Gustav Ernesaks

December 12, 1908 Perila village, Peningi parish – January 24, 1993 Tallinn
Member of the Estonian Composers' Union since 1944

Gustav Ernesaks, known as the Grandpa of the Song among Estonian people, was a composer, choral conductor and pedagogue. His oeuvre mainly consists a great number of a cappella choral music, of which a lot of songs have been performed repeatedly at Estonian song festivals. Next to the choral songs, Ernesaks has composed large-scale choral works such as cantatas and suites, about twenty solo songs and five operas. Additionally, his creation also consists music for plays and films, but no orchestral works. Besides composing, Ernesaks conducted several choirs, founded the Estonian National Male Choir and was its conductor, organized and acted as chief conductor of song festivals. For people, Ernesaks was and still remains the synonym of song festivals.

Gustav Ernesaks’s musical language is traditional and he uses mainly simple classical harmonisation. His musical thinking is expressed by the melody, and becomes harmonised. The melodically figured choral facture often serves as a basis. Ernesaks didn’t follow the radical innovations of musical language in Estonia in the second half of the 1950s. Only in the 1970s, signs of innovation can be found in his songs: parallel fifths ("Tartu in a White Night"), sustained organ point ("Frost").

First of all, Ernesaks was a lyrist – lyrical emotionality with singing melody are the main characteristics of his music (e.g. "My Native Land, My Dearest One", "The Sun Set on Linden Trees", "Evening on the Shore", "Swamp Scenery"). Among his songs, written during the war years, there are some heroic-patriotic songs ("Estonia Must Be Free", "Cold Ovens"). Ernesaks has used in his compositions a great number of nature based lyrics ("The Sun Set on Linden Trees", "Swamp Scenery", "A Song to a Pine Tree", "Waves Are Rising", "A Skylark", "Frost" and many others). Also popular humor can be found among his choral songs, particularly written after war ("The New-Year Billy-Goat", "I Was Invited to a Wedding"). Ernesaks’s songs are originated from the lyrics, musical gestures grow out from the poetry.

Ernesaks studied piano with Eva Raudkats-Noorma and organ with Prof August Topman at the Tallinn Conservatory in 1924–1927. In 1931, he graduated from the same university as a secondary school singing and music teacher under supervision of Juhan Aavik and 1934 as composer in the composition class of Prof Artur Kapp.


As a conductor



Ernesaks got his first indications for conducting choirs from Topman, who let his organ students practice with a study choir. In 1930, he started quite by chance to work for five years with recently founded Male Choir of Tallinn City Servants. This choir provoked Ernesaks as a conductor and made him think about the essence of a choir – his career as choral conductor started. In 1935–1941, Ernesaks conducted several choirs such as Tallinn Men’s Choral Society Choir, Tallinn Girls’ Gymnasium No. 2 Alumnae Choir which later developed into the female choir of Tallinn Female Singers Society and many others. In 1938, Ernesaks rose for the first time to the stand of chief conductor at the 11th Song Festival and conducted his own choral pieces "The Young Spring" and "Men, Let’s Get Going".

In 1941–1944, during the Second World War Ernesaks was mobilised to the rear area in the Soviet Union. Even there he continued to work as a choral conductor – he conducted Udmurtian mixed choir and Male and Mixed Choir of the State Artistic Ensembles of the Estonian SSR in Yaroslavl.

In 1944, after returning Estonia, he founded Estonian SSR State Philharmonic Male Choir, known as RAM (since 1953, State Academic Male Choir; since 1989, Estonian National Male Choir) which is currently the largest full-time professional male choir in the world. The birth of the Estonian National Male Choir was basically the result of Ernesaks’s work. He stayed in connection with the choir until his death – in 1944–1975 he was the chief conductor and later acted as its artistic director. Up to the second half of 1980s, RAM was an important representative of Estonian music in the world because it was one of the few choirs in USSR which had the possibility to give concerts beyond the borders of the state. Thanks to the choir the best of Estonian choral music was born, Veljo Tormis’s works for male choir among them. Likewise a lot of songs by Ernesaks were created for the choir.

Ernesaks was also one of the founders of Mixed Choir of Estonian Choral Conductors in 1958 and its longtime conductor. In 1970, health problems made him retire from the regular work with the choirs. Ernesaks conducted joint choirs for the last time at the Song Festival in 1990.


