Kaija Saariaho
Kaija Saariaho

Remembering Kaija Saariaho (1952–2023)

Kaija Saariaho, who has died on 2 June 2023, aged 70, was one of the most significant composers of her day. 

ByChloe Westwood (Head of Opera Press)
Friday 2 June 2023, 5pm

The Finnish composer made an immense impact on Royal Opera House audiences most recently with Innocence – described as a ‘modern masterpiece’ (The Telegraph). 

Born in Helsinki on 14 October 1952, Saariaho studied first at the Sibelius Academy with Paavo Heininen. Her experiences at the Darmstadt Summer Schools led her to gravitate to Germany, where her teachers included Brian Ferneyhough and Klaus Huber. It was nevertheless in Paris, at Pierre Boulez’s IRCAM electronic studio, that she found her musical voice, encountering the work of the spectralist composers Gérard Grisey and Tristan Murail, and rejecting excessive complexity and strict serialism. At IRCAM, too, she met her husband Jean-Baptiste Barrière, director of IRCAM’s musical research department from 1981 to 1987. The couple married in 1984.  

Saariaho’s ‘breakthrough’ works emerged in the decade from 1987, the year she composed Nymphéas, and included Six Japanese Gardens, reflecting her interest in the culture of the far east (1994), and Graal Theatre for violin and orchestra (1997). Though writing prolifically, she came comparatively late to opera. Her first, L’amour de loin (Love from Afar), inspired by the poetry of the 12th-century French troubadour Jaufré Rudel, premiered in Salzburg in 2000 and won the 2003 Grawemeyer Award for composition. Its 2011 recording won a Grammy and in 2016 it became the first opera by a woman to be performed at the Metropolitan Opera, New York, since 1903. It was followed by Adriana Mater (2006), a joint commission from the Paris Opéra and Finnish National Opera, and a monodrama, Emilie (2010), for the soprano Karita Mattila – like the earlier works, a collaboration with the poet Amin Malouf. For Innocence (2018), Saariaho worked with the Finnish novelist and playwright Sofi Oksanen, in a co-commission between the Royal Opera House, the Festival International d’Art Lyrique d’Aix-en-Provence, Finnish National Opera, San Francisco Opera and Dutch National Opera.  

Saariaho held honorary doctorates from the universities of Helsinki and Turku, and received many awards – the Wihuri Sibelius Prize (2009), the Léonie Sonning Music Prize (2011), the Polar Music Prize (2013), the BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge Award in contemporary music (2017) and the Leone d'oro di Venezia, Biennale della Musica Contemporanea (2021), among others. In 2019, a poll at BBC Music Magazine voted her the greatest living composer. 

Oliver Mears, Director of the Royal Opera commented: ‘Kaija’s passing is an irreparable loss to the world of opera and contemporary music. Her recent and most extraordinary opera Innocence, which performed only weeks ago at the Royal Opera House, was - for all who experienced it - one of the most shattering and moving evenings in the theatre. We will all miss her hugely.' 

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