Veljo Tormis

August 7, 1930, Kuusalu - January 21, 2017
Member of Estonian Composers´ Union since 1956
Member of the Estonian Cinema Association since 1969

One of the first works in the stylistic renewal that Estonian music underwent was Veljo Tormis’s Overture No. 2 (1959) – the first work of an Estonian composer performed at the Warsaw Autumn Festival, in 1961. The old and the new intersect in Tormis’ music – having started in neoclassicist style he later took the stylistic trend based on Estonian folk music to a new level by bringing into play structural approach common to modernist composition techniques.

Veljo Tormis studied organ as a private pupil of August Topman in 1942–1943 and continued studies with Topman at the Tallinn Conservatoire in 1943–1944. After the conservatoire’s reorganization, Tormis continued his organ studies in 1944 with Salme Krull at the Tallinn Higher Music School graduating in 1947. In 1949–1950, he studied choir conducting at the same school, in 1950–1951 he was a composition student of Professor Villem Kapp at the Tallinn Conservatoire.

Tormis earned his composer’s diploma at the Moscow Conservatoire from 1951 to 1956 as a student of Professor Visarion Shebalin. From 1955–1960, he served at Tallinn Music High School as a teacher of music theory and composition. Among his students were Arvo Pärt and Kuldar Sink. In 1956–1969 Tormis was engaged as an adviser of the Estonian Composers’ Union and 1974–1989 as a vice-president of the ECU. Since 1969, Tormis has been a freelance composer.

Tormis’ Overture No. 2 contains the tragic echoes of Tubin’s Symphony No. 5 and neoclassicist features. Many subsequent works – the vocal cycles Four Fragments with the second title The Seasons (“Neli kildu” or “Aastaajad”, 1955) and Three Flowers (“Kolm lille”, 1960) to texts by Juhan Liiv, Ten Haikus (“Kümme haikut”, 1966) to text by Jaan Kaplinski, the Estonian poetry-based female choir cycle Nature Pictures (“Looduspildid”, 1969) etc. – received attention for their novel, modernistic economy of writing. Tormis also used dodecaphony for characterization and atmosphere in the opera Swan’s Flight (“Luigelend”, 1966, libretto by Kaarel Ird and Enn Vetemaa) and Ten Haikus.

The bulk of Tormis’ works is his abundant work for choir, which is based on an older stratum of Estonian folk song called regilaul. In addition to Estonian folk song, he has drawn on the folklore of kindred and more distant peoples. His music echoes with the melodies of the Ingrians, Setus, Estonians, Latvians, Livonians, Finns, Russians, Bulgarians and other peoples.

Tormis’ choral works of the latter half of the 1950s bear features of national romanticism. In the 1960s it has been replaced by modern, structure-based treatment of folk song material. In the 1970s, Tormis’ aim was to give new life to Estonian runo song in the framework of art music, preserving it in as genuine a state as possible. “I don’t use folk melody – folk melody uses me,” the composer has said about the role of folk song in his compositions.

Tormis’ music with its linear polyphony and heterophony, modal and sonoristic thinking, represents a nexus between folk melody and 20th century composition techniques. His early works – the mixed choir cycle Kihnu Wedding Songs (“Kihnu pulmalaulud”, folklore, 1959) and the male choir cycle Men’s Songs (“Meestelaulud”, folklore, 1965) were already groundbreaking with their integral use of authentic folk melody and fresh sound.

In 1967, Tormis completed an extensive mixed choir cycle that was based on the folk melodies of different Estonian counties and tied to important dates in the folk calendar. This was Estonian Calendar Songs (“Eesti kalendrilaulud”) including five sub-cycles: Martinmas Songs, (“Mardilaulud”), St. Catherine’s Day Songs (“Kadrilaulud”), Shrovetide Songs (“Vastlalaulud”), Swing Songs (“Kiigelaulud”) and St. John’s Day Songs (“Jaanilaulud”).

From 1970–1989, Tormis turned to the folklore of other peoples: a series of choral cycles under the ensign Forgotten Peoples (“Unustatud rahvad”) was completed. These were based on the folklore of the endangered Baltic and Finnic peoples: Livonian Heritage (“Liivlaste pärandus”, 1970), Votic Wedding Songs (“Vadja pulmalaulud”, 1971), Izhorian Epic (“Isuri eepos”, 1975), Ingrian Evenings (“Ingerimaa õhtud”, 1979), Vepsian Paths (“Vepsa rajad”, 1983), and Karelian Destiny (“Karjala saatus”, 1989).

