Skip to content

Kaija Saariaho 1952–2023

One of the most notable composers of our time has left us.

”Jusq’au dernier moment j’aurait une plume à la main, 
La tête haute, 
Le cœur amoureux, 
L’esprit dans les étoiles,

From Kaija Saariaho’s opera Émilie, libretto by Amin Maalouf

The Finnish and global music community has suffered an irreplaceable loss with the passing of composer and Academician of Arts Kaija Saariaho in Paris on June 2, 2023. She was 70 years old.

Kaija Saariaho was born in Helsinki in 1952. She studied composition at the Sibelius Academy, in Freiburg, Germany, and at the IRCAM institute in Paris, where she resided from 1984. Saariaho’s extensive body of work encompasses operas, orchestral compositions, songs, and chamber music. Each of her works is distinctive, displaying a wide range of styles. What unites them all is a relentless pursuit of the highest possible quality.

Kaija Saariaho’s significance was widely acknowledged. She received the prestigious Polar Music Prize in 2013, and this year she was awarded the title of Academician of Arts. In 2019, she was named the most important living composer in a poll conducted by BBC Music Magazine. However, even more important than public recognition was the way listeners embraced Saariaho’s works. This was particularly evident in the enthusiastic reception of her final opera.

It was Saariaho’s unwavering dedication that propelled her to such high international acclaim. Throughout her career, she stayed true to her own path. I have to do what feels right, with no room for compromise, she declared. She explained that she never made an aesthetic choice simply to please the audience. From the beginning, she created her own music, exactly as she heard it within herself.

From her early works onwards, there is something uniquely characteristic in Kaija Saariaho’s music—gradual transformations of sounds, gliding harmonies evolving into new forms, the slowing down and speeding up of time. This is how she described her own journey: As a composer, I must openly and honestly search for music that reflects the essence of my composition and my humanity.

Saariaho held particular importance as a composer for the Finnish National Opera. The collaboration began with the premiere of the ballet Maa in 1991. Her internationally acclaimed first opera, L’amour de loin, was performed here in 2006, with director Peter Sellars specifically desiring the production to be recorded on DVD. The next opera, Adriana Mater, premiered at the Finnish National Opera in 2008, followed by the monodrama Émilie in 2015, and the two-opera composition Only the Sound Remains in 2017. The series reached its climax with the powerful Innocence in autumn 2022.

Each of Saariaho’s operas is different in subject matter and music, as the forms and sounds closely follow the demands of the dramatic content. However, all of them are undeniable masterpieces, each with a central theme or tonal foundation that ties the whole work together. While the orchestra resonates as delicately as the shimmering water on stage in L’amour de loin, in Innocence its sound is strong and violent, reflecting the shocking events of the drama. At the end of the opera, the characters find their own ways of moving forward from the tragedy, and in those moments, hope and light shine through the music. In this way, the music tells the story of both the opera’s characters and ourselves. This is exactly what I love about making operas—we explore humanity through music, and in some way, it takes us deeper, Saariaho herself said.

Kaija Saariaho knew that Innocence would be her last opera. She had reached the pinnacle; there was no need or desire to climb any higher.

Kaija Saariaho rarely revealed her private self, despite being continuously in the public eye. The person behind the composer only truly came into the open in Pekka Hako’s book, Kristallista savuksi (From Crystal to Smoke, Otava 2022), which is also the source of the quotes in this text. Kaija Saariaho never drew attention to herself in the work community. Instead, she presented herself as a professional who knew exactly what she wanted and was extremely demanding of herself. She was accustomed to collaborating with world-class professionals, and the Finnish National Opera’s commitment to excellence ensured seamless collaboration. This is further demonstrated by the fact that the Finnish National Opera is the only opera company that has staged all of Saariaho’s operas.

Kaija Saariaho will be missed by opera houses, orchestras, musicians, and listeners all over the world. The loss will be even more profound for her family, composer Jean-Baptiste Barrière, Aleksi Barrière, who made a significant contribution to Innocence, and violinist and conductor Aliisa Neige Barrière.

In Hako’s book, Kaija Saariaho beautifully captures the essence of her creative process. In light of this sad news, her words are now particularly poignant:

I close my eyes and immerse myself in the music.

Text: Juhani Koivisto
Photo: Toni Härkönen