Rudolf Tobias

b. May 29, 1873, Käina, Hiiumaa island - d. October 29, 1918, Berlin, Germany

Composer and organist Rudolf Tobias is one the most imporant leading figures in formation and development of Estonian national music culture and art of composing. He was the first composer with Estonian nationality, who acquired higher academic education in composition and although he spent during his career only four years in Estonia, his activities and creation had significant effect for Estonian music life at an early emerging.
While the earliest Estonian composers Johannes Kappel, Miina Härma and Konstatin Türnpu in their creation were limited to compose mainly choral songs, Tobias’ list of works shows music written in the most diverse genres.
Tobias is the author of the first Estonian symphonic work (ouverture „Julius Caesar, 1896”), first cantata („Johannes Damaskusest” [Johannes Damascenus], 1897), first piano concerto (1897), first piano sonata (1897), first string quartet (1899), first oratorio (“Joonase lähetamine” [Jonah’s Mission], 1909), first work of program music (“Walpurgis-burleske”, 1910). Tobias also wrote Estonian music’s first considerable piano pieces and first polyphonic works for piano and organ. With diversity in genres, particulary in instrumental music, Tobias was an important pathfinder for the next several generations of composers in Estonia.

Music of Rudolf Tobias is typically wakeful, strong and courageous and has an urge for dynamic and grandiose concepts. Massive and monumental expressions replace any kind of sentimentality, texture of his music is mostly intense and polyphonic.
Tobias’ creation is based on classical models (Bach, Händel, Beethoven, Schubert, Liszt), he never felt passion to experiment with modern flows of the music in the beginning of 20th century. However, there are some features of impressionism in his later compositions ("Kalevipoeg põrgu väravas" [Kalevipoeg at the Gates of Hell], "Sest Ilmaneitsist ilusast" [Of the Beautiful Air Maiden]).
Tobias was an optimistic and strong-willed, but impatient person. As a composer, he was able to generate numerous high-spirited ideas, but lots of them remained as plain sketches on the paper.
Despite the setbacks, Tobias’ music radiates vitality and belief to the better future.


Rudolf Tobias was born on May 29, 1873 in Käina, on the island of Hiiumaa. The first musical knowledge he collected from his father, who worked as a parish clerk and was involved in the construction and improvement (tuning) of organs and pianos. The first composition excercises by Tobias are known from 1882, when he was only nine years old.
From 1885 Tobias studied in Haapsalu county school and took piano lessons from a local pianist Catharina von Gernet. After the graduating, he moved to his family in Kullamaa, where his father had meanwhile become the parish clerk.
In 1889, Tobias became a pupil of Tallinn Nicolai High School and studied organ and music theory with Ernst Reinicke, the Tallinn Cathedral organist.

Rudolf Tobias in St. Petersburg

In St. Petersburg Tobias spent a period of ten years studying and working.
In 1893, 20 years old Tobias joined St. Petersburg Conservatoire, where he initially studied organ with Prof. Louis Homilius and then composition with Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. In 1897, i.e. after four years, he graduated from the Conservatoire with two specialties – as an organist and as a composer. As the graduation work, Tobias had written cantata „Johannes Damaskusest” [Johannes Damascenus] for five soloists, mixed choir, male choir, organ and symphony orchestra. In the Conservatory, he also wrote overture „Julius Caesar” after a drama by William Shakespeare and a number of piano pieces.
After the graduating, Tobias worked as an organist and choir conductor for six years (1898-1904) at the St. Petersburg Estonian congregation at St. John's Church. There had he good opportunities to perform his new compositions, among them choir piece „Nenia in memory of Fr. R. Kreutzwald” for the occasion of the Estonian national epic author’s 100th anniversary.
In St. Petersburg, Tobias worked also as a music teacher.

