Estonian music: an historical overview

It has been a little over 100 years since Estonian composers wrote their first masterpieces, among which a particular attention should be given to the overture “Julius Caesar” by Rudolf Tobias from 1896, the first symphonic work in Estonian music.

Naturally, the roots of music making in Estonia lie in a considerably earlier period. Be it the local music and theatre hobby of Baltic-German gentry (as early as in 1789 Mozart’s opera “Don Giovanni” was performed in Tallinn German Theatre). In 1680, the opera “Resolute Argenia” by Meder, one of the first preserved operas in German, was performed in Tallinn. The brotherhood congregation movement that reached Estonia from Germany in the 1740s – the fraternity was called “the singing congregation”. Tartu University (founded in 1632), which included music department, also played a significant role. However, this mostly concerned the local high society, being virtually unobtainable for the “peasants”, i.e. Estonians.

At first there was the Song Festival
The mid 19th century brought a significant breakthrough to the cultural life of Estonians. Since school education, including musical education, had reached rather a high level, choirs and brass bands were being founded in every corner of Estonia. Such development culminated with the I General Song Festival, held in Tartu in 1869, in which over 800 choristers (only male choirs) and musicians participated. The festival’s program included 25 songs, two songs by Estonian composer Aleksander Kunileid-Saebelmann (1845–1875) among these.

The Song Festival is one of the key words, by which Estonia is known in the world. In the summer of 2004 a 24th General Song Festival was held in Tallinn. The tradition has been preserved. The stronger the political pressure, the more political meaning the song festival has had. This culminated in the end of 1980s when Estonia developed a hope of regaining its independence. “The singing revolution” was obviously a unique phenomenon in the world. People expressed their mentality at the Song Festival Stadium by singing, not by using weapons. At this point it should be noted that throughout the hard times, from the 1940s until the end of the 1980s, it was the choir conductor (and composer) Gustav Ernesaks (1908–1993) that in a way was considered the leader of the people.

Music societies became theatres and concert organisations
The music societies founded in the second half of the 19th century played an important part in the development of Estonian music. Two of those, Estonia in Tallinn and Vanemuine in Tartu (both founded in 1865), became important both as professional theatres as well as concert organisations. In both societies the musical theatre also started to develop rather quickly. The theatre and concert building of Vanemuine was completed in 1906 and it was destroyed again in 1944 when Tartu was bombed by the Soviet army. In 1967 a new theatre building was opened at the same location and a few years later also a concert hall, which was renovated in 1998. Estonia was opened as a theatre and concert building in 1913, it was destroyed in 1944 when Tallinn was bombed by the Soviet army and restored in 1947.

Composers and their work
The turn of the 19th and 20th centuries clearly separated the professional and amateur musicians. Professionals mostly came from the St. Petersburg Conservatory and their goals reached much further than writing just simple choir songs. The most prominent of such musicians were Rudolf Tobias (1873–1918) and Artur Kapp (1878–1952) with monumental composing style. However, Tobias’ oratorio “Mission of Jonah” (1909, first in its genre) had to wait almost for seventy-five years for a proper premier. In 1908 Artur Lemba (1885–1963), a recognised pianist, wrote the first Estonian symphony and also an opera in the same year.

Birth of symphonic music is related to Tartu and Vanemuine, where the first Estonian symphony orchestra was founded in 1900. The orchestra became a summer music orchestra in 1908 and presented the most famous works of world music literature to the Estonian audience for the first time. In 1909 a Day of Estonian Music was celebrated in Tartu, the program of which included symphonic music of Estonian composers.

During the first decades of the 20th century the public witnessed an entire generation of composers, most prominent of which were Mart Saar (1882–1963) and Cyrillus Kreek (1889–1962), composers of choir works, and the symphonist Heino Eller (1887–1970). In their case one can claim that it was genuinely national music. During the first two decades of the 20th century, Estonian music went through the entire Western music history from classical to modern European trends. Estonian music remained characterised by the presence of all eras in one moment of time: national romantic music was still written in the 1960-ties, next to dodecaphony, aleatorics and other trends of that period.

In 1919 higher music schools were founded in Tallinn and Tartu and from hereon one can speak about schools of composers: in Tartu Heino Eller’s school, which was oriented to symphonic music and its relation with nationalism, and the Tallinn school, lead by professor Artur Kapp, which was based on conservative composition techniques.

In the 1930s a composer’s own style and original musical thinking became relevant. This is clearly reflected by those who entered the Estonian composing scene in the 1930-ties – the greatest Estonian symphonist (10 symphonies and 2 operas) Eduard Tubin (1905–1982) and Eduard Oja (1905–1950), a composer known for his world-weariness.

