Einojuhani Rautavaara is the best-known composer in contemporary Finnish music. He began to study at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki in the late1940s, but his professional career didn't begin until 1954 when his orchestral A Requiem in Our Time won a competition sponsored by Thor Johnson, then conductor of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. That same year Rautavaara entered an advanced course in music composition with Aarre Merikanto and attracted the attention of Sibelius himself, who in 1955 recommended that Rautavaara be awarded a Tanglewood scholarship to study at the Julliard School for one year. In the United States Rautavaara studied with Aaron Copland and Roger Sessions, and once back in Europe, he completed his course of study in Switzerland with Wladimir Vogel and in Cologne with Rudolf Petzold.
Rautavaara, paraphrasing a statement usually made in reference to American politics, has said "If an artist is not a modernist when he is young, he has no heart. And if he is a modernist when he is old, he has no brain." Indeed, Rautavaara's style is rooted in modernism, and his earliest works are in a Nordic folk-derived idiom reminiscent of Bartók. Not surprisingly his approach shifted more strongly towards serialism after his experiences in Cologne. The political subject matter and often thorny 12-tone writing in Rautavaara's first opera, Kaivos (The Mine) led the Finnish National Opera to reject the work, but in a revised form Kaivos was aired on national Finnish television in 1963. This helped to establish Rautavaara's reputation in his home country.
By 1970 Rautavaara began to lose interest in the rigorous requirements of serialism. With his next major work, the opera Apollo contra Marsyas, Rautavaara opted for a poly-stylistic approach, utilizing jazz and popular music in an ironic juxtaposition against light Viennese classical music. This breakthrough led to the development of Rautavaara's mature style, in which the music is subservient to the demands of his programmatic concepts, whether political, environmental, social or spiritual. While Rautavaara's prestige gained ground in Europe throughout the seventies and eighties, it was his Symphony No. 7 "Angel of Light" (1994) that established his international reputation. This appealing and meditative work came as a surprise to many who felt that contemporary composers had grown hopelessly out of touch with the emotional needs of the public.
Rautavaara is a prolific composer with a career spanning seven decades. So far he has created ten operas, of which Thomas (1982-1985), Vincent (1986-1987) and Aleksis Kivi (1995-1996) are the best known. He has also produced eight symphonies and many concertos including the popular Cantus Arcticus; concerto for birds & orchestra (1972) and the double bass concerto Angel of Dusk (1980). Rautavaara has also written reams of choral, chamber and vocal music and a small amount of electronic music. Through working directly from his emotions and not hewing to party line serialism, Einojuhani Rautavaara has emerged, in the autumn of his life, as one the major figures in contemporary music worldwide.