As a pedagogue



After graduating from the Music Pedagogic Department at Tallinn Conservatory in 1931, Ernesaks worked for ten years as a music teacher at different secondary schools in Tallinn. In 1937, he started to teach at Tallinn Conservatory – first, till 1941 in school music education department and in 1944–1972 choral conductors department (since 1945, as a professor, 1946–1948 and 1951–1961 head of department, since 1989, honorary doctorate). Among his students there are Jüri Variste, Harald Uibo, Uno Järvela, Kuno Areng, Olev Oja, Silvia Mellik, Tiia-Ester Loitme, Alo Ritsing, Eri Klas and many others.


As a composer



Ernesaks’s numerous amount of a cappella choral music is influenced by the work as a choral conductor with different choirs. Although he has composed songs for all types of choirs, including a lot of children’s songs, more than half of them are written for male choirs. The sound of male choir fascinated him the most.

A lot of Ernesaks’s choral works are very popular ("Men, Let’s Get Going", "Lilacs, Will You Tell My Fortune", "My Native Land, My Dearest One", "Invitation"). Male choir song "Men, Let’s Get Going" was known already in 1930s and since 1938 it has been the additional song to the program of song festivals. His song "My Native Land, My Dearest One", composed in 1944 on the poem by Lydia Koidula, has become the symbol of the national persistence. During the Soviet time it attained the significance of the national anthem next to official State Anthem of Estonian SSR ("May the Brave Folk of Kalev Last Forever", text by Johannes Semper), which was also composed by Ernesaks. The best of his choral music has remained in the choirs’ repertoire till today.

The most remarkable among the large-scale choral works is male choir suite How the Fishermen Live in nine parts composed on the text by Juhan Smuul (1953). Solo songs On the Dim Beach (1932), Under White Birch Trees (1933) and The Bird Cherry Tree (1933) on his own texts are the best-known of his solo songs. The most popular opera The Coast of Storms (libretto by Juhan Smuul, 1949) was staged also in Moscow in 1950 and this brought to the composer the Stalin award. The scene in the tavern from the opera is a very popular concert piece up to this day.

Besides composing, conducting and being a pedagogue, Ernesaks was also talented writer. He wrote articles and composed a lot of solo songs and nature songs on his own texts. Five books by Ernesaks have been published: compilation of his articles entitled as My Mouth Is Singing, My Heart Is Worrying (1971), Wheel of Time Is Rolling – the book grown out of TV program in 1977, memory books Invitation (1980) and The Wave Is Rising (1983) and compilation of articles about song festivals entitled as Song, Spread Your Wings (1985).

Ernesaks’s choral songs have been recorded on several compilation CDs, there are also three author CDs of composer’s music: "Granpa of the Song Gustav Ernesaks" (Forte, 1993), "Gustav Ernesaks and His Time" (Forte, 1998) and "My Native Land, My Dearest One" (RAM, 2008). In 2004, Estonian Music Information Centre released a book about Ernesaks entitled as Gustav Ernesaks. Choral Conductor and Composer written by Tiia Järg.

Gustav Ernesaks was given the honorary title of Estonian SSR Honoured Worker in Arts (1942), Estonian SSR People’s Artist (1947) and USSR People’s Artist (1956). He has been awarded the 5th Class Order of the Estonian Red Cross (1939), USSR State Prize (1947, 1951), Estonian SSR State Prize (1947, 1948, 1950, 1959 and 1965), the Order of Lenin (1950, 1967 and 1974), the Lenin Prize (1970), the honorary title of Hero of Socialist Labor (1978), the Order of October Revolution (1978) and the title of Honoray Citizen of Tallinn (1978). Since 1993, the Gustav Ernesaks Foundation gives out the scholarships to support activities in the field of choral music. In 2004, sculpture of Ernesaks by Ekke Väli was placed on the side of song festival grounds and Gustav Ernesaks House Museum at Kadriorg was opened in 2009.

© EMIC 2009

The texts on the EMIC's homepage are protected by the copyright law. They can be used for non-commercial purposes referring to the author (when specified) and source (Estonian Music Information Centre).