Kaija Saariaho

1952 - 2023

Finnish

Summary

Kaija Saariaho (1952-2023) was a leading voice of her generation of composers, in her native Finland and worldwide. She studied composition in Helsinki, Freiburg and Paris, where she lived from 1982 to her death. Her studies and research at IRCAM, the Parisian center for electroacoustic experimentation, had a major influence on her music, and her characteristically luxuriant and mysterious textures were often created by combining live performance and electronics.

After her breakthrough piece Lichtbogen for ensemble and electronics in 1986, Saariaho gradually expanded her musical expression to a great variety of genres, and her chamber pieces and choral music have become staples of instrumental and vocal ensembles, respectively. She rose to international preeminence as the composer of works taken up by symphony orchestras around the world, such as Oltra Mar (1999), Orion (2002), Laterna Magica (2008) and Circle Map (2012), as well as six concertos (including Graal Théâtre for violin in 1994 and Notes on Light for cello in 2006), and five major symphonic song cycles (e.g. Château de l’âme in 1995 and True Fire in 2014), all of which bear the mark of her relentless attempt to blend the scientific, technological and rational with an approach grounded in poetic inspiration and resulting in deeply sensorial and associative experiences.

Saariaho’s broadest public and critical recognition came from her work in the field of opera: L’Amour de loin (2000), Adriana Mater (2006), La Passion de Simone (2006), Émilie (2010), Only the Sound Remains (2016) and Innocence (2020), the latter of which was termed Saariaho’s ‘masterpiece’ by The New York Times, were all warmly received at their premieres, and have enjoyed the rare privilege of global tours and multiple stage productions. Their ever-expressive treatment of voice and orchestra, as much as their commitment to renewing the form and the array of stories being represented on the largest stages, have made these six very different opuses classics of 21st-century opera already in the composer’s lifetime.

Saariaho claimed major composing awards such as the Grawemeyer Award, the Nemmers Prize, the Sonning Prize and the Polar Music Prize and two of her recordings have received Grammy Awards. She was named ‘Greatest Living Composer’ in a survey of her peers conducted by the BBC Music Magazine in 2019.

Kaija Saariaho’s life was prematurely interrupted by a brain tumor in 2023. Her musical legacy is carried forward by a broad network of collaborators with whom she has worked closely over the years, and her publisher Chester Music Ltd.

January 2024

 

Critical Acclaim

It is rare when a new work sounds completely convincing and lucid at first hearing; thanks to Saraste and Karttunen, that was the case with Notes on Light. — The Boston Herald

Terra Memoria, a masterful new 15-minute string quartet by Finnish-born Kaija Saariaho. She is, quite simply, one of the most original compositional voices of our time. — Kyle MacMillan, Denver Post

Her elemental idea, which can be found in dozens of her scores, is an oceanic expanse of sound, one that shifts before one’s ears and quivers with hidden life. Saariaho’s work...moves between extremes of pure tone and noise, often finding a cryptic beauty in the middle zone. — Alex Ross, The New Yorker

The Composer of the Year 2021. Kaija Saariaho, who has long conjured otherworldly sounds with the spirit of an explorer returning to share her discoveries, reached new heights of mastery with two of 2021’s most memorable premieres: the opera Innocence and the symphonic Vista. — Joshua Barone, New York Times

 

Biography

Kaija Saariaho was a composer of great integrity and skill whose music reached a global audience. She studied composition in Helsinki, Freiburg and in Paris, where she lived from 1982. Her Finnish background and research at IRCAM were a major influence on her music and her characteristically luxuriant and mysterious textures were often created by combining live music and electronics.

With an impressive catalogue of chamber music, often created in collaboration with trusted performers with whom she fostered long-term collaborations, from the mid-nineties she turned increasingly to larger forces and broader structures: the operas L’Amour de loin (2000) and Adriana Mater (2005) were both commissioned by Gerard Mortier for Salzburg Festival and Opera de Paris respectively, and created with librettist Amin Maalouf and director Peter Sellars, with whom she also crafted the oratorio La Passion de Simone (2006), based on the life and writings of philosopher-activist Simone Weil; the monodrama Émilie (2009), about 18th-century scientist and writer Émilie du Châtelet, written for Karita Mattila and Lyon Opera directed by Francois Girard brought about a fourth collaboration with Maalouf; Only the Sound Remains (2015) explores Japanese Noh plays in the adaption of poet Ezra Pound, directed by Peter Sellars.


Her latest opera Innocence (2018), commissioned by friend and collaborator Pierre Audi and directed by Simon Stone for the Aix-en-Provence Festival, was created in collaboration with librettist Solfi Oksanen and dramaturg and translator Aleksi Barrière. Innocence is partnered by Finnish National Opera, The Royal Opera House Covent Garden, Dutch National Opera and San Francisco Opera, and continues to be celebrated around the world.

Other stage works include the ballet Maa (1991) created with choreographer Carolyn Carlson, and Study for Life (1981), her very first stage work, revised and recreated some 40 years after its original premiere by La Chambre aux échos at the Finnish National Opera in 2022.