In 1944 many of the recognised musicians fled to the West. The musical scene of post-war Estonia was influenced by repressions, which reached their peak in the spring 1950 as composers and choir conductors Tuudur Vettik, Riho Päts and Alfred Karindi were arrested (they were going to be the chief conductors of the Song Festival in 1950). Heino Eller, Artur Lemba and several others were also banned (the accusation being “bourgeois nationalist”).

In mid 1950s a new generation of composers appeared. They were able to combine the world-prevailing musical trends with nationalism. During the next decades, and in major part even today, Estonian music was characterized by composers such as Ester Mägi (*1922, author of refined chamber pieces), Veljo Tormis (*1930, author of choir symphonies), Eino Tamberg (*1930, author of symphonic and opera music), Jaan Rääts (*1932, composer of instrumental music), Arvo Pärt (*1935) and Kuldar Sink (1942–1995, author of both vocal and instrumental works). Arvo Pärt, who emigrated to the West in 1980, has become the symbol of Estonia in the music world.

The 1970s introduced a new generation of composers, the best known of them today are Lepo Sumera (1950–2000, author of 6 symphonies) and Raimo Kangro (1949–2001, author of 8 operas), as well as Erkki-Sven Tüür (*1959, mainly instrumental music) and Urmas Sisask (*1960, choir and piano works).

In its current state, the contemporary music of Estonia makes a manifold impression on the viewer. The elder composers pursue their established styles, whereas their younger colleagues commingle most diverse styles and different means of expression.
The retreat of the neo-classicist approach and the simultaneous rise of melodic and timbral syntheses became the essential phenomena in 1990s music. Intimate-sounding chamber compositions for various ensembles started to appear more and more frequently.
The new music of the decade offered refined stylistic fusions and mischievous stylistic games as well as surprising post-modern collages. Such unprejudiced compilations of styles were presented by Mirjam Tally (*1976), Tõnis Kaumann (*1971) and in a peculiarly filigreed manner by Mart Siimer (*1967).
The music of young composers quite frequently reveals meditative and ritualistic features, dreamlike moods and a particular sensitiveness. The musical imagery is often influenced by metaphysical, religious and pantheistic subtexts (as is the case with Toivo Tulev (*1958) and Jüri Reinvere (*1971)). An increasing attentiveness to sound speaks of the impact of western avant-gardists (France’s spectral composers) and of exotic as well as archaic melodic models (Galina Grigorjeva (*1962), Tõnu Kõrvits (*1969), Helena Tulve (*1972), Märt-Matis Lill (*1975)).

Breakthrough of music into modern form occurred along with the interpreters. Co-operation between powerful conductors such as Neeme Järvi (*1937, emigrated in 1980, currently music director of the New Jersey Symphony and chief conductor of the Hague Residentie Orchestra), Paavo Järvi (*1962, music director of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra) and Eri Klas (*1939, chief conductor of “Estonia” theatre (now The Estonian National Opera) 1975–1994, artistic director of Tallinn Philharmonic Society) and Estonian composers has resulted in birth or rediscovery of several masterpieces. Peeter Lilje (1950–1993), Tõnu Kaljuste (*1953) and Andres Mustonen (*1953) have continued this tradition.

1926 is considered to be the birth year of Estonian National Symphony Orchestra, being the radio orchestra at that time. The first chief conductor and musical director of the opera theatre was Raimund Kull. Throughout the times chief conductors have included Olav Roots, Roman Matsov, Neeme Järvi, Peeter Lilje, Arvo Volmer. From the season 2001/2002 the principal conductor and music director of Estonian National Symphony Orchestra is Russian conductor Nikolai Alexeev. The orchestra has performed and recorded both classical and modern music, including numerous works of Estonian composers.

In the end of 1920s the Estonian opera had already reached a high level. Many leading vocalists fled to the West in 1944, but the professional level of opera theatre was restored during the 1950s, mainly thanks to legendary vocalists, such as baritones Georg Ots (1920–1975) and Tiit Kuusik (1911–1990). In mid 1960s a brilliant ensemble of soloists appeared on the scene, namely sopranos Margarita Voites and Anu Kaal, mezzo-sopranos Urve Tauts and Leili Tammel, tenors Hendrik Krumm (1934–1989) and Ivo Kuusk as well as basses Teo Maiste and Mati Palm. Co-operation with conductors Neeme Järvi and Eri Klas resulted in excellent opera productions.
Today the national opera “Estonia” presents a new generation: soprano Nadia Kurem, mezzo-soprano Riina Airenne, tenors Vello Jürna and Mati Kõrts, baritone Jassi Zahharov. Paul Mägi (*1953) has been the chief conductor and artistic director of the theatre 1995–2002, since 2004 holds Arvo Volmer (*1962) the same position.

