10 of the Greatest Finnish Composers you Should Know

Finnish composers are a special breed. They’re not as well known as other European countries, but they’ve produced some of the most talented and influential musicians in history. While most people have probably heard of Sibelius we’d be surprised if you could name any other famous Finnish composers.

So, to remedy that, in this post we’re going to cover 10 of the greatest Finnish composers you should know to help you learn a bit more about their amazing classical music scene.

1. Jean Sibelius (1865-1957)

Jean Sibelius

Born on December 8th, 1865, Jean Sibelius was a Finnish composer who spent his childhood surrounded by music.

While attending school as a child, he developed quite impressive skills as a musician and composer.

It is believed that “Vattendroppar” for violin and cello is his first surviving composition, written when he was just around the age of 10. 

When Sibelius completed his schooling, he moved to Helsinki to study law, however, he also enrolled in the Music Institute and split his time between the two studies. 

It didn’t take long for this avid music-lover to drop his law studies and focus on his composition studies full-time. 

Sibelius studied under Martin Wegelius and eventually pursued his music career from Berlin to Vienna and, finally, back to Finland. 

Sibelius was acting during a very political time in Finland, and his compositions often served to honor Finnish national pride amid the struggle for independence from Russia.

One of his best-known works is the tone poem “Finlandia.” 

Other famous pieces of his include his Symphony No. 5, the String Quartet in D minor and Karelia Suite.

Sibelius lived until the age of 91 when he died on the 20th September 1957 of a brain hemorrhage.

2. Kaija Saariaho (1952-)

Unlike many of the great composers we recognize from around the world today, Kaija Saariaho is still in the middle of her successful career. 

This Finnish composer was born in Helsinki in 1952 and an appropriate follow-up to our first composer, Saariaho studied at the Sibelius Academy. 

After completing her time under modernist Paavo Heininen, she continued to study in Freiburg and later at the IRCAM research institute in Paris. 

Since her studies, Saariaho has lived and spent most of her time in Paris where she frequently practices computer-assisted composition and works seamlessly with tap and live electronics, as seen by her works “Verblendungen,” “Du Cristal,” and “a la Fumee.” 

In addition to her orchestral pieces, Saariaho has also worked in opera and other vocal realms with great success. 

During her career, Saariaho has earned several composing awards and has served as an esteemed judge for others. 

Significant orchestras worldwide, including the Royal Concertgebouw, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, have commissioned her pieces. 

Saariaho’s latest opera, “Innocence,” premiered in July of this year (2021). 

3. Esa-Pekka Salonen (1958-)

Esa-Pekka Salonen is another Helsinki-born Finnish composer who studied music and composition at great lengths.

After graduating from one of the best high schools in Finland, Salonen studied horn and composition at the Sibelius Academy – just as Saariaho did.

He even studied alongside then-classmate Magnus Lindberg, who is another great we’ll discuss further down on our list.

Salonen started his conducting career with the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra in 1979.

While his main passion was composing, he did enjoy conducting and continued to do so as an avenue for conducting his works. 

However, his career took a turn when he began conducting for the Philharmonia Orchestra in London. 

Salonen is the first on our list to venture into United States classical music after his invitation to conduct the Los Angeles Philharmonic and he later conducted in Japan and toured across the United States, Europe, and Asia. 

Salonen went on to direct several orchestras around the world, and he continued to compose as well.

His violin concerto won the Grawemeyer Award for Music Composition, and other pieces won several more. 

He is currently a composer-in-residence at the New York Philharmonic. 

4. Einojuhani Rautavaara (1928-2016)

Born in 1928, Einojuhani Rautavaara is considered by many as the leading Finnish composer of his time.

He adopted a style combining modernism with mystical romanticism and created a widespread series of orchestral works during his career.

Rautavaara grew up the son of an opera singer and a doctor, he was surrounded by ambition and music as a child and learned to play the piano as a result. 

After both his mother and father died, Rautavaara found himself living in Turku with his aunt, where he first began taking formal piano lessons at 17 years old. 

Upon graduating high school, Rautavaara went to the University of Helsinki to continue his formal education in piano and musicology. 

Like many other Finnish composers, he eventually attended the Sibelius Academy, studying under Aarre Merikanto. 

Rautavaara’s first claim to fame happened when he entered and won an international contest for his composition “A Requiem in Our Time.”

Following this accomplishment, the great Jean Sibelius himself recommended him to the Juilliard School in New York City.

5. Kalevi Aho (1949-)

Kalevi Aho was born on March 9th, 1949, in Forssa, Finland.

Currently, an academic teacher and a composer, his interest in music piqued at the young age of just 10.

Aho taught himself how to play the mandolin and soon learned about music under his 4th-grade teacher. 

He then went on to learn the violin, where he quickly became too advanced for his teacher.

He received a piano at the age of 15 and started experimenting with composing. 

Yet another Sibelius Academy student, Aho learned from the great Einojuhani Rautavaara and continued his studies in Berlin.

He then taught music theory at the University of Helsinki until he moved on to be a professor at the Sibelius Academy. 