Vocal music was always a focal point of her creative space and Saariaho composed several works in this vein for the concert hall such as the ravishing Château de l’âme (1996), Oltra mar for chorus and orchestra celebrating the Millennium with New York Philharmonic (1999), Quatre instants for Karita Mattila (2002), True Fire for Gerald Finley (2014); Leino Songs (2017) and Saarikoski Songs (2020) for Anu Komsi. Her most theatrical vocal works, From the Grammar of Dreams (1988), Lonh (1996), and The Tempest Songbook (1993-2014) have also been presented in staged productions. 

Saariaho’s catalogue includes many concerti; Aile du songe (2001) and Notes on Light (2006) for lifelong friends – the flautist Camilla Hoitenga and cellist Anssi Karttunen; D'OM LE VRAI SENS (2010) for clarinettist Kari Krikku; Maan varjot (2013) for organist Olivier Latry; Trans (2015) for harpist Xavier de Maistre; and her last work HUSH (2023) for Finnish jazz trumpet player Verneri Pohjola, a companion piece for her first, the violin concerto Graal Théâtre (1994). 
A master of orchestration and structure Saariaho’s orchestral catalogue provides rich and rewarding music. From the early Du cristal (1989) and Verblendungen (1984) via Orion (2002), Laterna Magica (2008) and Circle Map (2011) to the most recent work Vista (2019) Saariaho's music delights and challenges the ear with sparkling textures and often inventive use of sound design and electronics. Her music is championed by conductors the world over among them Susanna Mälkki, Sakari Oramo, Esa-Pekka Salonen, John Storgårds, Dalia Stasevska, Ernest Izquierdo-Martinez, and recently her daughter Aliisa Neige Barrière.

Saariaho claimed major composing awards such as the Grawemeyer Award, the Nemmers Prize, the Sonning Prize and the Polar Music Prize and two of her recordings have received Grammy Awards. She was named ‘Greatest Living Composer’ in a survey of her peers conducted by the BBC Music Magazine in 2019.

Kaija Saariaho’s life was prematurely interrupted by a brain tumor in 2023. Her musical legacy is carried forward by a broad network of collaborators with whom she has worked closely over the years, and her publisher Chester Music Ltd.

The music of Kaija Saariaho is published exclusively by Chester Music and Edition Wilhelm Hansen, part of Wise Music Group.

 

Additional Resources:

Repertory of Saariaho interviews and documentaries.

Repertory of available video recordings of Saariaho works.

Repertory of available audio recordings of Saariaho works.

The archive of Kaija Saariaho’s work/music is housed at the Paul Sacher Foundation in Basel, Switzerland. Please turn to them with research requests. 

Click here to read a personal account about the flute music of Kaija Saariaho written by celebrated flutist Camilla Hoitenga

Tune in to Kaija Saariaho’s official Facebook page for regular updates and resources.


Kaija Saariaho on WQXR's Meet the Composer

News

Performances

18th July 2024

SOLOISTS
Elias Holm, piano
LOCATION
Aa Kirke, Aakirkeby, Denmark

19th July 2024

PERFORMERS
Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal
CONDUCTOR
Rafael Payare
LOCATION
Amphithéâtre FernandLindsay, Joliette, QC, Canada

20th July 2024

PERFORMERS
New England Conservatory
CONDUCTOR
Alyssa Wang
LOCATION
Jordan Hall, Boston, MA, United States of America

26th July 2024

SOLOISTS
Joachim Bercerra Thomsen, flute
LOCATION
Rosenholm Slot, Hornslet, Denmark

27th July 2024

LOCATION
Oremandsgaard Gods, Præstø, Denmark

Features

  • New Opera Highlights from Wise Music Classical
    • New Opera Highlights from Wise Music Classical
    • Wise Music Classical invites you to explore new highlights from our opera catalogue. In these recent and upcoming premieres, new productions, and premiere recordings, our composers and their creative collaborators explore subjects ranging from the historical (Hadrian, X: The Life and Times of Malcom X, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly) to the futuristic (Oryx and Crake), the fantastic (El Ultimo Sueño de Frida y Diego, Florencia en el Amazonas, Die Kinder des Sultans) to the thoroughly contemporary (Grounded, Blue, Innocence, The Shell Trial). Threaded throughout these works are perennial themes of loss, longing, magic, art-making, and community.
  • 2024 Opera Highlights
    • 2024 Opera Highlights
    • Ahead of Opera America’s 2024 Opera Conference and the World Opera Forum, Wise Music Classical invites you to explore new highlights from our opera catalogue. Across major premieres, new productions, and first recordings, our composers and their collaborators explore both timely issues and the timeless themes of love, desire, and belonging.
  • Celebrating Women Composers
  • Kaija Saariaho’s Poetic Montages
    • Kaija Saariaho’s Poetic Montages
    • From the very beginning of her career as a composer, Kaija Saariaho has turned to poetry as a material and inspiration for her music. The forms and logics of poetry have played a defining role in her output since then.
  • Explore music by women for dance
    • Explore music by women for dance
    • In response to requests from choreographers, dance and ballet companies we invite you to explore music in multiple styles and genres by women at the height of their composing game. From Missy Mazzoli, Maja Ratkje and Helen Grime, to Joan Tower, Kaija Saariaho, Gloria Coates and the new generation Hania Rani and Lisa Morgenstern, we are sure there’s something for everyone in this first in a series of specially curated features.

Photos

Discography