Rautavaara studied at the Sibelius Academy under Aare Merikanto before winning a scholarship to Juilliard. He studied with Vincent Persichetti, Roger Sessions and Aaron Copland. He was himself, composition professor at the Sibelius Academy for more than 40 years.
He was a prolific composer, and wrote eight symphonies, nine operas, 12 instrumental (and one choral) concertos, plus a wide variety of orchestral, chamber, instrumental, choral and vocal works.
He is perhaps best known for his seventh symphony, Angel of Light, composed in 1994.
His most recent work, Orpheus singt, a setting of Rainer Maria Rilke for a cappella chorus premiered on 25 June 2016 at the Ludwigsburger Schlossfestspiele, performed by the SWR Vokalensemble Stuttgart, conducted by Marcus Creed.
Here the same choir sings Rautavaara’s Canticum mariae virginis and Canción de nuestro tiempo, together with works by Grieg, Sibelius and Saariaho.