From a somewhat belated obituary in The Times of 14 September 2016, I recently learnt of the death on 27 July 2016 of the Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara, aged 87. He was a composer I have admired since I first heard his romantic and impressionistic Cantus Arcticus, subtitled Concerto for Birds and Orchestra, which is probably his best-known work.
Many years ago, when I was still unaware of any Finnish composers other than Jean Sibelius, I was scanning the Radio Times and came across details of a Radio 3 performance of Cantus Arcticus. Intrigued by the reference to birds, I recorded it on cassette tape and listened to it over and over again.
I know now that the work originated in 1971 in a commission from the University of Oulu for Rautavaara to write a cantata for performance at the following year’s degree ceremony. However, after accepting the commission, the composer discovered that the university choir was not up to scratch and so decided to replace them with the best voices in the world — those of wild birds, and specifically those from the area around the city of Oulu.
Oulu is on the coast of the Gulf of Bothnia in northern Finland, close to the Arctic Circle. Rautavaara ventured out into the chilly landscape surrounding the city and recorded bird calls and songs both within the Arctic Circle and in the Liminka wetlands, a few miles south of Oulu. He then interwove these sounds into the orchestral texture of a three-movement work that also requires various wind instruments to mimic bird sounds.
The work’s first movement, Suo (“The Marsh”), opens with two solo flutes, which are gradually joined by other wind instruments and the sounds of marshland birds recorded in spring. I recognise some of the commoner bird sounds and I have read that the recording also includes Terek Sandpiper and possibly Ortolan Bunting. I would love to hear an expert’s analysis of all the birds on Rautavaara’s recording.
In the plaintive second movement, Melankolia (“Melancholy”), the featured bird is the Shore Lark, but birders might not easily recognise it because Rautavaara brought its call down by two octaves to give it an eerie “ghost bird” effect. The mournful bird sound is accompanied by tender string figures.
The third movement, Joutsenet muuttavat (“Swans migrating”), features the calls of migrating Whooper Swans. As the movement progresses in a long crescendo, the texture becomes gradually more complex and the calls of the swans are multiplied to create the impression of swelling numbers. Finally both the bird calls and the orchestra fade away as if lost in the distance.
Cantus Arcticus is a majestic work that conveys a wonderful image of big skies, wide open spaces, bleak marshes, chilly winds, etc. If listening to it does not send a shiver up your spine then there may be something wrong with you.
NOTE (1): for anyone who may be interested, Einojuhani Rautavaara’s name is pronounced EH-ee-noh-yoo-hah-nee RAH-oo-tah-vaah-rah.
NOTE (2): My recommended recording of Cantus Arcticus is a version by the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra with the Finnish conductor Leif Segerstam, found on the Ondine label. Almost as good is a low-price Naxos recording by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, conducted by another Finn, Hannu Lintu (whose surname happens to be Finnish for bird). If you don’t want to buy a recording you can find several versions to listen to on YouTube. Musicians may like www.youtube.com/watch?v=6uRQkXSfDOU, which lets you follow the sheet music while listening to a recording by the Deutsche Radiophilharmonie Saarbrücken Kaiserslautern conducted by Christoph Poppend. If you like pretty images, try www.youtube.com/watch?v=uc_j5jEFY5k, in which the RSNO recording is accompanied by a live kinetic painting by Norman Perryman, apparently representing the Finnish landscape. At www.youtube.com/watch?v=OZhrBPMn2zw you can watch a video of a performance by an excellent amateur orchestra, the Calgary Civic Symphony.