Great sadness: Kaija Saariaho has died

Great sadness: Kaija Saariaho has died


norman lebrecht

June 02, 2023

The Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho passed away peacefully at home in Paris this morning, her publisher has announced

She was 70 yrars old and had been suffering from a debilitating illness that was all too apparent at the recent premiere of her opera Innocence at Covent Garden. Her family have disclosed that she was diagnosed with brain cancer in February 2021, but her cognitive functions were not affected until recently. Nonetheless, she suffered repeated falls and broken bones and latterly used a wheelchair.

Kaija is survived by her French husband, the composer Jean-Baptiste Barrière, and their two children, Aleksi and Aliisa. She earned her place among the world’s leading composers with the Salzburg premiere of her opera L’amour de loin in August 2000. Hers was a unique and inimitable voice, cut short far too soon.

Her last completed score, a trumpet concerto, will be premiered in Helsinki on August 24.

Her friend the Finnish cellist Anssi Karttunen said: ‘This is the day that I never wanted to come. Kaija has moved on from this troubled world. She is gone but she didn’t leave us, her magnificent music will go on accompanying us on our travel in this world. One note, or one silence of hers is enough to bring her back. In her music she knew the truth, the darkness of it, the lightness of it. It will be difficult, though, to be waiting for the phone to ring every day as it has for the last 43 years. She was more than a friend, more than a sister, more than a colleague, more than a composer. We knew each other better than we knew ourselves. I am comforted by the fact that she is in peace now.’

UPDATE: Musicians shed tears for Kaija


  • Erik Voermans says:

    Tragic news. She was one of my favourite composers, since Lichtbogen. Still love that piece a lot. An amazing talent that came to full bloom.

  • Scott says:

    I heard her Aile du songe three weeks ago at Carnegie with Claire Chase (flute). So much wonderful music.

  • Carolyn Carlson says:

    A beautiful and unique woman, one of the greatest composers of our times.
    As a choreographer, I had the opportunity of working with her on an original score for the premiere of MAA at the Helsinki Opera in 1990.
    Kaija’s ethereal and profound melodies of profound depth will carry on for future
    generations of inspiration.
    We will miss her dearly and always remain with us in spirit.

  • Anthony Sayer says:

    Very sad. I had no idea she was ill.

  • trumpetherald says:

    I am absolutely devastated…She was one of the greatest composers,not just of our time,and her last opera “LÍnnocence” is a shattering masterwork,one of the greatest operas ever…
    I was lucky to attend the British premiere at ROH Covent Garden a few weeks ago,and i was quite surprised she didn´t attend the event…Now i know why….My sister died from the same illness at age 44…..Words fail me now.

  • Emanuel Overbeeke says:

    She was one of the most interesting composers of the last decades, from her debut in the eighties till her final compositions.

  • WokeMindVirus says:

    A true genius. Her compositions are incredible. Wonderful human being on top of it.

    Hopefully we see more of hear pieces programmed!

    Rest in peace to the great Saariaho

  • Celso Antunes says:

    Very, very sad…

  • Roman Kozak says:

    A great loss for contemporary music. I especially enjoyed her operas.

  • Sue Sonata Form says:

    What an absolute scourge brain cancer is!! This woman suffered bravely and it cannot have been easy from Day 1. The idea that courses of horrendous chemo result in an inevitable outcome is always so shocking to me.

    Thoughts for her family and many friends.

    • Minnesota says:

      The purpose of the chemotherapy (& radiation & other treatments) for glioblastoma is to extend the patient’s life. Most patients want to live longer if they can. However: each patient, each cancer, and each treatment experience is different.

    • trumpetherald says:

      Well,Chemo helped my sister to live 5 more years,of a mostly fulfilling,creative life,even finding a new partner( they got married a week before she died,when it was clear she wouldn´t make it)….And think of MTT,who enjoys a wonderful indian summer as a conductor….

  • Andreas C. says:

    To a long-time listener of her works, one remarkable thing about Saariaho was the way she managed to create a very distinguishable musical language, yet on the other hand she was not content to repeat her turn-of-the-millennium successes formulaically and kept exploring and introducing new elements to her music until the very end. Interestingly, recent live performances of some of her early works have sounded superior to their recordings, now that performers have had a chance to get used to it.

    In fact, it feels like the world lost her in the midst of a very fruitful creative period: e.g. her recent multi-lingual collaborations with her dramaturgist son, the use of a folk song in her last opera, and the choice of a jazz trumpeter as the soloist of her last concerto were all a testament of her capability and drive to renew herself, and leave one thinking of what could have been.

  • Andrew C says:

    The ballet ‘Limen’ choreographed to a piece by this composer for cello and orchestra, is now available for streaming from ROH Stream. Anssi Kartunnen is the soloist.