible’.

[7] ‘Einojuhani Rautavaara 70 : Music has a Will of Its Own’ in Nordic Sounds, 1998/3 Vol. 17 :18-21.

[8] ‘Conveying the Inexpressible’.

[9] Ibid..

[10] Interview with David Allenby.

[11]”I believe music uses me as a channel, the piece already exists and wants to be born. You can’t force your music, because it is much wiser than you, it will tell you where it wants to go.

“It is like an egg, nothing can be changed about it. Music or any work of art creates itself, and when you are involved in it, you cannot avoid believing in a kind of universal metaphysical will.”

[12] ‘The milieu in which I spent my childhood, Finland in the ‘30s, was in many ways an archprotestant, Lutheran, pietistic land. In other words, somewhat grey and bleak, with not much colour.’ (‘On a Taste for the Infinite’ in Contemporary Music Review, 1995, Vol. 12/2, 109-115:110)

[13] Rautavaara’s first work to reference Eastern Orthodox spirituality was his cycle Ikonit for piano from the 1950s, to which he added three prayers and a concluding ‘Amen’ in an orchestral version completed in 2005. This re-engagement with old material is typical for the composer: his new Mass is clearly another long-term project, featuring a re-working of his Credo of 1972 which was initially designed to be part of a large setting.

[14] It is interesting to note that a retreat at the same monastery played a pivotal role in the composition of Sofia Gubaidulina’s St John Passion.

[15] Quoted in Matthew Gurewitsch, ‘A Journey Begun in Opera Continues in Symphony’, New York Times, April 23, 2000. Emphasis mine.

[16] Ibid..


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