Music History in Brief

Professional Estonian music dates back to the end of the 19th century and became established at the beginning of the 20th century. However, the roots of music making in Estonia go back much further. For instance, in 1680 the opera Die Beständige Argenia by Johann Valentin Meder (1649–1719) was performed in Tallinn – it is one of the first operas preserved in German and it was also the first opera composed and performed in Estonia. As early as 1789, Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni was performed at the Tallinn German Theatre. Local music life was also influenced by the University of Tartu, which was founded in 1632 and included a music department. However, this mostly concerned the local Baltic Germans, and was virtually unobtainable for the Estonian peasantry. Local enthusiasm for music was greatly nurtured by the education system in Estonia, as the curriculum included choral singing. Towards the end of the first half of the 19th century, this led to the formation of the first choirs in Laiuse, Põltsamaa, Torma and other places.

The middle of the 19th century witnessed a significant breakthrough in the cultural life of Estonians, culminating in the first national Song Celebration held in Tartu in 1869. The festival’s programme included two songs by Estonian composer Aleksander Saebelmann-Kunileid (1845–1875): “Mu isamaa on minu arm” (My Fatherland is My Love) and “Sind surmani” (‘Til Death). The years of 1845–1875 also saw the publication of the first Estonian music magazine – “Laulu ja Mängu Leht” (The Song and Spiel Magazine) – issued by composer, choral conductor, politician, journalist, poet, linguist and theatre enthusiast Karl August Hermann (1851–1909). The first Estonian composers obtained their musical education from the Jānis Cimze Seminary for teachers in Valga (the seminary was located in the current twin city of Valka, Latvia).  

The music societies founded in the second half of the 19th century played a significant role in the development of Estonian music. Two of them, “Estonia” in Tallinn and “Vanemuine” in Tartu (both founded in 1865), became important as professional theatres and concert organisations. They were involved in the 19th century Song Celebrations and the development of Estonian music theatre. The buildings named after these societies are also noteworthy: the theatre and concert building of “Vanemuine” was completed in 1906, and “Estonia” was opened as a theatre and concert building in 1913. Both became professional theatres in 1906.

Composers with professional education rose to prominence at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. Most of them obtained their music education from the St. Petersburg Conservatory – initially from the organ department, and later from the composition department. A new generation of professional composers appeared and their goals reached much further than writing just simple choir songs. The most prominent among them were Rudolf Tobias (1873–1918) and Artur Kapp (1878–1952) with their monumental composing style. Thus, the turn of the century also witnessed the birth of the first large-scale Estonian compositions: in 1896, Tobias composed his overture Julius Caesar – the first symphonic composition in Estonian music. In 1908, the renowned pianist Artur Lemba (1885–1963) wrote the first Estonian symphony and also the first professional Estonian opera “Lembitu tütar” (Daughter of Lembitu).

The importance of performing musicians with specialised education also increased, one of whom was the first promoter of Estonian folksongs, soprano Aino Tamm. For instance, she performed Estonian folksongs at the 1900 Paris Exhibition. Among the many musicians who returned to Estonia from St. Petersburg were exceptional soloists such as Artur and Theodor Lemba; orchestral musicians Bernhard Lukk (clarinet), Julius Vaks (trumpet), Adolf Udrik (viola), Sinaida Valk-Bogdanovski (harp) and others, who actively contributed to Estonian music life by performing and teaching in the soon-to-be-established higher music education establishments.

The birth of symphonic music is connected to the “Vanemuine” theatre, where the very first symphony orchestra consisting of Estonian musicians came into existence and was initially conducted by composer Aleksander Läte (1860–1948). From 1908, it became a summer music orchestra, premiering here many of the most famous compositions from all over the world. The roots of the symphony orchestra of the “Estonia” theatre go back to Otto Hermann (1878–1933), the first music director of the opera house who conducted the first operettas at “Estonia” in 1907 and started organising regular symphonic concerts. Regular opera performances at “Estonia” started in 1918, when Raimund Kull (1882–1942) became its chief conductor. The first operatic performance was Giuseppe Verdi’s Traviata (with lead roles sung by Helmi Einer and Alfred Sällik). 

