Spring Symphonies: 4/30 Rautavaara Symphony No 7 'Angel of Light"

The music of Einojuhani Rautavaara is not nearly well enough known in the UK and scarcely ever performed.  His symphonies, operas, concerti, choral works and chamber and solo works are many - and at 86 he is Finland's most venerable and venerated composer since Sibelius.  His most well known piece in UK is, I guess, Cantus Arcticus: well remembered  because it features taped bird song from the high Arctic.

His Symphony No 7 is a mediation on the idea of Angels and contains unspecified childhood revelations which came to the composer.  It has some exquisite and heart-felt music in it.  As with all of my choices it draws more from its movements than they provide individually - it is in my view a great and original work for our time. It is both bold, involving and thought-provoking and although some have marked it derivative it has breathtaking original moments.  It was written for the Bloomington Symphony Orchestra and premiered in 1995.

My introduction to this symphony came in Cape Town of all places, a CD shop played the first movement loudly - a new Naxos release in 2003 if I recall correctly.  The effect was hypnotic and arresting.  I was sold on the music without any more clue to its workings than the sheer sensual pleasure of it’s passing.

The first movement has the most compelling opening stretching, attaining and gracefully reaching outwards.  There follow mottos and themes which flow almost continuously but slowly and over a wide and quite sparely populated landscape.  There is little important action except the return of the major opening figures with added impetus born we might guess of the hidden truth behind his vision of the tranquility of angels.  It is a true meditation with its deep discourses and it’s noble progress puts us in a place with these noble and troubled creations; the angels. The end might pull us from this comfortable dreamscape - it's unwelcome. I could stay in this glorious light for such a long time. 

The second movement is as angular and disjointed as anything of it’s time but keenly observed.  We might think of those terrible times for angels moments for choice and dilemma - all those voices - all those cries - all for for help.  The music leaps seemingly aimlessly after the jagged edges of the start.   Again we find some discomfort here.  Brass interject and strings climb as if for air or relief.  This movement jettisons all the tranquility of the first and even with strings and woodwind doesn’t seem to settle anywhere. Trumpets and flutes and perpetual motion in the strings quicken and push the music through stages of hasty crazy mindless activity.  In the end drums and frantic trumpets fail to bring the music to a better place - all just dissipates unresolved and moves without a break to a new mood.

The serenity of the third movement (Come un sogno) is on a higher plane than the first.  Here all is luminous, lustrous and bathed in a soft light at first but as we walk between the gossamer veils, we begin to find much more anxiety than first appears.  Rautavaara is so careful here measuring out comfort and discomfort with a dramatic ear and forgiving heart.  The vision of angels as near to peace as they can get with all our calls on them is nowhere better felt than here for me. The close of the movement has a stillness against a backdrop of bird song and a deeply re-assuring low bass pedal note. A solo violin sings a sweet sad song. 

A deep resounding start in the last movement seems to resolve our worries about the plight of angels and Rautavaara’s childhood visions.  Keening woodwinds take us to the natural world of Cantus Arcticus too.  Heaven and Earth combined perhaps - the territory of the angel's watch? The textures become more complex - I love the up rush of the entire orchestra lifting like a flock of birds.  It has a dramatic nuance: the depiction of a familiar but incredibly remote and alien landscape (through the allusion is the composer’s own doing) is a brilliant backdrop.  Against that the long brass lines which overlay never reach their conclusion.  Perhaps the place of angels in a natural world unfolds as a last act.  The mood of the first movement at its most pressing comes to mind - all those angels with such power and yet so helpless. The situation has not changed: there is still much to be done as we withdraw.

The indomitable Leif Segerstam conducted the first recording with the Helsinki Philharmonic

You will find links to a complete performance here:


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