Aho also composed and conducted various orchestras while also working as a freelance composer with a state scholarship. 

He currently lives in Helsinki and has a repertoire of 17 symphonies, 35 concertos, five operas, and many other less significant works. 

6. Aulis Sallinen (1935-)

Aulis Sallinen is a Finnish contemporary classical music composer who was born in early 1935.

Sallinen’s family frequently moved when he was young and eventually relocated to Uusikaupunki due to the Evacuation of Finnish Karelia. 

He learned to play violin and piano, spending much of his early years exploring jazz and classical music. 

He began his serious music career by studying at the Sibelius Academy, where he later took a composition teacher position.

Sallinen held several other musical positions throughout his lifetime, including the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra manager and chairman of the Society of Finnish Composers.

He is most well-known for his symphonies and operas, with his most notable work being “Operas Ratsumies” and “Punainen viva.” 

Sallinen was later recognized as “Artist Professor” by the Finnish government, which let him focus solely on composing. 

7. Erkki Melartin (1875-1937)

Erkki Melartin

Erkki Melartin was born on February 7th, 1875, in Kakisalmi.

In his early life, he was a student of Martin Wegelius in Helsinki and later learned under Robert Fuchs in Vienna. 

He mainly spent his time composing music, but Melartin also taught and directed music while serving as a professor at the Helsinki Music College. 

Melartin suffered from some chronic health issues, but that didn’t stop him from conducting the Vyborg Orchestra and touring throughout North Africa and India. 

During his career, Melartin wrote six symphonies, an opera, a violin concerto, several piano pieces, and four string quartets.

Unfortunately, Melartin was active during the same time as Jean Sibelius, so much of his work went unnoticed at the time.

However, he is still widely recognized, and his Festive March from his ballet “Sleeping Beauty” is known as the most popular wedding march across Finland. 

8. Magnus Lindberg (1958-)

Magnus Lindberg is a Finnish composer and pianist born on June 27th, 1958, in Helsinki.

He began his composing career early on, having composed his first orchestral piece by 16. 

Lindberg began his formal studies at the Sibelius Academy where he learned from Einojuhani Rautavaara and Paavo Heininen.

After his graduation, Lindberg traveled across Europe for private studies with various teachers and even went as far as to observe Japanese drumming and punk rock. 

Just a few years after composing his first piece, professional orchestras were playing Lindberg’s music.

He later went on to create his new music ensemble Toimii as well as an informal group called the Ears Open Society. 

This group included the likes of Kaija Saariaho, Esa-Pekka Salonen, and Herman Rechberger. 

Lindberg’s largest work to date is “Kraft,” which involves impressive 70+ note harmonies.

As a composer in the modern age, Lindberg has worked with electronic manipulation and compositional software. 

Today, he has tightly refined his rich orchestra style and has released new orchestral pieces as recent as this year. 

9. Uuno Klami (1900-1961)

Uuno Klami

Uuno Klami was born on September 20, 1900, in Virolahti, Finland, and was a composer during the modern period.

Much of Klami’s influence came from both French and Spanish music, and his fame was apparent during the generation after that of Jean Sibelius. 

Although he followed shortly after Sibelius, it was renowned French composer Maurice Ravel whom he admired.

He studied in Helsinki, Paris, and Vienna and put on his first composition concert in 1928 with “Karelian Rhapsody.” 

This piece brought him a lot of attention, and he continued to compose and experiment with the symphonic form.

Klami became quite the master of miniature orchestral works and was eventually granted lifetime income from the government, thanks to the recommendation of Sibelius. 

Unfortunately, Klami’s career was cut short due to a heart attack at age 60. 

10. Toivo Kuula (1883-1914)

Toivo Kuula

Toivo Kuula was born July 7th, 1883, and lived a short life, dying 34 years later in 1918.

Though his life wasn’t long, he had enough time to make a name for himself as both a composer and a conductor. 

Kuula was born while Finland was still a Grand Duchy under Russian Rule.

He was a passionate individual and was Jean Sibelius’s first composition student.

His works revolve around the melodic choir and mostly vocal works, though he also has a repertoire of instrumental works.

Some of his major works include two “Ostrobothnian Suites” along with six posthumous piano pieces, 14 songs, and 22 posthumous chamber pieces – among other works. 

Kuula was a fierce supporter of the nationalist movement in Finland, which eventually led to his death.

He suffered a gunshot wound, which is ironic, considering his name Kuula means “bullet” in Finnish.

Summing up the Famous Finnish Composers

That’s it for our post on Finnish composers, we hope it helped you to explore some more of the amazing composers who’ve called Finland home.

Let us know if there’s anyone you think we’ve missed and we’ll add them to our list.

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Written by Dan Farrant
Dan Farrant, the founder of Hello Music Theory, has been teaching music for over 10 years helping thousands of students unlock the joy of music. He graduated from The Royal Academy of Music in 2012 and then launched Hello Music Theory in 2014. Since then he's been working to make music theory easy for over 1 million students in over 80 countries around the world.