Independence and the formation of musical structures

The birth of the Republic of Estonia in 1918 helped musical life prosper even further – various organisations and specific structures were established in order to promote music education, concert activity and other music events. In 1919, higher music schools were founded in Tallinn and Tartu, thus creating an opportunity to obtain higher musical education in Estonia. In order to promote the choral movement, the Estonian Singers’ Union was established in 1921, with its primary objective of organising Song Celebrations. The union also published the monthly magazine “Muusikaleht” (Music Magazine, 1924–1940). The first association that included only professional musicians was founded in 1924 – the Estonian Academic Society of Musicians, which published the book “Kakskümmend aastat eesti muusikat” (Twenty Years of Estonian Music). This book was compiled by Karl Leichter (1902–1987), one of the founders of Estonian musicology. The string quartet and wind quintet that operated within the society on a regular basis had an important role in promoting chamber music. Organising chamber music concerts was also a primary focus at the Tartu Music Society.

Estonia’s Public Broadcasting Orchestra (currently the Estonian National Symphony Orchestra) was founded in 1926, and its first chief conductor was the music director of the “Estonia” theatre, Raimund Kull. Towards the end of the 1920s, “Estonia” obtained a high professional level as an opera theatre and from the 1920s onwards, operas were also regularly performed at “Vanemuine” where the music department was overseen by Juhan Simm (1885–1959) and composer Eduard Tubin (1905–1982). Two choirs achieved prominence as performers of vocal symphonic compositions: the Mixed Choir of the “Estonia” Music Department in Tallinn and the Mixed Choir of the “Vanemuine” Music Department in Tartu. The Cultural Endowment of Estonia, founded in 1925, also played an important part in Estonian music life – as the institution provided financial aid to cultural projects and operated as the sheet music publishing house – together with the Estonian Authors’ Protection Association (currently the Estonian Author’s Society), which was founded in the wake of the Berne Convention in 1932.

Estonian music came into existence mainly thanks to composers who had obtained their education at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, and at the turn of the century an entire generation of them entered the Estonian music scene. Besides Rudolf Tobias and Artur Kapp, Estonian audiences also welcomed Miina Härma (1864–1941) – the first Estonian female composer, organist and choral conductor – and Mihkel Lüdig, the first rector of the Tallinn Conservatoire. Founders of the Estonian choral composition tradition Mart Saar (1882–1963) and Cyrillus Kreek (1889–1962), and the pioneer of Estonian symphonic music Heino Eller (1887–1970) achieved acclaim later. The first period of Estonia’s national independence also gave rise to different schools of composition: the school of Heino Eller in Tartu, focusing on symphonic music and its links with our national heritage; and the Tallinn school which was based on a more classical ideology, led by professor Artur Kapp and mainly represented by choral composers. In the 1920s, Estonian music was shaped by distinct creative personalities with their genre preferences and original composition styles. The unique compositional approach of conductors became particularly important in the 1930s with the arrival of our greatest symphonic composer Eduard Tubin (he composed 10 symphonies) and Eduard Oja (1905-1950) with his stubbornly tormented worldview.

The professional level of Estonian musical life, including symphony orchestras, opera, chamber and choral music, gradually started to correspond to European standards. This was vastly contributed to by the myriad of exceptional musicians who achieved maturity by the end of Estonian independence and had mainly obtained their education in Estonia. Many young musicians excelled at various international competitions – violinists Vladimir Alumäe, Hubert and Zelia Aumere, Carmen Prii, Evi Liivak, and pianist Heljo Sepp who won the British Music Council Award and the opportunity to study at the Royal Academy of Music in London at the London Youth Piano Competition in 1938. Other renowned musicians of the period included sopranos Ida Aav-Loo and Milvi Laid, baritone Artur Rinne and tenors Karl Ots and Alfred Sällik – all beloved soloists on the stage of the “Estonia” theatre; string instrumentalists Herbert Laan and Hugo Schütz; pianists Erika Franz, Olav Roots and Aino Kõrb; and Anna Klas and Bruno Lukk, who were pianists and later long-time pedagogues at the Tallinn Conservatoire.

