Classical: Finland's serial mystic

As Proms audiences are about to discover, Einojuhani Rautavaara's music is a visionary evocation of his faith, but he is no `holy minimalist'.
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The Independent Culture
WHEN EINOJUHANI Rautavaara's Autumn Gardens receives its world premiere at the Albert Hall next Monday (commissioned by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and the conductor Joseph Swensen to mark the orchestra's 25th anniversary), it will be the first time that the 70-year-old Finnish composer's music has been heard at the Proms.

This is surprising, given Rautavaara's current popularity as the "Finn of the moment". He is acclaimed not only in his native land but also internationally, as testified by much-admired recordings on the Ondine, BIS, Finlandia and Naxos labels. His reputation as the "Mystic Finn" - bearing the gospel of Post Modernist spiritual salvation according to the Baltic tendency already familiar from the Estonian Arvo Part - is about to be further enhanced. Next month, the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra will give premiere performances (in the Finnish cities of Tampere and Turku) of the Third Piano Concerto, subtitled Gift of Dreams, in which Vladimir Ashkenazy is both soloist and conductor. And next April, Wolfgang Sawallisch conducts the Philadelphia Orchestra in the premiere of the Eighth Symphony, The Journey.

That the Proms should previously have ignored Rautavaara is perhaps curious, too, when one considers the prominent role played in the festival's history by the output of the Finnish composer against whom, it appears, all his compatriots' work must for ever be judged: Jean Sibelius. On a visit to London last month for a celebration of his compositions at the Hampstead and Highgate Festival, Rautavaara talked to me of his encounters with the great man.

In 1955-6, Rautavaara furthered his musical education in the United States on a Koussevitzky Foundation grant via Sibelius's recommendation: it was a nice gesture from the by then reclusive old man on his 90th birthday. Later, following his return to Finland, Rautavaara found himself employed as a chauffeur to take visitors back and forth to Ainola, the older composer's home, during the celebrated Sibelius Festivals.

One cause advanced for Sibelius's three-decade silence after completing Tapiola in 1925 is his fondness for the bottle. Rautavaara refuses to believe that this had a significant effect on his compositional inclinations or abilities. "He was so bright, he was so talkative, he was so intelligent, he was so social and warm. So that cannot be the explanation. I think it was self-criticism. Everyone was waiting for his Eighth Symphony, and this must have been a heavy burden for him."

Other people's music, too, continued to affect Sibelius greatly. Rautavaara tells of a visit to Ainola by the Hungarian violinist Emil Telmnyi, who played the Bach Chaconne. "And he was very moved, the Master, because he never went to concerts: never heard live music any more, for 20 years, but only radio. So I could see that he had tears in his eyes, and he said, `This is a wonderful gift to me'."

Though Sibelius was a father figure for Rautavaara in many respects, and the Finnishness of Sibelius's music is naturally of special significance, he doesn't feel the same way as his slightly older colleague, Einar Englund, who recently entitled his memoirs Under the Shadow of Sibelius.

It would, indeed, be a mistake to describe Rautavaara as a Sibelian clone. It is also misconceived to pigeon-hole the "Mystic Finn" along with "holy minimalists" such as Grecki and Tavener, as well as Part. Reasons for this being wrong include the size and variety of the composer's "pre-mystic" output, despite a very late start (he couldn't even read music until he was 17). Rautavaara, too, has been through the Modernist mill; he didn't feel that he "was sure of what I wanted to do and sure of how to do it" until the early 1980s, when he was already in his fifties. More surprisingly, twelve-tone methods remain important to the construction of many of his compositions to this day - for example, in the most recent of his eight operas, Aleksis Kivi, which was premiered in Savonlinna two years ago.

There are connections, too, between different stages of Rautavaara's output. His Third Symphony, completed in 1961, has a heroic, Brucknerian quality about it, though it is actually yet another composition based on a twelve-note row. The Fourth - subtitled Arabescata, composed in the following year - is claimed to be the only totally serial Finnish symphony. Both products of a critical time in the composer's life, the openings of each work underpin their fragmented, hesitant attempts to establish the nature of the musical material to be involved. There are birdsong- like woodwind flourishes and a tentative horn melody in the Third. And in the Fourth, the hesitant tinkling, rumbling and murmuring of celesta, piano and harp, then wind and percussion, come before the clarinet proclaims something vaguely like a melody - with held string chords. Rautavaara uses tonal tremolandi in the first instance, and dissonant pile-ups in the second.

It is all too easy to characterise him - as did Aarno Cronvall's television documentary, also called Gift of Dreams, shown at the Hampstead Festival - with the aid of the chanting monks, tolling bells and incandescent icons familiar from the hagiographies of composers such as our own Tavener. But neither the lively intelligence and warm immediacy of the man himself, nor the dramatic tensions - as well as visionary splendours - of his music, suggest that any simplistic interpretation of Rautavaara as a holy fool will do.

Even the angels whose presence permeates the composer's "Angel Series" of orchestral works - which began in 1978 with Angels and Visitations and includes the award-winning Seventh Symphony, subtitled Angel of Light - are far from being, as he himself puts it, "the angel of Christian kitsch, which looks like a pretty blonde girl in a nightgown with swan wings". Rather, they are actually pretty terrifying: they come from Rautavaara's own recurring childhood nightmare as filtered through the poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke.

Autumn Gardens, which is apparently not twelve-tone in its construction, borrows a motif from his sixth opera, The House of the Sun, written in 1990. In the opera, this motif is sung to the words "like a white butterfly in a dark, autumn garden". The resonances this sets up form the basis of the new piece: everything from the original, evocative imagery involved, to the fact that Rautavaara was born in the autumn and is now in the autumn of his life. The work concludes with what he describes as "a sarabande for dead flowers". Structurally, he prefers comparisons to the organic design of what was historically called an "English" garden to the more geometric and angular "French" garden. Atmosphere, rather than anything more obviously programmatic, is always important to him; and the garden seems to him a better metaphor than, say, architecture, for his stylistic approach.

As for the mystic dimensions, Rautavaara says that he has "always been been interested, and musically interested, in metaphysical points of view - probably because I really believe that there are other realities, other existences. And if that sounds too much `UFO', then we can say other forms of consciousness. Those exist, I am sure; I have experienced them myself very clearly. And music is one way to find and see a glimpse of these other realities."

"Autumn Gardens'' will be performed at the Proms on 26 July, broadcast live on Radio 3 at 8pm and repeated on 29 July at 2pm.