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Finnish Composer Kaija Saariaho has Died, aged 70

An innovative and prolific composer of orchestral and chamber works, Saariaho died from glioblastoma, an aggressive type of brain cancer


Across her four-decade career, Kaija Saariaho wrote many orchestral works — including those with electronics — plus chamber music, vocal works, and five operas. In 2016, with her opera L’amour de loin, she became the first woman to have a work staged by the Metropolitan Opera in over 100 years. 

Her works have been commissioned by the Berlin Philharmonic, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Lincoln Center, and the Finnish National Opera. Her frequent collaborators included soprano Dawn Upshaw and conductor Susanna Malkki.

Saariaho was born Kaija Anneli Laakkonen, in Helsinki in 1952, as the eldest of three children. She began playing the violin at age six and the piano at age eight, and soon developed an interest in composition. 

A graduate of the Rudolf Steiner School and the Helsinki Conservatory of Music, she was also a graphic design student at the Institute of Industrial Arts.

She later attended the Sibelius Conservatory, where her classmates included composer Magnus Lindberg, and conductors Esa-Pekka Salonen and Jukka-Pekka Saraste, plus studied with composer Brian Ferneyhough in Germany. Her first marriage was to Markku Saariaho, whose surname she took on.

Her accolades have included the Grawemeyer Award; the Nemmers, Sonning and Polar Music Prizes; and the Frontiers of Knowledge Award for music. In 2019, she was voted the greatest living composer by a BBC Music Magazine panel of 174 of her peers, according to NPR.

“I always imagined music through light,” Saariaho said in 2010, reflecting on her synesthesia. “My music is all about color and light, and this is what led me to the stage…Certainly I don’t make efforts to be mysterious…But music itself is a big mystery. We cannot really explain why music affects us so strongly. For me, music is as important as love, as powerful and inexplicable.”

Upon her move to Paris in 1982, she enrolled in IRCAM, an institute founded by Pierre Boulez for the study of acoustics, electronics, and computer technology. She would remain in Paris for the rest of her life.

Her last piece is a trumpet concerto titled Hush, which will premiere in Helsinki this August. Additionally, her latest opera Innocence, will be performed at the Met in the 2025/26 season.

“It is with great sadness that we learn of the death of composer Kaija Saariaho with whom we shared so many wonderful musical moments,” tweeted the Orchestre de Paris. “Our thoughts go out to his loved ones and family.”

Ms. Saariaho is survived by her husband, composer and multimedia artist Jean-Baptiste Barrière, and their two children — writer-director Aleksi Barrière and violinist-conductor Aliisa Neige Barrière.

Our condolences to her family, friends, and colleagues.

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