Heino Eller

March 7, 1887, Tartu – June 16, 1970, Tallinn
Member of Estonian Composers´ Union from 1944
Buried at Tallinn Forest Cemetery

Heino Eller was one of the pioneers of contemporary Estonian music, the founder of the Tartu composition school influential in the first half of the 20th century. His work forged an idiom fusing the classical and romantic traditions, modernism, and folk music inflections. Eller’s Homeland tune and the symphonic poem Dawn are often performed in Estonia and abroad. His Violin Concerto, string quartets, violin pieces "Pines" and "Open Spaces" and piano works "Butterflies" and "Bells" are de rigueur on academic and concert programs.

Eller was above all a composer of instrumental music, and even his few vocal works are written as arrangements of instrumental pieces. About 40 works for orchestra and over 200 for piano make up the major part of Eller’s oeuvre. The better part of his orchestral music is made up of short pieces reflective of scenes from nature and expressionist moods – symphonic scenes and poems. A composer who studied the violin, Eller wrote over 30 works for that instrument, including Estonia’s first violin concerto (1937).
The general characteristics of Eller’s idiom are an intimate, chamber-like style and a polyphonic texture rich in detail.

Eller’s first period (1909–1920) centred on works for the piano and short orchestral pieces. Generally lyrical-romantic, with influences of Chopin, Grieg, Rachmaninoff and Scriabin, his style at times takes on strong impressionist and expressionist features (the symphonic poems Night Calls and Phantoms). Piano Sonata No. 1 – Estonia’s first artistically mature piano sonata – and the symphonic poem Dawn, one of the prettiest examples of Elleresque natural lyricism, were written at this time.

In his middle, Tartu period, (1920–1939), use of modes and interval structures from Estonian folk music rose to the fore, along with a more sweeping epic style. In Symphonic Burlesque, Eller uses an authentic folk tune for the first time. The intertwining of folk music inflections and modernist means of expression (linear polyphony, polyharmony) in his String Quartet No-s 1 and 2, Elegy, the Violin Concerto, Symphony No. 1, the symphonic suite White Night brought fresh currents into Estonian music.

The third, Tallinn period (1940–1970) is characterized by simplification of the idiom and the even greater role given to folk melodies. One of the finest works of Estonian music was completed – Thirteen Piano Pieces on Estonian Motifs. Some orchestral works with an illustrative idiom (the symphonic poems Flight of the Eagle, Singing Fields) bore the official stamp of Soviet cultural policy. The composer returned to dense symphonic development in Symphony No. 3.

Heino Eller began his musical career at age 12 with the violin. In 1907, he entered St. Petersburg Conservatoire Prof. E. Krüger’s violin class, which he did not finish due to overtraining. From 1908–1911, Eller studied at the University of St. Petersburg’s faculty of law, but then returned to his vocation, entering the St. Petersburg Conservatoire’s composition department in 1913. During World War One, Eller served for a time in a military orchestra, concluding his studies at the St. Petersburg Conservatoire from 1919–1920 under professors Vassily Kalafati, Maximilian Steinberg and Mikhail Chernov.
From 1920–1940, Eller was a member of the music theory and composition faculty at the Tartu Higher School of Music, laying the foundation for the Tartu composition school, which was influential in Estonian music in the first half of the 20th century as well as later, and which counted Eduard Tubin, Eduard Oja, Olav Roots, Alfred Karindi, Johannes Bleive and the musicologist Karl Leichter among its adherents. From 1940 to his death, Eller was Professor of composition at the Tallinn Conservatoire, where Villem Kapp, Kaljo Raid, Boris Kõrver, Anatoli Garšnek, Leo Normet, Valter Ojakäär, Uno Naissoo, Arne Oit, Jaan Rääts, Heino Jürisalu, Arvo Pärt, Alo Põldmäe and Lepo Sumera were among his numerous pupils.

In 1940, Heino Eller served as the chairman of the organizing committee of the Estonian SSR’s Composers’ Union. He was awarded the title of Merited Art Worker of the Estonian SSR (1945), People’s Artist of the Estonian SSR (1957) and People’s Artist of the USSR (1967). He won the Prize of the Soviet Estonia (1948, 1965) and the Order of Lenin (1965).

Eller’s works have been published by Edition 49 and recorded by the Antes, Finlandia Records and Warner Classics as well as Estonian Radio. In 2001, ECM released the CD "Nenia" featuring the music for strings by Eller, performed by the Tallinn Chamber Orchestra and Tõnu Kaljuste.
In 1971, a Tartu music school – the former Tartu Higher School of Music, where the composer worked as Professor of composition from 1920–1940 – was named after Eller.

The Heino Eller International Violin Competition took place in Tallinn in 1991, 1996 and 2001, organised by the Estonian Academy of Music, the Estonian Association of String Teachers and the State Concert Institute Eesti Kontsert.

Since 1998, the Estonian Theatre and Music Museum has been awarding the Heino Eller prize for music for examining and studying Eller’s legacy.

Laureates are:
1998 – Prof. Heljo Sepp, who was very closely associated with the composer and active for more than six decades as a pianist, educator and author of musical scholarship in popularizing Eller’s work. Heljo Sepp is the author of the books "Heino Eller’s piano works" and "Heino Eller in words and pictures".

1999 – Toomas Trass received the young composer prize; the Finnish conductor Juha Kangas received the prize for promoting the music of Eller and the composers of the Tartu school.

2000 – prizes were awarded to Helena Tulve and the musicologist, Prof. Mart Humal. Mart Humal is the author of numerous works on Eller, including the books "Harmony in the work of H. Eller", "Heino Eller as reflected by his time" and a Russian-language book on Eller (co-authored by Reet Remmel).

2001 – the prize went to the composer Tõnu Kõrvits; while a special prize for best performance of an Eller work at the H. Eller Violin Competition was awarded to Sunho Kim of South Korea; the establishment of the Lepo Sumera Society was supported with 10,000 Estonian crowns (Lepo Sumera, who died untimely the year before, was one of Eller’s last students).

2002 – prizes went to composer Timo Steiner, the pianist Aleksandra Juozapénaité-Eesmaa (CD with Eller’s piano music released by Antes) and the conductor Tõnu Kaljuste (CD with Eller’s orchestral music released by ECM).

2003 – prizes were awarded to composer Galina Grigorjeva and the Tallinn String Quartet members Urmas Vulp (1st violin), Olga Voronova (2nd violin), Toomas Nestor (viola) and Henry-David Varema (cello). Urmas Vulp’s contribution to the organisation of the International Heino Eller Violin Competition was singled out for praise.

2004 – laureates were composers Mirjam Tally and Märt-Matis Lill.

2005 – prize went to the composer Tõnis Kaumann.

2006 – Ülo Krigul received the young composer prize and Vivian Tordik, teacher of the Heino Eller Music School in Tartu, received the musicology prize.

2007 – laureates were composer Mart Siimer and the head of music department of the Estonian Theatre and Music Museum, pedagogue and composer Alo Põldmäe.

2008 – laureate was composer Tatjana Kozlova.

2009 – prizes were awarded to composer Tauno Aints and to compiling team of album "Heino Eller in modo mixolydio" – Reet Remmel, Mart Humal and Rein Seppius (art designer).

2010 – laureate was musicologist and pedagogue Tiia Järg.

© EMIC 2005
(updated March 2010)

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