From the very beginning, Tormis has taken great pains with the verse and message underlying his music. His use of text is often theatrical or ritualistic – the characters are alive, speak expressive, and the atmosphere is dramatic. Tormis’ most popular choral work, the choral scene Curse Upon Iron (“Raua needmine”, 1972, Jaan Kaplinski and Hando Runnel,) for solo voices, mixed choir and shaman drum, features a neoprimitivist chant that swells out of a folk tune. The Ballad of Mary’s Land (“Maarjamaa ballaad”, 1969, Jaan Kaplinski,) for male choir paints dramatic battle scenes from Estonians’ ancient fight for freedom. In one of Estonian music’s premier works, Tormis’ cantata-ballet from 1980, Estonian Ballads (“Eesti ballaadid”, traditional text arranged by Ülo Tedre), various narrative Estonian folk songs intertwine into a dramatic epic saga with a symphonic texture and philosophical message. A new production of the work by Peeter Jalakas in 2004 was a major event in Estonian music that year.

Many of Tormis’ works, especially those from the 1980s, have a philosophical point to make and level criticism at society. Tormis’ cycles for male choir, Hamlet’s Songs (“Hamleti laulud”, 1965, Paul-Eerik Rummo,) and Juhan Liiv’s Sarcasms (“Juhan Liivi sarkasmid”, 1979), the choir cycles Dialectical Aphorisms (“Dialektilisi aforisme”, 1978, Juhan Liiv), Reflections with Hando Runnel (“Mõtisklusi Hando Runneliga”, 1981) and Loyal Little Songs (“Lojaalsed laulukesed”, 1981/2002, Hando Runnel), the mixed choir work Reflections with Lenin (“Mõtisklusi Leniniga”, 1982, V. I. Lenin), the male choir cantata People’s Friendship Rhapsody (“Rahvaste sõpruse rapsoodia”, 1982, folk poetry of the Soviet Union's nations) and several other works addressed the problems of human individual freedom and the right to national self-determination. Tormis has also written lyrical songs to the poetry of Marie Under, Gustav Suits and Viivi Luik.

In Tormis’ 1990s oeuvre, several dramatic choral works on Kalevala texts treat the human existential battle: Kullervo’s Message (“Kullervo sõnum”, 1994), Incantation for a Stormy Sea (“Tormise mere loits”, 1996) and Forging the Sampo (“Sampo tagumine”, 1997). The ballad Bishop and Pagan (“Piiskop ja pagan”, 1992/1995, traditional text arranged by Sakari Puurunen,) for solo voices and male choir, about the time of the crusades, features Gregorian chant in addition to runo song. Tormis has also written film scores, including the music for the feature films Spring (“Kevade”, 1969) and Summer (“Suvi”, 1976), after the stories of Estonian writer Oskar Luts (1887–1953).

As if summing up of his life’s work, Tormis used fragments from the most important works created over a half century in his collage-cantata The Rite of Birth (“Sünnisõnad”, 1999) for soloists, mixed choir and symphony orchestra.

In the 1960s, during the resurgence of modernism, Tormis’ folk melody turn sometimes appeared conservative. In the 1970s and 1980s, the nationalist and critical message of his choral work hit back. Today Tormis’ music resounds in the world as a voice of Estonians – little exotic nation.

Recordings of Tormis’s works have been released by Forte, Chandos, Toccata Classics, Alba Records, ECM Records, Estonian Radio and others. Veljo Tormis’s works are published by Fennica Gehrman, SP Muusikaprojekt, Muusika, edition 49, Carus-Verlag, Eres Edition.

Two books have been published on Veljo Tormis’s life and work in Estonian: „Lauldud sõna” by Veljo Tormis and Urve Lippus („The Sung Word”, Tartu University Press, 2000) and “Veljo Tormis. Jonni pärast heliloojaks” by Priit Kuusk (Composer Out of Defiance, Prisma Print, 2000). Mimi S. Daitz’s “Ancient Song Recovered: The Life and Music of Veljo Tormis” (Pendragon, 2004) is published in English.

Veljo Tormis was given the honorary title of ESSR Honoured Worker in Arts (1967), ESSR People’s Artist (1975) and USSR People’s Artist (1987). He has been awarded Soviet Estonia Prize (1970, 1972), USSR State Prize (1974), the Estonian SSR annual prize for music (1980, 1986) and the Order of Friendship of Peoples. Tormis has received the Estonian State Cultural Award for three times: in 1995, in 2000 for an outstanding creative activity and in 2005 for the staging „Estonian Ballads” (with Tõnu Kaljuste, Peeter Jalakas, Aki Suzuki, Enar Tarmo and Reet Aus). In 1998, Tormis was ascribed the Estonian National Culture Foundation Prize for a life’s work. For the contribution to Estonian music and enriching the cultural life in Harjumaa, Tormis was selected as the laureate of Harjumaa Culture Pearl Prize in 2007. In 2009, the Composition Prize of Estonian Music Council was awarded to Tormis who through his music has given a new breath to Estonian and Estonian kindred people's heritage. In 2009, Tormis received the first I class Order of the National Coat of Arms.

Look also: Veljo Tormis Virtual Centre
A collection of TV broadcasts about Veljo Tormis: Jupiter

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(updated March 2010)

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