Mart Saar

September 28, 1882, Hüpassare, Viljandi County - October 28, 1963, Tallinn
Buried at Suure-Jaani Cemetery
Member of the Estonian Composers' Union since 1944

Saar was a miniaturist – his oeuvre mainly includes small-scale works. He has composed approximately 350 a cappella choral songs, 180 solo songs and 120 piano pieces. Besides vocal and piano music Saar has also written orchestral music, large-scale works and music to children’s play.

At the beginning of his career Saar was strongly influenced by modern movements of the European music in the early 20th century –  expressionism (in "Must lind" [Black Bird], a solo song) and impressionism (Preludes for Piano). Even some atonal language can be heard in his piano piece Skizze.

In his mellow style Saar rejected modern sound language and turned to Estonian folk song. He was one of the founders of Estonian professional music and its national  style, especially in the field of choral music. Saar was the first Estonian composer to understand the essence of the older Estonian folk song, to unroll its originality and mix the archaic folk song with contemporary sound. Saar was one of those who systematically collected, analyzed and systematized folk songs (expeditions in 1907 and 1910). 

Mart Saar was born in the village of Hüpassaare to the family of a forest keeper. His father, a good organist and improvisator, gave Saar his first music lessons. He was educated at the Kaansoo village school and the Suure-Jaani parish school where his music teacher was Joosep Kapp, father of composer Artur Kapp. In 1901 Saar went to study organ with Louis Homilius at the St. Petersburg Conservatory. He graduated in 1908 with a silver medal. At the same time he studied composition with Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and Anatoly Lyadov. After his final graduation in 1911 he taught music in Tartu, Estonia. In 1921, Saar moved to Tallinn to be a freelance composer and organist. He also edited the music magazine "Muusikaleht". 

From 1932 to 1943 Saar lived in his paternal home in Hüpassaare where he later spent all his summers. From 1943 to 1956 Saar was a professor of composition at the Tallinn Conservatory. Among his students there were Tuudur Vettik, Riho Päts, Ester Mägi, Harri Otsa, Uno Naissoo, Valter Ojakäär, Jaan Rääts. In 1956, Saar got paralyzed on account of which he gave up teaching and devoted himself to composing.

The choral songs which Mart Saar composed throughout his creative period hold the weightiest place in his oeurve (ca 350 pieces). Among his early choral music there can be found songs influenced by European modern music styles ("Ühte laulu tahaks laulda" [I’d Like to Sing a Song]), songs in classical-romantic style ("Mets kohiseb" [Woods Are Sighing]) and folk song treatments with simple harmony.

Saar’s mellow style relies on Estonian folk melodys. He revealed the new approach to harmony and texture of choral song as well as to the relation between the verbal text and music. Former composers have treated the Estonian folk song as only melodic material and harmonized and rhythmized it in the spirit of German Late Romanticism. Saar saw folk song as a whole where the word, melody and style of performance are inseparably connected. The archaic songs fascinated Saar with their changing meters (in "Läksin kõrtsi aega viitma", [I Went to Spend Time in the Tavern]), assonance (agreement between stressed vowels) and alliteration (agreement between consonants) (in "Latse hällütamise laul" [Lullaby, in a dialect]).

Saar gave up the romantic and hymn-like harmonization practices and used most prevailing Estonian folk music modes Dorian, Lydian and Mixolydian. The structure spreads from unison to 8-voice writing, different voices are piled in complicated sonorities, even tone clusters. Most characteristic is variational development. He has used the Estonian folk music modes also in his non-folksy songs ("Kõver kuuseke", [Little Twisted Fur Tree]). 

Solo song was one of Saar’s favorite genres besides choral music. He has written more of them than any other Estonian composer (ca 180). In his songs Saar has found a beautiful outlet to express his love for the nature of his homeland. We can find both tender love lyricism and philosophical thoughts about perishableness of life. Saar has achieved a level with his songs that is comparable to best examples in the world in this field. The poetry of Juhan Liiv, Karl Eduard Sööt and Anna Haava has been used most frequently. 

Being himself as a great pianist, Saar has composed a lot of piano works. Although his piano music is not so numerable as his songs, Saar’s piano miniatures (preludes, dances, pieces) form the treasured part of Estonian piano music classics. His early piano music is generally deeply serious, often pensive, concentrated and short-spoken in expression. Composer’s style is swaying between Late Romanticism, impressionism and expressionism. Since 1913, Saar’s piano music is developing to different direction in styles. On the one hand, Saar stays in tragic mood of expression (Elegy A minor), on the other hand there is notable inner simplification. Among Saar’s piano music, there are such preludes that are variations of some other composer’s piece (Skryabin, Rachmaninov, Debussy). Three Estonian Suites and Estonian Fantasy are based on Estonian folk tunes. Also pieces with original themes are often in ethnical styles (Moment, Song to the Pine).

Mart Saar was given the honorary title of ESSR Honoured Worker in Arts (1945), ESSR People’s Artist (1972). In 1972, the Home museum of Mart Saar was opened in Hüpassaare. In 1997, Estonian National Television produced broadcast of Saar titled as Fen Preludes [Rabaprelüüdid]; several books have been published about Saar’s life and oeuvre.

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