Obituary: The last composer to know Sibelius

Obituary: The last composer to know Sibelius


norman lebrecht

July 28, 2016

My abiding memory of Einojuhani Rautavaara, who died last night at 87, is of lunch at what was once the tallest restaurant in Helsinki.

It had been the regular haunt of General Mannerheim, who led Finland in two winter wars against the Russians, and the menu was appropriately spartan – reindeer meat, or salmon, with boiled potatoes.

Rautavaara, who had lived through the two wars, chose the venue for its menu and its symbolism. I warmed to his frugality. We talked a lot about Jean Sibelius, who took a keen interest in young Finnish composers and demanded to meet Rautavaara before he left to study in the US. They had a long conversation at Ainola, among other things about Sibelius’s unseen eighth symphony.

Rautavaara got the impression that Sibelius had burned the score during the first Winter War because he feared it was not good enough, and that anything less than his best would weaken Finnish morale and international support. This remains the most credible explanation I have heard for the composer’s act of destruction.

Talking of his own music, Rautavaara said he had explored several styles, from serialism to minimalism, taking what he wanted and never subscribing to any creed. Several of his works achieved international success but I felt he was happiest with an intense opera about a 19th century poet, Aleksis Kivi, who made Finnish a literary language. I saw it at Savonlinna and loved the interplay of text and music, knowing the opera would never travel. Like its composer and his subject, it was quintessentially Finnish.

photo: Ari Korkala/FIMIC

The Helsinki record producer Joel Valkila, who worked with Rautavaara this year on what will turn out to be his last CD, tells me that the verses he chose for the album contained several notes of farewell:
And, as the cock crew, those who stood before

The tavern shouted: “Open then the door!”

“You know how little time we have to stay,

and once departed may return no more.

You know how little time we have to stay,

and once departed may return no more.”


UPDATE: Another memoir, from Peter Dobrin.


  • Tor Frømyhr says:

    This is a sad day indeed Norman Lebrecht, Einojuhani Rautavaara had universal respect from performers and composers alike. His contribution of music for the youth of Finland and indeed the world was formidable. He will be missed and celebrated by all.

    • Christopher Culver says:

      “…universal respect from performers and composers alike.”

      I don’t want to speak ill of the dead, but come on. Rautavaara made his fair share of enemies in the musical world in recent decades (including through one tabloid-level scandal), and views of him and his work vary among younger Finnish composers. Misrepresenting him as some kind of beloved grand old man of Finnish music, in my opinion, obscures what made him such an interesting figure both as a composer and as a member of society.

      • Steve says:

        De mortuis nil nisi bonum

      • Bjorn Jortslap says:

        Your mudslinging is no fun if you refuse to name names. Details please!

      • Jean says:

        The younger generation of composers envied him for his international fame – not the first time in the history of music. I doubt his critics were in the same level as symphonists.

        • Christopher Culver says:

          Rautavaara’s international fame really came only in the 1990s. And yet, he was a party to stylistic disagreements long before that, when he was still little known outside of his native country. (Rautavaara played a considerable role in the Finnish musical debates of the 1970s, for instance.)

          Not all criticisms of an artist derive from envy, and to claim that anyone expressing reserve about a composer are doing so because they just aren’t as good or whatever, is a turnoff. Fans who stoop to such rhetoric actually risk alienating potential listeners of that composer’s music.

      • Luca says:

        About younger Finnish composers: there is a thing called “envy”.

      • Una says:

        Here’s a very nice interview done again by Bruce Duffie in Chicago that readers may find interesting.

        Christopher you seem to know him better than the rest of us so perhaps you can enlighten us as to why he appeared to be difficult to work with and who he upset? Strange. Not the man I heard in this interview, and often best left to rest when someone has died. Mudslinging isn’t great in these circumstances when someone is dead, and when the person isn’t now around to speak for themselves, so always to be generous in life.

        • Christopher Culver says:

          My post wasn’t mudslinging at all. I mentioned no accusations nor took sides. I just think it’s important to avoid hagiography, because Rautavaara – like pretty much any composer working today and employed at a conservatory or other musical institution – naturally had his detractors as much as he had his supporters.

          (For Mr. Bortslap particularly, who very often speaks negatively of work being done by composers other than him, to accuse me of mudslinging for noting that Rautavaara was part of the same professional tiffs and rivalries, is a bit much.)

          • Tor Frømyhr says:

            I was a little surprised by the response to my post however I will make a couple of comments.
            1. ‘Respect’ is not diminished by disagreement, a tiff or criticism

            2. Having performed (including various premieres) a number of ER’s works in Au & EU, I have only ever had positive responses. All members of audiences are not all expected to ‘like’ all the works performed and certainly some (including young composers) didn’t.

            3. All composers have received criticism from younger generations of composers. So what! One wouldn’t necessarily expect anything different as of course, they already know everything (a bit of tounge in cheek)

            4. In my experience ER always made himself available to younger composers (my wife included) and it was only in his last year that this became most difficult.

            5. ‘Universal’ as a term has a very wide variety of usage options and synonyms, one of which includes ‘widespread’. My knowledge of the widespread or universal respect in which ER is held includes UK, Au, Asia, USA and Skandinavia

  • Rgiarola says:

    I was at academy of music, during the premiere of his 7th symphony (8th? Opps). Year 2000, Sawallisch & Philadelphia Orchestra. He received ovation at the stage. What a lost!

  • Pamela Brown says:

    What a wonderful tribute. Thank you, Norman.