Rautavaara Symphony no. 3

performed by the Leipzig Radio Symphony Orchestra under Max Pommer (in what I believe is the world premiere recording, maybe)

second, third and fourth movements

(cover image by Teddy Kelley)

Einojuhani Rautavaara has been on the blog before. In fact, his first symphony was only the fifth piece I wrote about on this blog back when I knew nothing about the great symphonic tradition. I revisited that piece in a more thorough article shortly after the composer’s passing in July of 2016, but now, more than four years later, is the second work of his we’ll be discussing.

I can’t say I really know a lot of Rautavaara’s work. Some of his later pieces, and a concerto or two, didn’t grab me very much, but the sound world he creates to me, his vocabulary, seems very closely linked to the legacy that Sibelius left. If there were any more modern 20th/21st century composer who does justice to the Finn’s legacy as well as to modern music, I think it would be Rautavaara.

But what we’ll hear today is a little bit different. For anyone who’s heard some of his work and thinks of it as too, let’s say, ethereal, this work is for you. You might not think of it as being terribly modern sounding, but it is a fascinating synthesis of a Finnish-sounding German symphony with a modern approach.

So let’s take a listen.

After the first few chirps from flute and other woodwinds, like the glimmer of sunlight off of the snow, a solo horn enters, and you can’t miss the allusion to Bruckner’s fourth. Have a listen to Rautavaara’s horn solo:

And now Bruckner’s fourth which inspires it:

It’s not just with this opening homage that Rautavaara calls Bruckner to mind. The entire symphony, really, is very much in that same grand vein. This four-movement symphony, with German tempo markings, Wagner tubas, and all the rest, is a very Germanic work, very true to the Romantic traditions of the form, with the interesting addition that it uses serial procedures. The Wikipedia article states:

Although employing serial procedures, the harmonies are firmly tonal throughout.

I can find but very little other information on this statement, but I assume that the serial procedures, if in fact making use of a full 12-tone series, are in the flourishes and underlying ripples, chirps, and textures, because the music itself is anything but ‘atonal.’

It’s readily apparent that Bruckner inspires this symphony, because even after those first two gestures, the chirps from woodwinds and the solo horn, the orchestra echoes these when they enter, creating that iconic Brucknerian texture that’s both expansive and intricate. But I don’t want to keep likening it to Bruckner, as if it’s no more than a study in his style. At the very least it’s an homage, but the other elements at play, the Finnish voice, from Sibelius and Rautavaara himself, and the modern touch with serial techniques, make this a distinctly unique symphony.

The first movement is by far the longest, and is really absolutely captivating in not only the sounds, but the tension created as the work unfolds, primarily with use of the common motifs we’ve heard already: flutters from flute, the horn melody, and a few of the other swells. The first movement reaches some mighty climaxes, exquisitely sculpted, reaching a certain kind of abject terror or intensity that is absent from Bruckner’s oeuvre. That’s followed by warm, broad passages that evoke a climate warmer than what one might imagine of Finland. Listen for the opening horn melody to reappear not only throughout this movement (from trumpet, for one), but also throughout the rest of the work.

After the tense and mesmerizing first movement, which ends quietly, the second is a beautiful slow movement, giving us a horn solo and more chirps from woodwinds. I would say it’s pastoral if it weren’t cast more in dark blues and deep greens than light spring colors. It’s warm, lyrical, but also broad in its sound, even if it’s only half the length of the previous movement. There are some beautifully Brucknerian moments.

The scherzo is by a small margin the shortest movement of the work, and is wildly satisfying as a scherzo, marked Sehr Schnell. It’s driving, crunchy, timpani heavy, and even here, the gestures that built the foundation of the symphony back in the first movement, like bass lightning bolts, are still present, electrifyingly so. Things only slightly relax in the trio. The pace slows, but the tension is still high. Again, do you hear the horn theme even here, in the trio, before the militaristic thumps at the center of the movement? These chirps from woodwinds also herald the return of the propulsive scherzo. What a movement this is!

The finale begins heavy handed, with the kind of heft that we’d expect from Bruckner, a more blunt-force-trauma kind of intensity than some of the previous wildness and high-strung energy. Don’t miss that the opening is a direct use of that opening horn theme. It’s all still here, giving a strong sense of unity to this work. This movement also sounds very Brucknerian, enough to fool a non-connoisseur, perhaps, but is also imbued with a ‘Finnish’ sound, whatever that might be, as well as a kind of liveliness that we don’t hear from Bruckner. Rautavaara’s specific flavor of German-inspired Romanticism, serialist techniques aside, seems at times to contain a ruggedness and an untamed, fiery nature, something truly organic.

What’s most apparent in the closing bars of this symphony is Rautavaara’s truly superb skill at crafting a symphony, both in the sound he builds from the orchestra and the shape he carves out for the work’s structure. The closing horn solo is a restatement of the opening gesture that started it all, but with a small and very suitable change for the end of the symphony.

Some might take issue with me saying that some of Rautavaara’s music is a little bit too sci-fi/fantasy or ‘ethereal’ for my tastes, but there’s no denying the fact that he’s extraordinarily talented. Modern Finnish composer writes German-esque symphony using (at least some) serial techniques. That sounds like quite a headline, no? And it creates an absolute gem of a symphony, and only from a little more than half a century ago. It’s a beauty.

He’s certainly one of the more popular names among Finnish composers, I think, so we certainly weren’t going to be leaving him out. For such a prolific, notable composer, having only discussed two of his pieces won’t do, so we”ll eventually get around to much of the rest of his oeuvre, however slowly. But in the meantime, stay tuned for nothing but Finnish music, post-1960, all the way up to 2007, until the new year. Thank you so much for reading.

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