The long era of occupation

The era of peace and balance came to an abrupt end in 1940, when Estonia was annexed by the Soviet Union. Throughout World War II, vivid musical life continued in Tallinn and Tartu despite the fact that several acclaimed musicians were mobilised to fight for the Soviet Union. In 1942, the artistic segment of the population was transferred to the Estonian Art Ensembles in the city of Yaroslavl, Russia. Among them was Gustav Ernesaks (1908-1993), who later became the organiser of song festivals and a national symbol – a leader of people in repressed times. As a crucial step for Estonian culture, a professional male choir was founded in Yaroslavl in 1944 – this choir is active to this day and currently bears the name Estonian National Male Choir, a collective that was one of our few cultural ambassadors to the West even during the constricted Soviet regime. A wind quintet was founded during the war and was later renamed after its French horn player Jaan Tamm. Empowered by its steady membership, the Jaan Tamm Wind Quintet became one of Estonia’s most legendary chamber ensembles during the Soviet period. The ensemble also had a direct impact on the importance of wind quintet as a genre among Estonian compositions. Yet another collective began its collaboration in Yaroslavl – the piano duo Anna Klas and Bruno Lukk. Later, it became one of the most outstanding ensembles in the entire Soviet Union.

In autumn 1944, when the Soviet forces entered Estonia again, many people escaped to the West and the number of musicians in Estonia dwindled considerably. Among those who fled were composers Eduard Tubin, Kaljo Raid and Roman Toi; one of the central figures of Estonian music life Juhan Aavik (1884–1982) who was a composer and conductor, and also the rector of the Tallinn Conservatoire from 1925–1944; opera soloists Ida Loo-Talvari and Olga Torokoff-Tiedeberg; chief conductor of the “Estonia” theatre Verner Nerep; chief conductor of the symphony orchestra Olav Roots; pianist Theodor Lemba, and many others. The Estonian school of violin, having reached professional level at the end of the 1930s thanks to the German violin professor Johannes Paulsen (1879–1945), suffered a heavy blow. Several musicians perished in the turmoil of war: composer Juhan Jürme was killed during the bombing of Tallinn in 1943; singer Karl Viitol died in 1944.

The opera theatre also suffered greatly in the 1940s. The theatre houses of “Vanemuine” and “Estonia” were both destroyed in the war. While “Estonia” was restored in 1947, the building of the “Vanemuine” theatre was replaced in 1967 and a concert hall was added a few years later. Nevertheless, a new capable generation of opera singers arose immediately after the war. Baritones Georg Ots (1920–1975) and Tiit Kuusik (1911–1991) attracted audiences until their deaths, and they were among the most colourful personalities in the Estonian world of opera.

The post-war music life of Estonia was subdued by a wave of repressions that reached its culmination in the spring of 1950 when composers and choral conductors Tuudur Vettik, Riho Päts and Alfred Karindi were arrested. Heino Eller, Artur Lemba and many others also fell out of favour. It was a tragic time in terms of composing new music: the ideological demands prescribed by the Communist Party, including the requirement of “socialist content, national form” were a heavy blow for composers.

In the mid-1950s, music got a new breath of life. Modernism and its means of expression came to the fore: neoclassical rhythmic energy, extended tonality and linear polyphony, and the resulting increasing role of harmony. A new generation of composers emerged who were able to combine the prevailing musical trends of the time with nationalism. Ester Mägi (b. 1922, fine-textured chamber works), Veljo Tormis (1930–2017, choral symphonies), Eino Tamberg (1930–2010, symphonic and opera music), Jaan Rääts (1932–2020, instrumental music), Arvo Pärt (b. 1935, the most daring innovator of Estonian music in the 1960s), and Kuldar Sink (1942–1995, vocal and instrumental works) determined the face of Estonian music in the following decades. Although they came from the same starting points, they have all undergone many changes in their musical thinking and become extremely different at times.

