In 1972, Einojuhani Rautavaara was commissioned by the University of Oulu, Finland, to write a piece for its first doctoral degree ceremony. Tradition would have him create a ceremonial festive cantata, but Rautavaara responded instead with the unusual Cantus Arcticus, often referred to as a Concerto for Birds and Orchestra, in which taped bird songs (some recorded in the vicinity of Oulu, others around the Arctic Circle and the marshlands of Liminka) interact with the orchestra.
The work is in three movements, each of which features a different set of bird songs. The first movement, titled "Suo" ("The Marsh"), opens with an impressionistic melody for two solo flutes, later joined by other woodwinds and by a recording of bog birds in springtime. A slow, rich, melody in the strings is superimposed over the winds and bird songs as the mood mellows, and the movement dies out with a reminiscence of the opening flute melody. The song of the shore lark, lowered by two octaves to turn it into what Rautavaara has called a "ghost bird," opens the second movement, "Melankolia" ("Melancholy"). A quiet melody in the strings enters tentatively and spins itself out, gaining in intensity as it goes. The movement ends as it began, with the shore lark. The final movement, "Joutsenet muuttavat" ("Swans Migrating"), opens with the chaotic sound of a large group of swans, combined with string tremolos and bird imitations in the woodwinds. This complex texture was described by Rautavaara thus:: "I imagined they [the swans] fly straight to the burning sun." As in the first movement, a slow, chorale-like melody in the strings emerges. The swan sounds increase in volume, and after a climactic cymbal crash and brass calls, the music and the swans' songs fade into the distance amid the gentle sounds of harp and percussion.