Kaija Saariaho’s Luminous Music Was a Personal Invitation

The most refined nuances are our sensory vocabulary, and in Kaija’s works nuance is everything: Understanding the essential meaning in each expression is key. For a composer, having her message passed on to the audience in the right way, with the right sensitivity, is absolutely essential.

Kaija’s closest longtime collaborators — such as Jean-Baptiste Barrière, her husband; the cellist Anssi Karttunen; the flutist Camilla Hoitenga; and the conductor and composer Esa-Pekka Salonen — recognized her talent and trusted her instinct, understanding her unique voice from the beginning. There were us others of a younger generation who joined Kaija’s musical family later, and she would never fail to express how grateful she was for our work. We in turn will forever feel a deep gratitude for the trust, for all the ways she supported us through her warmth and care, and for all the friendships that have grown out of our shared love for her art.

She was a mother, exceptionally devoted to her children and family. In time, her children Aleksi and Aliisa also became working partners, and Kaija repeatedly spoke about how much she learned from them and their observations. But this nurturing and caring weren’t limited to them alone. Having been allowed to be a part of her artistic family has been the greatest privilege imaginable; her generosity in supporting the young generation of composers and musicians is also an indicator of her thinking, which was aimed to keep building things bigger than ourselves. She was warm and funny too, and a very wise and compassionate friend — a truly, remarkably beautiful person, both outside and in.

The courage with which Kaija built her life’s work is enormous, considering the condescending or humiliating attitudes she had to endure as a woman early in her career — be it in the press, by institutions or in private encounters. She never wanted to draw much attention to this, but there were hurtful experiences she only shared after years of close friendship. Her nobility and strength to rise above all that, however — in keeping on, then showing the way to others — was incredible, strong and exemplary. She knew that even in that respect, her work carried huge importance, but she chose to let the music speak for itself.

She is and remains a role model, not only for her place in music history, but also for her ethics and her courage to speak up about topics that she considered important. She chose complex subjects for her operas, such as those of “Adriana Mater” and “Innocence,” and the theater would include everything: the unbearable truths, but also the soothing dream world — which for her was the most central element of “Innocence,” not the tragic events themselves. Through this genuine fearlessness and honesty, she restored many people’s belief in opera as art form.

It is impossible to imagine the world — the music world or my own life — without Kaija. But her presence is with us in her art. What helps now, in the grief, is the inner light present in her works, which we will now keep carrying forward, always moving toward the light.

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