Kaija Saariaho (1952-2023)

Kaija Saariaho (1952-2023)
Kaija Saariaho (1952-2023)
© Maarit Kytöharju

It is with deep sadness that Chester Music announces the death of Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho. Kaija passed away peacefully at home in Paris this morning, Friday 2nd June 2023, aged 70. Kaija fought an illness with all her consummate strength and grace.

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 with her husband Jean-Baptiste Barrière and her two children since 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.

A master of orchestration and structure Saariaho’s long career has given us rich and rewarding music, from orchestral, chamber and choral repertoire through to her operas of world renown.

Innocence, Saariaho’s final opera, created in partnership with Sofi Oksanen and Aleksi Barrière, premiered at Festival d’Aix-en-Provence in July 2021 and was staged in London at The Royal Opera House in April this year. Further performances will follow at the Dutch National Opera in Amsterdam in October 2023 and San Francisco Opera in June 2024.

During her lifetime Saariaho received the major composing awards including: The Grawemeyer Award for Music Composition for her opera L’amour de loin; The Wihuri Sibelius Prize; The Michael Ludwig Nemmers Prize in Music Composition; The Léonie Sonning Prize; The Polar Music Prize; The BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge Award and The Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement presented by the Venice Biennale. Always supportive of the next generation Saariaho engaged in manyfold activities and amongst others was the music mentor of the 2014-15 Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative.  

Saariaho is survived by her husband Jean-Baptiste Barrière and their two children Aleksi Barrière and Aliisa Neige Barrière.

Wiebke Busch, Managing Director of Chester Music Limited says: “Kaija Saariaho’s oeuvre spans many genres, and her music has formed our way of listening and performing music distinctly. Hers is truly one of the unique and most inspired voices in music. Chester Music as well as Edition Wilhelm Hansen are privileged to have been her publishers since 1986. I have been fortunate enough to be part of her musical journey for over 20 years and it will remain an honour and consolation to continue doing so. Kaija was a woman driven by artistic integrity and enormous personal warmth, loyalty and humour. We will miss her greatly.

Global Head of Promotion, Gill Graham, comments: “For over two decades it’s been hugely inspiring to work with Kaija and now one of my elders has left. Kaija’s music brings her own humanity, light and pure emotion to the world and through it her presence will persist for us all. The quote from T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land at the end of her cello concerto Notes on Light feels apt for this moment: ‘…I could not / Speak, and my eyes failed, I was neither / Living nor dead, and I knew nothing, / Looking into the heart of light, the silence.’ My thoughts are with her devoted family at this time.”

The Finnish cellist and long-time friend of Saariaho, Anssi Karttunen, comments: “This is the day that I never wanted to come. Kaija has moved on from this troubled world. She is gone but she didn’t leave us, her magnificent music will go on accompanying us on our travel in this world. One note, or one silence of hers is enough to bring her back. In her music she knew the truth, the darkness of it, the lightness of it. It will be difficult, though, to be waiting for the phone to ring every day as it has for the last 43 years. She was more than a friend, more than a sister, more than a colleague, more than a composer. We knew each other better than we knew ourselves. I am comforted by the fact that she is in peace now.

Statement from Kaija Saariaho's family 
June 2, 2023

We are crushed to announce that Kaija Saariaho has passed this morning. She slept away peacefully in her own bed, at home in Paris. As her family, we are issuing this as our sole statement, and request the peace of our time of mourning be respected.

