Rautavaara was born in Helsinki and studied at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki under Aarre Merikanto from 1948 to 1952 before he was recommended a scholarship to study at the Juilliard School in New York City. There he was taught by Vincent Persichetti, and he also took lessons from Roger Sessions and Aaron Copland at Tanglewood. He first came to international attention when he won the Thor Johnson Contest for his composition A Requiem in Our Time in 1954.
Rautavaara served as a non-tenured teacher at the Sibelius Academy from 1957 to 1959, music archivist of the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra from 1959 to 1961, rector of the Kapyla Music Institute in Helsinki from 1965 to 1966, tenured teacher at the Sibelius Academy from 1966 to 1976, artist professor (appointed by the Arts Council of Finland) from 1971 to 1976, and professor of composition at the Sibelius Academy from 1976 to 1990.
Rautavaara had a serious seizure at the beginning of 2004 but has since recovered.
Rautavaara is a prolific composer and has written in a variety of forms and styles. He experimented with serial techniques in his early career but left them behind in the 1960s and even his serial works are not obviously serial. His third symphony, for example, uses such techniques, but sounds more like Anton Bruckner than it does a more traditional serialist such as Pierre Boulez. His later works often have a mystical element (such as in several works with titles making reference to angels). A characteristic 'Rautavaara sound' might be a rhapsodic string theme of austere beauty, with whirling flute lines, gently dissonant bells, and perhaps the suggestion of a pastoral horn.
His compositions include eight symphonies, several concertos, choral works (several for unaccompanied choir, including Vigilia (1971-1972)), sonatas for various instruments, string quartets and other chamber music, and a number of biographical operas including Vincent (1986-1987, based on the life of Vincent Van Gogh), Aleksis Kivi (1995-996) and Rasputin (2001-2003). A number of his works have parts for magnetic tape, including Cantus Arcticus (1972, also known as Concerto for Birds & Orchestra) for taped bird song and orchestra, and True and False Unicorn (1971, second version 1974, revised 2001â02), the final version of which is for three reciters, choir, orchestra and tape.
His latest works include orchestral works Book of Visions (2003-2005), Manhattan Trilogy (2003-2005) and Before the Icons (2005) which is an expanded version of his early piano work Icons. In 2005 he finished a work for violin and piano called Lost Landscapes, commissioned by the violinist Midori Goto. A new orchestral work, A Tapestry of Life, was premiered by the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra in April 2008, directed by Pietari Inkinen.
Many of Rautavaara's works have been recorded, with a performance of his seventh symphony, Angel of Light (1995), by the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Leif Segerstam on the Ondine label, being a particular critical and popular success - it was nominated for several awards, including a Grammy. Rautavaara's Symphony No. 8 has, so far, been recorded 4 times, certainly rare in contemporary classical music.
Almost all of Rautavaara's works have been recorded by Ondine. Some of his major works have also been recorded by Naxos.
Rautavaara is currently working on a large-scale opera based on texts by Federico Garcia Lorca.