The life of music institutions also progressed. In 1963, Neeme Järvi became the chief conductor of the Estonian Radio Symphony Orchestra (the Estonian National Symphony Orchestra since 1975). Eri Klas became the conductor of the Estonian National Opera in 1965; from 1975 to 1995, he worked as the chief conductor of the theatre. In addition to vocal music greats Georg Ots and Tiit Kuusik, a number of young opera soloists appeared on the stage of the Estonia theatre in the 1960s: coloratura sopranos Margarita Voites and Anu Kaal, mezzo-sopranos Urve Tauts and Leili Tammel, tenors Hendrik Krumm and Ivo Kuusk, and basses Teo Maiste and Mati Palm.

The art music of the 1970s and 1980s was characterised by a relationship with rituals and magic, harmonious sounds, and free form, as well as a trend that emphasised the originality of the sounds and sought different style syntheses. The 1970s brought to the arena a generation of composers led by Lepo Sumera (1950–2000, author of six symphonies) with an experimental creative style, Raimo Kangro (1949–2001, author of eight operas) with an active rhythm, Mati Kuulberg (1947–2001) with a dramatic and contrasting style, as well as Alo Põldmäe (b. 1945), who focused on instrumental chamber music, and René Eespere (b. 1953), the creator of large vocal symphonic forms, children’s music with a sincere emotional tone, and fine-textured chamber music. The 1980s brought to the concert stages Erkki-Sven Tüür (b. 1959), who combined different music styles, and Urmas Sisask (b. 1960) with music inspired by the mythology of the starry sky.

In the 1970s, the activities of several remarkable groups began. In 1971, the Tallinn Trio ensemble, consisting of violinist Jüri Gerretz, cellist Toomas Velmet, and pianist Valdur Roots was formed, whose diverse repertoire included new works by Estonian composers. In 1972, the early music ensemble Hortus Musicus was founded, whose artistic director, conductor, and violinist Andres Mustonen has paid much attention to contemporary music in addition to interpreting early music. In 1981, the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir was founded. Tõnu Kaljuste was its artistic director and chief conductor for 20 years, making the choir known and appreciated all over the world. The piano duo Nata-Ly Sakkos and Toivo Peäske and the Tallinn String Quartet, which was founded in 1984, also proved to be popular. In the mid-1970s, pianist Peep Lassmann became famous, and in the early 1980s, pianists Ivari Ilja and Kalle Randalu gained recognition. Randalu became winner of international competitions as soloists in Zwickau in 1981, Moscow in 1982, and the ARD competition in Munich in 1985.

In 1979, the organisation of festivals dedicated to Estonian music began (now called the Estonian Music Days), with the aim of paying attention to the works of local composers and offering them a creative output. In 1987, several Estonian international festivals were organised, including the Tallinn International Organ Festival, the Viljandi Early Music Festival, and others, which take place to this day.

Restoration of independence and the turn of the century

The years 1988–1991 paved the way for several changes in music, and in newly independent Estonia, cultural and musical life began to be rebuilt, similarly to the first period of independence. Several important institutions of music life were created or reorganised: the state concert organiser Eesti Kontsert (1989), the umbrella organisation of professional musicians the Estonian Music Council (1992), and artistic associations – the Estonian Composers’ Union (1993), the Association of Estonian Professional Musicians (1998), and the Estonian Performers Association (2000). The Estonian Piano Teachers’ Association (1989) and the Estonian String Teachers’ Association (1989) were founded as professional associations, to which the Estonian Accordion Association, the Estonian Flute Association, and others have been added over the years. In 1999, a new building of the Estonian Academy of Music (now the Estonian Academy of Music and Theatre) was completed on Tatari Street at the heart of Tallinn.

