In memoriam: Kaija Saariaho 1952 – 2023

Composer and Academician of Arts Kaija Saariaho died at home in Paris on June 2, exhausted by a long illness. She was one of the most prominent Finnish composers, whose international career spanned more than four decades. Saariaho's internationally significant career and prestigious position strengthened the reputation of Finnish contemporary music in the world. She served as a role model and an inspiration to many of her colleagues both in Finland and elsewhere.
Saariaho was also a great advocate of art and culture, whose speeches emphasized humanity and responsibility for future generations. "Every Finn should be given the opportunity to enjoy and experience art in its many forms early on," she said when she received the title of Academician of Arts in March 2023. She dedicated her title to her young colleagues.

Kaija Saariaho studied composition at the Sibelius Academy as a student of Paavo Heininen in 1976–1980. During her studies, she was active in Korvat Auki, the association of young composition students and was one of its founders. Other founding members of the association included Magnus Lindberg, Esa-Pekka Salonen, Jouni Kaipainen and Eero Hämeenniemi.

After graduating from the Sibelius Academy, Saariaho continued her studies in Freiburg and Paris, where she stayed to live and work in 1984 after marrying composer Jean-Baptiste Barrière, who worked at IRCAM. However, the connections to Finland and its music life remained close throughout her life.

Kaija Saariaho's first public compositions were created during her studies in the 1970s. These small-scale vocal and chamber music works from the early period are still available in Music Finland's sheet music library.

In the 1980s, Saariaho's tonal language expanded to computer-assisted music and from there to large orchestral works. With her breakthrough work Verblendungen (1984), Saariaho began to receive more and more international attention and her career took off, culminating in numerous significant international commissions in the 2000s.

Characteristic of Kaija Saariaho's music is the use of rich timbres and tones. Her repertoire comprises more than two hundred works, including electronic music, vocal music, chamber music and orchestral music. Especially her operas L'amour de loin (2000) and Innocence (2018) achieved widespread international success and placed Saariaho in the top ranks of contemporary opera composers. In 2019, Saariaho was voted greatest living composer by BBC Music Magazine.

Besides her international success, Kaija Saariaho participated in Finnish cultural life in various ways. She cooperated with orchestras and festivals and encouraged and supported young composers and musicians. Saariaho also continued to keep in touch with Music Finland throughout her career. For example, she asked her publishers to send samples of the scores of her new compositions to Music Finland's sheet music collections.

"Saariaho was an approachable and warm person with whom it was always easy to communicate. Her role as a mentor and encourager for the younger generation of composers was significant – Saariaho also participated as a mentor in our coaching program Lentoon in 2017. The world lost not only an exceptionally talented composer, but also an important advocate of art and culture," says Heli Lampi, Head of Communications at Music Finland.

Music Finland honors the memory and life work of Kaija Saariaho and shares in the grief of her loved ones.


Kaija Saariaho in Memoriam

Listen to a playlist containg some of Kaija Saariaho's greatest works curated by Music Finland.
Listen to the playlist Kaija Saariaho in memoriam on Apple Music