Central Europe Review The International OSI Policy Fellowships (IPF) program
Vol 2, No 27
10 July 2000
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  Arvo Pärt: The tip of Estonia's
  art music iceberg
Pärt of a Wider Picture
Estonia's art music scene goes beyond the success of Arvo Pärt
Kurt Mortensen

Within the last decade following the fall of the Iron Curtain, a well-kept secret has slowly been spreading throughout the rest of the world: Estonia's contemporary art music scene. Many great Estonian composers have lived in relative obscurity until recently, Arvo Pärt (b 1935) being the main exception. Of course, Pärt emigrated to Germany in the 1980s, which gained him more exposure to the rest of the world.

Ironically, his music is not particularly "Estonian," in that he does not use Estonian melodies or text (except for a few early works) nor does his work contain any nationalistic overtones. Through his success, composers such as his contemporary Veljo Tormis (b 1930) and the younger Erkki­Sven Tüür (b 1959) are now benefiting from the musical attention which Pärt has brought to Estonia. Yet there are many other fine composers in addition to Pärt, Tormis and Tüür.

National awakening

The art music tradition in Estonia is primarily a 20th-century phenomenon. The seeds of this heritage were sown in the late 19th-century, a time of great national awakening. Aside from the important national epic Kalevipoeg (a literary collection of folklore and myths similar to the Finnish Kalevala, which became an important source of patriotic pride) and the huge song festivals which continue to this day, this was the time when the first generation of professional Estonian musicians emerged.

A majority of these people received their education at the St Petersburg Conservatory in Russia, some even studying with the famous Russian composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. The most significant of these was Rudolf Tobias (1873-1918), whose earliest work dates from the final decade of the nineteenth century. Another Russian-educated composer, Artur Kapp (1878-1952), along with Tobias, set the basis for the Estonian art music tradition, although it was stylistically very similar to their Russian model.

A teacher's legacy

Other Estonian composers followed, such as Mart Saar (1882-1963), Artur Lemba (1885-1963), Heino Eller (1887-1970) and Cyrillus Kreek (1889-1962), to mention only a few. Lemba was the first Estonian composer to write an opera, Sabina (1905), and a symphony (in 1908). Saar and Kreek championed the use of Estonian folk material. Both had collected indigenous folk music much like Béla Bartók did in his native land, and, like the Hungarian composer, they incorporated these elements into their work.

Of these individuals, Heino Eller is the most important to the contemporary Estonian music scene because he was the teacher of many famous composers. This the "Heino Eller School," as it is sometimes referred to, includes Arvo Pärt, Jaan Rääts, Lepo Sumera and Eduard Tubin. Eller is "the Father of Modern Estonian Music," according to the famous Estonian conductor Neeme Järvi (b 1937).

He studied in Russia with the same teachers as Stravinsky, Prokofiev and Shostakovich. His style follows in a conservative classical tradition, so Järvi's "modern" label is a relative term. Eller also used folk material from his home. Though he was known as a prominent composer in his day, he has gone down in posterity more as a great teacher.

One of Eller's most well-known students was Eduard Tubin (1905-1982), Estonia's most "famous" composer before Arvo Pärt. However, Tubin was not particularly popular on a global level. Many consider Tubin as Estonia's best symphonist (he wrote ten symphonies and an unfinished eleventh) and some have further suggested that he is among the best symphonists of the 20th century.

When the Russians came to "emancipate" Estonia from the Nazis in 1944, Tubin emigrated to Sweden, where he took citizenship in 1961 and lived the rest of his life. His love for Estonia never waned as he continued to write nationalistic works during his exile.

The first rulebreakers

Eller and Tubin's music was rather conservative and relied heavily on the nineteenth century romantic tradition, in contrast to the composers who were coming of age in the 1950s and began to explore more modern techniques. Again, Arvo Pärt comes to mind. Although he has become known for his "tintinnabulation" (derived from the Latin word for "bells") style, which he developed in 1976, he was considered a radical, particularly in the 1960s, and as a composer who experimented with "decadent" Western techniques.

These included the twelve-tone approach developed by Arnold Schönberg and his pupils, collage procedures which used quotations from pre-existent music to create new musical textures and aleatoric or "chance" procedures as demonstrated by the music of John Cage. Pärt was actually the first Estonian composer to use twelve-tone methods with his orchestral piece Nekrolog (1960). By the time he abandoned these techniques, many of his colleagues were just discovering them.

Other notable modern composers include Eino Tamberg (b 1930), Jaan Rääts (b 1932), Kuldar Sink (19421995) and Veljo Tormis (b 1930).

Eino Tamberg's (b 1930) Concerto Grosso (1956) is considered to be the first "modern" Estonian work and it set the tone for new trends in Estonian music.

Other important compositions during this period are his Ballet-Symphony (1959) and The Moonlight Oratorio (1962). These early works show the composer's interest in interdisciplinary art as he sought to combine music with dramatic and visual arts, something he continues today. It is no wonder, then, that opera and ballet are genres to which Tamberg is attracted. Cyrano de Bergerac (1976) is one of his best-known operas, although it is more neo-romantic than experimental.