In 1993, the Tallinn Chamber Orchestra was established, which became an important partner for the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir. The activities of the Estonian National Symphony Orchestra and the Estonian National Male Choir also continued. In 1993, the NYYD Ensemble led by Olari Elts became one of the key groups in Estonian new music. The New Tallinn Trio, which popularised the piano trio genre, started operating in 1997. The Tallinn Saxophone Quartet conducted by Olavi Kasemaa was an important ensemble for a long time, in addition to the saxophone quartet SaxEst conducted by Virgo Veldi. In 2000, the Rudolf Tobias String Quartet was established in addition to the Tallinn String Quartet, which had been operating consistently.

The general picture of Estonian music in the 1990s was diverse: composers of older generations with a folk musical or neoclassical inclination continued in the established style. The new music was characterised by the decline of the rhythmic focus and directing the attention to the timbre and texture instead. The share of extensive symphonic and vocal symphonic works decreased and the chamber style became more popular: a lot of music was created for various ensembles, and in orchestral works, the ensemble-based approach to orchestra became predominant. Helena Tulve, Toivo Tulev, Tõnu Kõrvits, Mart Siimer, Tõnis Kaumann, Märt-Matis Lill, Timo Steiner, Mirjam Tally, Jüri Reinvere, Mari Vihmand, Galina Grigorjeva, and many others made a name for themselves in Estonian music in the 1990s. Estonian music began to reach the rest of the world as well, and a breakthrough into the modern world was made thanks to interpreters. The collaboration of powerful conductors Neeme Järvi (b. 1937), Eri Klas (1939–2016), Peeter Lilje (1950–1993), Tõnu Kaljuste (born 1953), Arvo Volmer (b. 1962), Andres Mustonen (b. 1953), and others with Estonian composers gave impetus to the birth or rediscovery of many masterpieces of Estonian music.

The opening of the international music world after the restoration of independence of the Republic of Estonia in 1991 meant for many people the opportunity to educate themselves in Europe and the United States or to seek better working conditions abroad. In the early 1990s, a large part of Estonian string musicians went to Finland, among them several ENSO musicians: long-time principal violin Mati Kärmas and principal viola Andrus Järvi, as well as cellist Teet Järvi. Young violinists Aet Ratassepp and Leho Ugandi joined the Finnish National Opera, and in 2000, Andrus Haav left to be the principal violin there. Many of our musicians have played in foreign groups for the entirety of restored independence. From 1997 to 2005, the clarinettist Selvadore Rähni was the principal clarinet of the Kyoto Symphony Orchestra in Japan and in the 2000s, the cellist Henry-David Varema was a member of the Petersen Quartet residing in Germany.

The top musicians of the 1990s included violinist Urmas Vulp and pianists Marje Lohuaru and Vardo Rumessen – the latter two have also been active organisers of music life. Among the soloists of the Estonian National Opera, soprano Nadia Kurem, mezzo-soprano Riina Airenne, tenors Vello Jürna and Mati Kõrts, and baritone Jassi Zahharov stood out. At the end of the same decade, one of Estonia’s most successful piano duos, Kai Ratassepp and Mati Mikalai, appeared on the music scene, having won prizes at several international competitions – the most notable being the duo’s first place at the international ARD competition in 2000. Violinist Sigrid Kuulmann and musicians who have successfully participated in international competitions, such as pianist Marko Martin and oboist Kalev Kuljus, stood out among the young talents studying at prestigious universities abroad.

After the restoration of independence, several music festivals were initiated: Jazzkaar, NYYD Festival, Rapla Church Music Festival, Haapsalu Early Music Festival, Orient Festival, International Piano Festival, David Oistrakh Festival in Pärnu, Glasperlenspiel Festival, and many others. In 2004, the project-based Nargen Opera music theatre was established on Naissaar Island under the leadership of Tõnu Kaljuste, to which the Nargen Festival was added a few years later. Since 1991, the most important contemporary music festival has been held under the name of the Estonian Music Days, which offers a cross-section of the current state of Estonian music and is a breeding ground for new directions in Estonian music.

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