Kalevi Aho was born on 9 March 1949 in Forsa, in southern Finland. He learnt the mandolin and violin at the age of nine, and also began composing at that age. During his youth he loved the great romantic symphonists, and during his school days he wrote several string quartets and sonatas for solo violin, as well as his first orchestral piece – all without any instruction, directly from what he imagined in his inner ear. After completing secondary school, he began studying mathematics, simultaneously studying composition at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki with Einojuhani Rautavaara – a versatile, colourful and technically skilled stylistic pluralist who can meanwhile be considered Finland’s most popular symphonist after Sibelius. Rautavaara’s non-dogmatic approach was ideal for Aho, who was to far exceed his teacher as far as stylistic pluralism is concerned. Already in 1969, the first year of his studies, he wrote his First Symphony, a most astounding, superbly worked-out large-scale composition permeated with youthful brilliance. This work immediately allowed him to achieve his breakthrough in his Finnish homeland.
Complete mastery of technique, especially of the full orchestra, and free flight of the imagination are hallmarks of his oeuvre, revealed from piece to piece in extremely different facets. As of this writing, Aho has completed sixteen symphonies which can be regarded as the creative core of his oeuvre. He is no less significant as an operatic composer, but so far none of his operas has been released on CD, which has had an inhibiting effect on their dissemination. Despite this, his operatic production is of eminent interest, for Aho is by nature a vivid music dramatist, highly gifted in the psychologically suggestive control and illumination of the acting characters and events, as well as in the depiction of the tragic and bizarre.
In addition, Aho has a natural knack for subjects which are both timelessly current and complexly demanding, as shown in such works as The Life of Insects and When We Are All Drowned. Above all this, alongside three impressive chamber symphonies, one must not overlook his virtuoso chamber music with the series of quintets for winds and strings in very different mixed instrumentations. One example is the Quintet for alto saxophone, bassoon, viola, cello and double bass of 1994, highly original in its sound and structure. As so often with Aho, it is about “elementary oppositions that determine our lives: harmony and destructiveness, joy and desperations, balance and imbalance, life and lifelessness.” As a symphonic composer, Aho has gone beyond all the commonly imposed boundaries of the genre, especially in the Symphonies Nos. 5 and 6 written between 1975 and 1980. With his Fourth, Ninth and Tenth Symphonies, he has written works that are amongst the most substantial in this genre created in our time. “I have repeatedly composed catastrophes. But I have no catastrophic ideologies. The tensions are simply so incredible that something vehement must then happen, and this can cause the structure to break. This is a ‘breaking form’, resulting from its tension.”