Among his orchestral output are four symphonies and a half-dozen concertos for various instruments. As a professor of composition since 1968 and head of the department since 1978 at the Estonian Academy of Music, Tamberg has taught a number of important younger Estonian composers including Raimo Kangro (b 1949) and Peeter Vähi (b 1955), to name a few.

Eclectic influences

Another significant Estonian composer is Jaan Rääts, who has concentrated on instrumental music. His Concerto for Chamber Orchestra (1961), which has been performed all over the world, is his best-known work and is famous for its driving motor-rhythms. His music does not belong to any particular school of composition and he utilizes whatever techniques are appropriate for each piece. For example, his Sixth Symphony employs dense tone clusters and atonality, more traces of modernism, while the aforementioned Concerto for Chamber Orchestra has many neo-Baroque aspects.

Some of his notable works include his 8 symphonies, numerous concertos, 6 string quartets and his pianos pieces: 24 Estonian Preludes (1977) 24 Marginalia for 2 pianos (1982). These later works are considered some of the finest of Estonia's piano literature. Rääts has also been an important teacher at the Estonian Academy of Music since 1968 (except for four years - from 1970 to 1974). Among his students have been Raimo Kangro and Erkki-Sven Tüür.

Although he was slightly younger than his colleagues, Kuldar Sink made important contributions to modern Estonian music. His early works were neo-classical, yet he emerged as an avant-garde composer in the 1960s and has since branched out by incorporating eclectic influences into his work. In his compositions, Sink has used the twelve-tone system, chance-elements, Asian folk music, Arabian scales, Gregorian chant, European folk tunes and Estonian runo songs(folk melodies).

He has also been known to set the poetry of Federico García Lorca, as has the American avant-garde composer George Crumb. Like Crumb, Sink has also experimented with non-traditional notation and special sonic-effects. Unfortunately, Kuldar Sink tragically lost his life in a fire in 1995.

Voice of the people

Veljo Tormis is a very important Estonian composer who has spent most of his life composing music based on the folk music of the Baltic-Finnic peoples. Although Tormis has written an opera, The Swan's Flight (1964-1966) and some orchestral works, he has primarily concentrated on choral music. Following in the tradition of Saar and Kreek, Tormis has been the most important contemporary musical figure in keeping Estonian folk culture alive. He is a master of choral composition, who achieves orchestral effects from human voices while the speciously tedious repetition of ancient runosongs ensues.

Veljo Tormis
Veljo Tormis:
Folk influences
Some of his best-known works include: Estonian Calendar Songs (1967), a work which was his breakthrough in his runosong-based style; Forgotten Peoples (1970-1989), a series of six song cycles written over a twenty year period based on the melodies of dying cultures, including Livonian, Votic, Izhorian, Ingrian, Vepsian and Karelian; and Curse Upon Iron (1972), a work which employs a shaman drum and evokes an ancient superstitious ritual. "I do not use folk song, it is folk song that uses me," states a modest Veljo Tormis.

Significant individuals in the next generation of Estonian composers include Lepo Sumera (1950-2000), Raimo Kangro (b 1949), René Eespere (b 1953), Peeter Vähi (b 1955), Urmas Sisask (b 1960) and Erkki-Sven Tüür (b 1959).

Lepo Sumera was a strong figure in the contemporary Estonian music scene. Unfortunately, he died due to complications to heart disease in June 2000.

Sumera was one of Estonia's greatest symphonists since Eduard Tubin (1905-1982). He had a tremendous gift for orchestral color and sonic textures. He had just completed his Sixth Symphony prior to his passing. Also of note is his piano concerto.

Lepo Sumera
Lepo Sumera
Although he used twelve-tone methods and collage techniques in the 1970s, he later moved toward a tonal / modal language. Repetitive structures in his music show the influence of runosong, and he cited Tormis as a major influence. Sumera was also a major Estonian figure in the electronic music field and taught the subject at the Estonian Music Academy.

He also contributed greatly to Estonian music as minister of culture during the transition from Soviet control to independence, in addition to being the chairman of the Composer's Association and teaching several important younger composers, most notably Erkki-Sven Tüür. His passing is a great loss for contemporary Estonian art music.

Minimalist influences

Raimo Kangro, like his teacher Jaan Rääts, is known for his use of rhythm. It is no wonder, then, that Baroque music, minimalism and rock are his major influences. Baroque elements can be found in his Suite (1968), op 1 for piano, a work which has enjoyed popularity with Estonian pianists.

His series of pieces called Display demonstrates his admiration for his influences. The first, Display I: Portrait of Steve Reich, deals with the famous American minimalist. Kangro has also written one as a tribute to the Baroque composer Antonio Vivaldi. A personal favorite of this author is Kangro's Idioms (1992), op 43a for flute, violin and guitar. Kangro is currently on the faculty of the Estonian Music Academy.

