, February 2010
I never think of Einojuhani Rautavaara as a “specialist” composer, so I certainly don’t think of him as a symphonist. Nevertheless, he’s written eight of them—the first four from the mid-Fifties to early Sixties, about a twenty-five year break, and then the last four. To me, Rautavaara represents an evolving musical point of view, rather than a particular genre. It almost doesn’t matter if you hear a Rautavaara symphony, a concerto, opera, cantata, tone poem, or the like. You listen instead to a mind usually trying to push past the boundaries of what it knows…The unusually long span from earliest to latest [symphonies] allows you to travel with the composer to see his point of arrival as well as the stops along the way.
The first four symphonies, although stylistically dissimilar, nevertheless seem to me classic examples of the young composer trying to find his own voice. The rather skimpy liner notes call the First Symphony (1956; rev. 1988, 2003) “neoclassic,” but it doesn’t strike me as much of anything, other than a dutiful exercise, even with the later revisions. On the other hand, the Symphony No. 2 (1957; rev. 1984) takes from Stravinsky, but not the neoclassic Stravinsky. The orchestral sounds and even some of the phrases come right out of Le Sacre du printemps. Trust me on this. I had just finished listening to all my CDs of that piece (including the piano versions) before I settled into the Rautavaara.
The real breakthrough, it seems to me, comes with the Third of 1961. Paradoxically, it’s the most conservative of the early symphonies. Rautavaara looks to the German Romantic composer, and without any attempt to hide anything, that composer is Bruckner. The themes tend toward the Bruckner’s Ur-Thema. If Rautavaara doesn’t quote exactly, he comes awfully close. If you had come upon the symphony in the middle of the first movement or the last, Bruckner’s Fourth would have immediately sprung to mind. The liner notes talk about a “dodecaphonic” basis to the symphony, but I certainly don’t hear it. I don’t hear even the Schoenberg of Verklärte Nacht. The music at its most “advanced,” hints at something between Bruckner and Mahler. Nevertheless, Rautavaara includes Modernist filigree, like the Venus di Milo wearing a Chanel scarf. Furthermore, the slow second movement shows something new, not Brucknerian—an individual voice trying to get through.
With the Fourth Symphony “Arabescata” (1963; rev. 1986), we have a true dodecaphonically serial score. The liner notes claim that this is the “only serialist symphony written in Finland.” Surely not, although I can’t think of examples right now. This symphony actually replaces an earlier fourth symphony (1962), with which the composer, despite a 1968 revision, remained dissatisfied. In 1986, he withdrew the original fourth and replaced it with a slight revision of a piece nearly contemporary with it, Arabescata (1963). The score is serial, but it doesn’t get stuck in serial clichés or an arrhythmic miasma. It jumps, it moves. The slow second movement contains a huge surprise, in a section labeled “Dedicatio”: a reference to the main theme of the Third Symphony. Clearly, this composer follows his own train of thought.
The serial influence didn’t last long. It seemed something that Rautavaara had to try before he moved on. In the late Sixties, jazz and American pop found its way into his music, as well as a sprinkling of avant-garde devices. In the Seventies, Rautavaara began to discover what became his characteristic tension and synthesis between Modernism and Contemporary.
The Symphony No. 5 (1986) appeared on the other side of Rautavaara’s Seventies divide. Among the symphonies, we find it the first that resembles those Rautavaara scores most of his fans consider in some way typical. In one large movement, at roughly a half hour it nevertheless stands among the composer’s longer symphonies. Indeed, Rautavaara gets more garrulous as he goes along, and his problem becomes maintaining listener interest over the long haul. The Fifth keeps my interest at any rate, despite the risks the composer runs. First, it’s mostly slow. Second, the texture from orchestral mass to chamber proportions for practical purposes don’t exist. The scoring tends to the thick, although dynamic levels change and he divides work fairly equally among the various sections of the orchestra. It pretty plainly lays out the Modern and Contemporary dialectic in Rautavaara’s later work. It opens with a mass crescendo on a consonance. A crashing dissonance mainly from the brass interrupts the crescendo, and the orchestra then dies down to practically nothing. This happens a few times, but you begin to discern a thread of melody (actually, two threads) beginning to make its way as a duet in the strings. Against this, Rautavaara throws aleatoric bursts and highly chromatic chatter, but the melody persists. This is what a listener grabs on to. Eventually, that thread comes to dominate the final part of the work, and the symphony ends quietly.
Symphony No. 6 “Vincentiana” (1992) comes from Rautavaara’s opera Vincent (1987), based on the life of the painter van Gogh, always a tricky subject for any artist to take up. Even an old hand like Alan Hovhaness ran into trouble with his orchestral piece, Starry Night, I believe mainly because his artistic personality excludes the neurotic. Rautavaara has, I think, a better chance than most. His music often seems the aural equivalent of a painting by either van Gogh or Munch—neurosis by the bushelful, then. I’ve not heard the opera.
