Composer Harri Viitanen (b. 1954) holds a position as organist at Helsinki Cathedral. He completed diplomas in both the organ and composition at the Sibelius Academy, having studied composition with Einojuhani Rautavaara and Kalevi Aho, and went on to study composition with Tristan Murail in Paris. He currently also teaches at the Sibelius Academy, now part of the University of the Arts Helsinki.
Viitanen is a prolific composer of organ, choral and chamber music and has also written symphonic and electronic music. His works have been performed in Europe, Asia and America. The BIS Records label has released a CD of his works, prominently featuring the organ concerto Firmamentum (1985–1988).
Harri Viitanen’s principal works often incorporate an ‘external’ influence that articulates the dramatic tensions of the music in surrealist ways. This influence may be as esoteric as the starry sky and the relationships between the planets or as concrete as the music of Olivier Messiaen, which Viitanen has studied extensively. One of the structural principles underlying Firmamentum is the conversion of distances between the Earth and stars into musical intervals. In Jaakobin uni (Jacob’s Dream, 1990) for reciter and mixed choir, Creation is illustrated by a musical representation of the constellation Orion. But the most important source of all for Viitanen is birdsong; indeed, he has been studying the musical aspects of the singing of birds for more than 20 years. Works related to this aspect of his interests include Images d’oiseau (1992) for organ, which showcases the Nightingale (Luscinia luscinia), the European Pied Flycatcher (Ficedula hypoleuca), the Great Tit (Parus major) and the Blackbird (Turdus merula): the musical material is based on an analysis of their singing, substantially slowed down, however, it is filtered through the creative lenses of the composer.
Viitanen has given recitals as an organist, composer and accompanist all over the world, for instance at the Nôtre Dame in Paris, at Westminster Abbey in London and at the 90th anniversary memorial concert for Olivier Messiaen at Sainte Trinité in Paris in 1998. He has been invited to appear again at Sainte Trinité, giving a recital of his own organ works in 2015.
Harri Viitanen and Jyrki Alakuijala jointly created the electronic ambient work Senaatintorin ääni (The Sound of the Senate Square), which is played on Senate Square in Helsinki every day at 17.49. It was commissioned specifically for this purpose.