René Eespere began writing impressionist-style music, but his mature works suggest influence from the tintinnabulation works of Pärt and American minimalism. The composer acknowledges the effect that Pärt has had on his work, but also suggests that rock, Baroque music and runosongs are important influences as well.

Eespere is a significant choral composer who has written numerous large-scale pieces for soloists, chorus and orchestra which utilize his own texts. Theses include Mysterium (1981), Passion (1984) and Meditereum (1982). He has also composed children's songs, ballets and Time of Awakening (1990), an important song of the Singing Revolution. His Trivium (1991) for flute, violin and guitar and Flute Concerto (1995-98) are among his best works. Like many of his colleagues, Eespere teaches at the Estonian Music Academy.

Crossing over the boundaries

Peeter Vähi's music draws from many different sources of inspiration including Oriental melodies, Baroque music, new age and rock. Like Sumera, Vähi has worked with electronic music. He has composed in a number of different styles as he writes new-age music, rock and classical works. He led the pop-rock group Vitamin and played keyboards for the jazz-rock band New Generation.

Among his notable works are Sounds of the Silver Moon, which is based on Indian classical music, 2000 Years After the Birth Of Christ (1990) for early music ensemble and "Bad" orchestra (synthesizers, drum machines and vocalist), Concerto for 2 chamber orchestras (1985) and the White Concerto for guitar and orchestra.

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Rock influence in his classical works can be found in a piece such as Pastoral of Computerized World (1995) for flute, cello and harpsichord which is based around a 4-note quotation from Pink Floyd's "Shine On You Crazy Diamond" from their 1975 Wish You Were Here album. His Supreme Silence (1987), which features a male chorus and handbell orchestra, is based on Buddhist concepts and demonstrates his interest in Eastern thought.

Unlike many of his fellow composers, Vähi has worked outside of the music academy as the creator of several programs for Estonian Radio, a free-lance record producer, the music producer for the national concert institute and as the artistic director of several international music festivals.

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Urmas Sisask's major contributions have been in choral and pianos works. He has long held a fascination with astronomy and one of his most famous works, Starry Sky Cycle, which he started in 1980, is a good example of this influence. The piece, which consists of different constellations, was written over a period between 1980 and 1987, although he intends to add more to the work over time. Sisask states, "the starry sky is an open book for us all, but we cannot be bothered to look up. People walk about with their heads bowed... They are not aware of their role in the universe."

Jewel in the crown

Of this generation of Estonian composers, Erkki-Sven Tüür is clearly the most important. He has commissions from all around the globe, most coming from internationally acclaimed ensembles and prestigious organizations, and he supports himself completely by composing. Tüür began as a self-taught musician, only studying percussion, flute and, finally, composition beginning in his late teens.

Erkki-Sven Tüür
Erkki-Sven Tüür:
Prog rocker
He has developed a very personal style based on what he calls a "metalanguage." This consists of many different and seemingly incongruous 20th-century techniques (ie twelve-tone, minimalism, sound mass textures) mixed with elements of Renaissance and Baroque music, as well as Gregorian chant and rock music, particularly the progressive rock style pioneered by bands like King Crimson, Yes, Genesis and Emerson, Lake and Palmer. The composer's first professional musical experience was actually as the leader of the Estonian progressive rock group In Spe.

Among his many great works are three symphonies, a string quartet, a cello concerto, a piano sonata and Insula Deserta for strings, a work which was the catalyst for his international fame. His Requiem (1995) is one of his finest achievements and embodies the essence of his mature style in a half-hour composition.

A series of seven chamber works for various ensembles called Architectonics (1984-1992) are also an important part of his output. He is currently working on a commission from the Dortmund Opera for the 2001 season about the story of Raoul Wallenberg, the unconventional Swede who helped save the lives of thousands of Hungarian Jews during the Second World War and vanished into the Soviet prison system at the end of the war. It is this author's opinion that Tüür is destined for the history books as a composer who will be studied along with the great masters.

There are also the younger generation of Estonian composers who are just emerging. Mari Vihmand (b 1967), Tõnu Kõrvits (b 1969), Tõnis Kaumann (b 1971) and Helena Tulve (b 1972) are just a few names to look out for.

It is also worth noting that much of Estonian music contains excessive repetition, which has brought about many comparisons to American minimalist composers such as Steve Reich, Terry Riley and Philip Glass. While some of the later composers came to be influenced by this music, minimalism did not reach Estonia until many years after it had emerged. In many cases the minimalist repetition came from the Estonian folk tradition through runosongs, not from America.

In the last 10 years, Estonia has finally made an impact on the musical map of the world. While many Estonian composers are not yet internationally known, their presence is gradually emerging. The contemporary Estonian art music scene is vibrant and hopefully, as more time goes by, the rest of the world will realize what great things have been hidden behind the Iron Curtain for so many years, as well as gaining an inkling of what the future will bring.

Kurt Mortensen, 10 July 2000

The author

Kurt Mortensen is a Chicago-based composer. You can read more about Kurt Mortensen's music on his website.

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