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Vol 2, No 23
12 June 2000
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Lepo Sumera The Torchbearer Dies
Estonia in shock at composer
Lepo Sumera's death

Mel Huang

In early June, Estonia lost one of its most gifted composers.

Lepo Sumera, among the most prolific and talented musical minds in Estonia, who had only just recently celebrated his 50th birthday with the premiere of his Sixth Symphony at a gala event at the Estonia Theatre. His death came as a surprise to everyone, hitting the close-knit music community the hardest.

He was, after all, "Estonia's musical torchbearer," as Eesti Päevaleht put it.

His five symphonies, all released by BIS Records, are highly regarded among contemporary composers. Perhaps not as well know internationally as Arvo Pärt, Veljo Tormis or Erkki-Sven Tüür, but Sumera's work easily ranks with that of his peers.

Sumera brought out the best in Estonian music, from his first symphonic piece in 1970, In Memorial, a tribute to Estonian musical legend Heino Eller (Sumera was his last student), to the pieces he finished just before his death.

Sharing the pleasure

The amazing thing about Lepo Sumera was his ability to share his musical talents in the concert hall as well as the classroom. Having studied under both Eller and Veljo Tormis, Sumera took seriously the task of sharing the knowledge bequeathed to him by past masters with the composers of the future.

He began teaching composition in 1978, reaching full professorship at the Estonian Music Academy in 1993, and strongly influenced many of his students, like Erkki-Sven Tüür, who were also his friends. He was immensely appreciated and liked by his peers, as he was also the chairman of the Estonian Composers Union since 1993.

Sumera CD coverHis passing has been very difficult for the music community. An especially devastated Erkki-Sven Tüür talked about losing his closest friend, and conductor Eri Klas, gutted by his death, called Sumera the "torchbearer" for the current wave of Estonian composers.

Many had seen him at the 70th birthday celebrations for composer Eino Tamberg just a week before, where they talked about his plans for the summer and such like.

It was such a surprise and shock that many, including this author, did not believe the news at first. Having not touched the newspapers that carried the word, the news was confirmed to me the Sunday after Sumera passed away by composer Igor Garšnek, his close friend.

Garšnek told me how he had finished his latest piece on the same day that Lepo passed away—ironically completing the work only after Lepo had made a suggestion for a small change.

Sumera was special to Estonia's music scene because he was an active member of the close-knit group and, moreover, he was a friend to every one of them.

A composer in office

Lepo Sumera also served as Estonia's Minister of Culture during the Singing Revolution of 1989 to 1992. He helped guide Estonia's cultural policies during those difficult days of transition, and Estonian artists today are reaping the benefits of his leadership.

Sumera was, like other Estonian composers, a pioneer in electronic music and even multimedia events, and was inspirational in bringing many—like Tüür and Peeter Vähi among others—into experimental spheres.

Sumera CD coverOne very ironic aspect of his passing from heart failure was a project in which he took part last year called Südameasjad (Heart Affairs).

His friend and fellow composer Garšnek said that "he used human heart sounds, electronically modified, so that the result sounded like a panoramic electronic-visual composition." More ironic was that Sumera had been scheduled to attend a performance of the piece on the day after his death.

Culture vs news

This national tragedy was compounded when the Estonian press once again revealed how little respect it has for national heroes and treasures. The cultural editors did their best in a tough and painful situation but, it seemed, were less than adequately backed up by the "serious news people" running the papers.

The ETA and BNS news agencies felt that Sumera's death was not important enough to be included in their English-language wire, and even the television news had only a brief piece on his funeral, while the papers all but skipped it. There is only word to describe it: shameful.

Sumera CD coverLooking at the headlines on that Saturday, which concerned kidney transplants and civil servants losing holiday time due to EU adjustments, I think the passing of a legend is worth more than the scant words and seconds they accorded it.

It was the same treatment accorded Ambassador Ernst Jaakson, the man who served Estonian diplomacy for 79 years and symbolised the freedom of Estonia under occupation. The papers' editors paid him much disrespect with their scanty coverage of one of the greatest individuals in Estonian, let alone in international diplomatic history. So sadly, no surprise there. then

The death of Lepo Sumera is a tragic loss for
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Estonia and world music lovers alike. The world has lost an amazingly talented composer, and Estonia has lost one of its best music teachers.

His legacy will live on in his students and in his music, especially his final triumph, the Sixth Symphony. In his final interview with the Arter supplement in Postimees just three weeks ago, Lepo gave us something to think about when we listen to his music:

In my latest symphonies, hope and hopelessness were intertwined. Happiness and the renunciation of happiness are to one another so close that they are like one in the same.

Lepo Sumera (8 May 1950 - 2 June 2000)

Mel Huang, 12 June 2000

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