In February 2021, Kaija was diagnosed with a glioblastoma, an aggressive type of brain cancer, found from the onset to be uncurable and lethal. With characteristically strong determination, she fought daily to both slow its growth and live fully. The multiplying tumors did not affect her cognitive faculties until the terminal phase of her illness; they were located in the area controlling her motor skills on the right side of her body, which led to growing difficulties in walking and talking, in turn exacerbated by ensuing falls and broken bones. Kaija’s appearances in a wheelchair or walking with a cane have prompted many questions, to which she answered elusively: following her physician’s advice, she kept her illness a private matter, in order to maintain a positive mindset and keep the focus on her work. Her case should however help raise awareness concerning the nature and detection of brain tumors. It should also highlight the plight of immunocompromised individuals: twice Kaija has contracted Covid in public events where insufficient measures were taken, if at all, to protect the most fragile among us. Her experience as a wheelchair user also made her more aware of the inadequacy of many locations she visited, including cultural venues. All of this she would now want publicized. She also hoped that, through the experimental treatment protocols she underwent at the Pitié-Salpêtrière hospital in Paris, she could, on a small scale, help advance research on conditions such as hers.

Kaija, who was born in 1952 in Helsinki, Finland, died prematurely at the age of 70, but lived a full life. Her early trajectory brought her from the avant-garde music circles of Finland to the European stage between Freiburg, Darmstadt and Paris, giving her the opportunity to contribute to the golden age of computer music, and later integrate a new understanding of harmony and psychoacoustics into the tradition of modern orchestra and opera writing. She achieved universal recognition among her peers and both public and critical success, all while never ceasing to challenge herself to explore new directions.

During the time of her illness, Kaija had the joy of being surrounded by a close circle of faithful friends and collaborators, and even of expanding it. She was involved in many new productions of her music, and in the premiere performances of her latest works: the Saarikoski Songs, the chamber music piece Semafor, the orchestra work Vista, the madrigal Reconnaissance, the re-creation of her first music theatre piece Study for Life, and her acclaimed last opera Innocence. She also did not relent in her commitment to teaching and passing the torch. One of her last endeavors was to lead the jury of an organ composition contest she initiated for the inauguration of the Helsinki Music Centre’s new organ, an instrument she helped fund.

The final months of Kaija’s life were devoted to the completion of her trumpet concerto, HUSH, which will be premiered in Helsinki on August 24th by Verneri Pohjola, with Susanna Mälkki conducting the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra.

Kaija is survived by all of us who loved her and were blessed with her relentless generosity and insightful artistic support. But more importantly, we will all be survived by the bold, sensitive, exploratory music she has created, termed a classic of this century already in her lifetime.

Jean-Baptiste Barrière, composer and multimedia artist, her husband #
Aleksi Barrière, writer and director, her son
Aliisa Neige Barrière, conductor and violinist, her daughter

About Kaija Saariaho

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 written for friends and professional colleagues, from the mid-nineties she turned increasingly to larger forces and broader structures: the operas L’Amour de loin (2000) and Adriana Mater (2005) created with librettist Amin Maalouf and director Peter Sellars were both commissioned by Gerard Mortier for Salzburg Festival and Opera de Paris respectively; the monodrama Emilie (2008) for Karita Mattila and Lyon Opera directed by Francois Girard brought about a third collaboration with Maalouf; Only the Sound Remains (2015) explored Japanese Noh plays in translation by 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. Study for Life (1980), her very first stage work was eventually premiered some 40 years after writing it by La Chambre aux échos at the Helsinki Festival 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. Simone Weil, the French philosopher, mystic and political activist, inspired the oratorio La Passion de Simone (2006/07).

Saariaho’s catalogue includes many concerti; L’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 legend Verneri Pohjola.

A master of orchestration and structure Saariaho’s orchestral catalogue provides rich and rewarding music. From the early Du cristal (1989) and Verblendungen (1994) via Orion (2002) and Circle Map (2012) to the most recent work Vista (2019) Saariaho delights and challenges the ear with sparkling textures and often inventive use of sound design and electronics. Her music is championed by conductors the word over among them Susanna Mälkki, Sakari Oramo, Esa-Pekka Salonen, John Storgårds, Dalia Stasevska, Ernest Izquierdo-Martinez, and recently her daughter Aliisa Neige Barrière.


Enquiries to
Kate Johnson kate.johnson@wisemusic.com +44 (0)7920 197 354 (London)

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