The symphony consists of four movements: “Starry Night,” “The Crows,” “Saint-Rémy,” “Apotheosis.” Again, we see the coexistence of avant-garde and older Modernist techniques. A synthesizer adds a panoply of poetic weirdness to the orchestra, for example. “Starry Night” begins with in an aleatoric whirl, representing the eddies of energy swirling through van Gogh’s night sky and about the stars. It’s not a symphonic argument, but a fascinating, broad swash of color. However, it settles into a kind of nocturne for most of the rest of the movement—not a Romantic communion, but a chilly, disturbing shiver. “Crows” opens with another wash of sound, this time representing the whirring of many wings and the guttural cackles and caws of crows. Interesting enough, Rautavaara resorts to mainly conventional instruments used in imaginative, but not bizarre ways, the synthesizer adding discreet fillips here and there. The caws turn into agonizing screams of brass. Out of this a “death” chorale emerges, toward the end accompanied by a stripped-down version of the beginning—single elements of that texture, rather than the whole shmier. The movement concludes with the cackle of a crow.
Saint-Rémy was, of course, an asylum to which van Gogh had committed himself. Paradoxically, the corresponding movement in the symphony begins lightly—one of the few bright spots in the symphony. A Ravel-like valse takes over, gorgeous and sensual. However, it soon goes awry and falls apart. Once again, we hear the cry of many birds, perhaps gulls, until finally we get a grotesque parody of the valse on the solo synthesizer, sounding as if the notes have melted and twisted.
The final movement, “Apotheosis,” raises the question whether van Gogh could reasonably expect it. However, when it comes to genius artists, we’re pretty much softies. It’s our Romantic notion that creative genius (more attuned to the mysteries of the universe than mere civilians) finds eternal happiness in an eternal quest, just like Faust at the end of Goethe’s poem and Mahler’s Eighth. Rautavaara gives us music that to me conjures up the south of France, which might be the closest we come to heaven in this life. It’s beautiful, nostalgic, and slightly bittersweet. Toward the end, some dissonance implying metaphysical Sturmen tries to cover the progress of the main music, but we break through. The movement wends its way out with a conversation between the flute and the synthesizer, with the flute hanging on. The conversation ends, but not the music—an inconclusive chord implying that the soul goes on and on.
Symphony No. 7 “Angel of Light” (1994) constitutes a genuine contemporary-music hit, and no wonder. Again, it continues with the composer’s synthesis of Modern musical narrative with an overlay of Contemporary devices. The musical gadgets the composer occasionally allows in come across as little more than decoration. Again, the main thread attaches to matter more traditional. The symphony runs to four movements: “Tranquillo,” “Molto allegro,” “Come un sogno,” and “Pesante—cantabile.” I find the last title most significant. This is mainly a cantabile, singing symphony. Who knew Rautavaara could sing and so beautifully? “Tranquillo,” after some clashes with bell-like percussion in a different key, settles into a long, rapturous line of song that continues for more than ten minutes. “Molto allegro,” a scherzo, for the most part drives along with the main theme harmonized in seconds, à la Stravinsky’s Petrushka. If you can handle the Stravinsky, Rautavaara should pose no problem. Toward the movement’s end, however, the scherzo collapses and tries unsuccessfully to restart over a bass pedal. The pedal continues into the next section, “Come un sogno” (like a dream), quiet and slow. It begins less with a melody of notes than with a “melody” of chords—beautiful progressions which the composer extends throughout the movement. Occasionally, unrelated chains of notes play against it, mimicking the stagecraft of some of the dreams I’ve had, at any rate, as sharp figures appear and vanish against a hazy backdrop. The finale begins with brass, moves to a chorale, and then takes up the type of singing we heard in the previous movement. The cantabile slowly builds to two large, exultant climaxes—one toward the middle of the movement, the other almost at the finish, at which point it sharply diminuendos to a quiet end. This symphony risks much—three very slow movements in which events take shape over long spans, with only the one break of the scherzo. Nevertheless, it succeeds in spades. It ravishes a listener. I much prefer it to the 1976 Górecki Third, which it superficially resembles. Where Górecki retails well-established conventions of Trauermusik, Rautavaara invents his own rhetoric.
Written for the centenary of the Philadelphia Orchestra, Rautavaara’s latest symphony, No. 8 “The Journey,” comes from 1999. The composer, born in 1928, may have another one in him and thus join the ranks of the Number 9 Club, ever since Beethoven, the magic number for symphonists. Who knows? I wish I could say I heard more than a thoroughly professional piece of work, but compared to symphonies 3–7, it doesn’t go beyond that. The layout of movements—slow, scherzo, slow, grand summing up—skirts the unusual but on the other hand sticks close enough to the standard symphonic model that it doesn’t really add up to much of a surprise. At his best, Rautavaara expands our musical horizons. This symphony keeps well within them. The composer journeys, as it turns out, to overcrowded hotels.
Leif Segerstam provides the outstanding performance of the set. His Angel of Light is both clear and poetic, and it shows great understanding of Rautavaara’s rhetoric in this work. Max Pommer gives a lovely reading of the Third, the most traditional of the symphonies, and an insightful account of the Second, exposing its Stravinskian links.