Estonian piano school has always been considered very strong. Principal founder of Estonian piano school was Bruno Lukk (1909–1992). Pianists have gained international recognition mainly in contests. The first pianist to achieve success was Heljo Sepp (*1922), who in 1938 won the British Music Council Award in the contest for young pianists in London and later worked as a piano professor. In mid 1970-ties the career of pianist Peep Lassmann began. He is currently the Rector of Estonian Music Academy and as a result of his work much of the 20th century piano music has reached the Estonian public (the works of Messiaen in particular). Early 1980s presented to the audience solo pianists, such as Kalle Randalu (currently a professor at the music high school in Karlsruhe and Freiburg, winner of international contests in Zwickau 1981, in Moscow 1982 and in Munich 1985) and Ivari Ilja (currently piano professor at the Estonian Music Academy, recognised particularly for interpretation of Chopin).

The conductors have also been successful at the international contests: Neeme Järvi won the first place at the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia conductors’ contest in Rome in 1971 and Olari Elts at the Jorma Panula contest in Wasa in 1999 and at the Sibelius Conductors’ Contest in 2000.

Since 1993 one of the key groups in Estonian music life has been the NYYD-Ensemble (artistic director Olari Elts), an ensemble that lacks solid composition and that may vary from only a solo performer to a chamber orchestra. The NYYD-Ensemble includes leading Estonian musicians. The ensemble plays 20th and 21st centuries music and has had numerous new works written for it by composers such as Eino Tamberg, Lepo Sumera and Erkki-Sven Tüür as well as by young composers Helena Tulve, Mari Vihmand and Toivo Tulev.

In 1981 Chamber Choir of the Estonian Philharmonics was founded by Tõnu Kaljuste, since 2001 Paul Hillier is the artistic director and principal conductor of the choir. The choir has given concerts worldwide and has actively recorded its music. The co-operation of Tõnu Kaljuste with Arvo Pärt and Veljo Tormis has been particularly tight.

The early music ensemble Hortus Musicus was founded in 1972. The ensemble brought about virtually a boom of early music in Estonia during a long period of time. In addition to early music Andres Mustonen (*1953), the head of Hortus Musicus, conductor and violinist, has also focused on newer music, even on music composed recently.

In Estonia choirs have always been highly regarded. For years there have been the Estonian Boys’ Choir (chief conductor Hirvo Surva), the Tallinn Boys’ Choir (chief conductor Lydia Rahula) and the girls’ choir Ellerhein (chief conductor Tiia-Ester Loitme). And let us not forget the Estonian National Male Choir, founded in Jaroslavl, the rear of the Soviet Union in 1944 that has been associated with the name of Gustav Ernesaks for nearly 50 years. At present the chief conductor of the choir is Latvian Kaspars Putnins.
In February 2004, Virgin Classics CD “Sibelius Cantatas” with Paavo Järvi, Estonian National Symphony Orchestra, Estonian National Male Choir and Girls’ Choir Ellerhein won a Grammy Award in category “Best Choral Performance.”

Structure of music life
The Estonian Academy of Music, founded in 1919, with its new modern building completed in autumn 1999, has during a short period of time become an important centre of Estonian music. Estonia currently has three music high schools.

Eesti Kontsert is a state concert institute arranging concert activity; it holds approximately 800–900 concerts annually and also organises larger festivals such as new music festival NYYD, Tallinn International Organ Festival, International Pianists´ Festival, contest “Con Brio” for young musicians etc.

Tallinn Philharmonic Society is another major concert organisation besides Eesti Kontsert. It also operates the Tallinn Chamber Orchestra.

Over 10 years the jazz area is covered by international festival Jazzkaar with Anne Erm as the General Manager. In addition numerous early music festivals are held in Estonia as well as festivals dedicated to new music. The oldest among the new music festivals is the Estonian Music Days festival, organized by Estonian Composers Union, presenting almost exclusively Estonian new music. In 2000 the Neeme Järvi Summer Academy joined the David Oistrakh Festival in Pärnu. A well-organized Folk Music Festival has taken place in Viljandi for over 10 years.

Composers are united by the Composers’ Union; musicians are joined in the Association of Estonian Professional Musicians. The Estonian Music Council, which is governed by UNESCO, is also active in Estonia. The Estonian Radio has an important role in reflecting music life. Music is also continuously broadcasted on the three Estonian television channels.

© EMIC (2005)

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