The years in Tartu

In 1904, Tobias moved back to Estonia and took up residence in Tartu, where he was teaching in several schools and gave a large number of private lessons. In Hugo Treffner Gymnasium, he founded a string quartet of students. Remarkably, two members of this quartet – Juhan Simm and Heino Eller, became later composers. Tobias’ activity was leading also to significantly more regular concert life in Tartu. Together with Aleksander Läte, Tobias organized and prepared a number of performances of oratorial works and often appeared himself as a pianist, conductor or organist.
In Tartu, Tobias also joined the literary group Noor-Eesti [Young-Estonia]. He published a number of articles and reflected the music life in newspapers, which gave the basis for the development of the Estonian music criticism. In addition, he drew attention to the need of valuing the professional level in the art of music.
Tobias was also a great supporter of collecting and recording Estonian folksongs. Although grown up in German minded clerk’s family, Tobias was one of the first Estonian composers, who took folksongs into use. In that time, the folksongs were mainly used by Miina Härma in her popular choir songs, Tobias brought folk tunes into instrumental music as well.
Starting from the time in Tartu, Tobias’ intention was to memorialise the national epic in music and to create something on material of „Kalevipoeg”. This idea remained to follow the composer for all his life. Over time, some numbers of planned opera were composed: „The Dream of Kalevipoeg” (1907), ballade „Of Beautiful Air Maiden” (1911), „Kalevipoeg at the Gates of Hell” (1912) and a number of sketches were made, but to the final delivery Tobias’ idea of „Kalevipoeg" did not come.
While in Estonia, Tobias was constantly looking for opportunities to perform his works that he had composed in St. Petersburg, but ran into facing major difficulties. His works were proved to be technically too demanding and practically unrealizable – it was quite impossible to find a sufficient number of players or they did not have any acceptable level to perform the music.
Tobias soon found that the limited opportunities of music life in Estonia can not offer him a decent challenge, and here, his talent and learned skills can not be fully implemented. Tobias needed a more favorable environment for realizing his ideas.

The years abroad

In 1908 Tobias traveled to Western Europe staying shortly in Paris, Munich, Dresden and Prague. A longer time he lived in Teplice nearby resort of Eichwald (currently Dubi), where he worked with his oratorio „Jonah's Mission”. By the end of the same year, Tobias moved to Leipzig, where in 1909 finally the giant work for five soloists, two mixed choirs, children’s choir, organ and symphony orchestra were completed.
The premiere of „Jonah’s Mission“ was held on 26th of November 1909 in the Leipzig St. Andew’s Church with local musicians under conducting by Tobias himself. Unfortunately, the performance could not be regarded as a success. This due to inadequately prepared orchestral parts, limited capabilities of musicians, as well as the fact that Tobias had overrated his own conducting skills and physical strength.
From 1910 Tobias remained to stay in Berlin. He gave private lessons, worked as an organist and journalist. Later on, Tobias belonged to the evaluation committee of German Composers’ Union. In 1912, Tobias started to work as a substitute lecturer of theoretical subjects at the Berlin Royal Academy of Music, where Prof. Hermann Kretzschmar, the director of the Academy, invited him after having acquainted himself with the score of Tobias’ “Mission of Jonah”.
In August 1913, Tobias visited Estonia in occasion of opening ceremonies of the new theatre Estonia, where he also conducted some of his own works.
In 1914, Tobias acquired German citizenship to make possible his full professorship at the Royal Academy of Music. He could commit himself in this regard more carelessly to the composing and started to write a new oratorio titeled „Teispool Jordanit”[On the Other Side of Jordan].
In October 1918, Tobias fell ill with pneumonia and on 29th of October he unexpectedly died, at the age of only 45. Tobias was buried in Berlin Wilmersdorf cemetery.
After the restoration of the Republic of Estonia, Tobias’s remains were reburied on 7th of June 1992 in his home town Kullamaa.

In memory of Rudolf Tobias

In memory of Rudolf Tobias a monument was erected in Haapsalu in 1929 (Roman Haavamägi) and in 1973 a memorial (Aime Kuhlbusch) was opened in Kullamaa. In 1924 one of the streets in Tallinn was renamed after Tobias and in 1973 Tobias’ name was given to the Children’s Music School in Kärdla, on the Island of Hiiumaa. In occasion of the 100th anniversary of Rudolf Tobias in 1973, a memorial museum was opened in Käina in the house where he was born. In 2013, a memorial granite bench with a park named after Tobias was opened in Kullamaa. Rudolf Tobias was also depicted on the Estonian 50-crown banknote.

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