Rautavaara was born in Helsinki in 1928 and studied with Merikanto at the Helsinki Academy (1948-52), with Persichetti at the Juilliard School in New York (1955-56), and with Sessions and Copland at Tanglewood (1955). He first came to international attention in 1955 when the neo-classical A Requiem in Our Time for brass and percussion won the Thor Johnson Composer’s Competition in Cincinnati. He studied serialism and soon integrated twelve note techniques, without displacing his essential Romanticism. For instance, Symphony No.3 (1961) may be the first totally serial Finnish work, yet it is also a tribute to the symphonies of Bruckner, complete with Wagner tubas.
In the late 1960s Rautavaara distanced himself from serialism and his mystical character came more to the fore in music of rich colour and sweeping melodic profile, at once accessible and evocative. His operas have often explored issues of creativity and madness, such as Vincent (1986-87), Aleksis Kivi (1995-96) and Rasputin (2001-03), and his symphonies and concerti have increasingly been commissioned by orchestras outside his native Finland, including Symphony No.8 ‘The Journey’ (1999) for the Philadelphia Orchestra, a Harp Concerto (1999-2000) for the Minnesota Orchestra and a Clarinet Concerto (2001-02) for Richard Stoltzman and the National Symphony in Washington.
Recent works by Rautavaara include the orchestral work Tapestry of Life (2007), the concertos Incantations for percussionist Colin Currie (2008) and Towards the Horizon for cellist Truls Mork (2008-09), and Summer Thoughts (2008) toured by violinist Midori. His new Missa a cappella (2010-11) has performances scheduled in the Netherlands, Australia, the UK and Sweden.
Rautavaara’s music has been recorded on the Ondine, Finlandia and Naxos labels and DVDs have been released of his operas The Gift of the Magi, Alexis Kivi and Rasputin.