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New winds in Estonian music

by Kalevi Aho

Estonia is near Finland, but Estonian and Finnish contemporary music differ considerably from one another. Composer Kalevi Aho has acquainted himself with Estonian music for instance at Estonian contemporary music seminars in 1995 and 1997 and observed that Estonian composers cannot be bracketed into the same categories as their Finnish colleagues.
Estonian composer Lepo Sumera noted back in the 1980s that the Estonians were in fact more advanced than the Finns: whereas Finnish composers had stagnated in their élitist and self-centred Modernism, Estonian composers had already discarded the dead styles and begun a new cycle in musical development.

The first generation of composers to emerge after the Second World War had two important mentors in composers Heino Eller (1887-1970) and Eugen Kapp (1908-1996). Eller was particularly important. His style could be described as Impressionistically-tinted tonality spiced with occasional harmonies based on fourths, reminiscent of Bartók and Expressionism. As a teacher, Eller was broad-minded – he emphasized that a composer must be logical in working out his musical thoughts regardless of his style. Estonia’s major symphonic composer, Eduard Tubin (1905-1982), emigrated to Sweden in 1944 and had next to no influence on the development of contemporary music in Estonia, although he frequently visited Estonia from the 1960s onwards to attend premieres of his works.

Cramped by the Soviet Union

The 1950s were a difficult time for Estonian culture as a whole, due to the ideological pressure exerted by Moscow through Soviet cultural policy. National Romanticism was the only accepted style. The most significant post-War National Romantics, apart from Eller and Kapp, were Gustav Ernesaks (1918-1993) and Lydia Auster (1912-1993). At the very end of the 1950s, the climate became freer, and the repressed need for renewal erupted with exceptional vitality in Estonian music. In about ten years, Estonian contemporary music caught up with developments in the West – National Romanticism gave way to Neo-Classicism, and leading Modernists began to experiment with dodecaphony, sound fields, aleatorics, “happenings”, Post-Modernist stylistic plurality and integration of pop music features into concert music. Eventually, the cycle ran its course and Estonian music returned to its roots: ancient folk music elements (Veljo Tormis, 1930- ); the world of tonic triads and modality, symbolizing eternity in a way (Arvo Pärt, 1935- ); or the archaic sound of early instruments (the numerous works written for the Estonian early music ensemble Hortus Musicus). Three further leading names in this period of transition were Eino Tamberg (1930- ), Jaan Rääts (1932- ) and Kuldar Sink (1942-95). The four composers mentioned first above have had the strongest influence on younger composers – Eino Tamberg and Jaan Rääts are significant teachers of composition, while Pärt and Tormis have had a profound stylistic and spiritual impact on the younger generation.

Once the dynamic period of seeking and experimentation drew to a close in the early 1970s, Neo-Tonality and stylistic synthesis became established as the mainstream in Estonian music for a long time. Many composers combined new techniques such as sound fields or aleatorics with a musical language rooted in tonality. Certain composers focused on dynamic rhythms. Estonian music in the 1980s also displayed characteristics of Minimalism which, however, were not derived from American Minimalism but from the ancient folk music of the Baltic-Finnic peoples. The other Baltic states also experienced a trend towards tonal music in the 1980s. At the moment, it seems that Estonian music is again in a state of flux, with a number of composers broaching new territory.

Stylistic classification of Estonian composers today is a rather problematic and ambiguous issue, since many composers have shifted styles over the years, some rather radically, and also the boundaries between trends in Estonian music are not altogether clear. However, six main orientations may be roughly outlined.

From traditionalism to exoticism

Traditionalism and tonicalism in Estonian music are derived above all from the influence of the tintinnabuli style of Estonia’s best-known composer, Arvo Pärt. Pärt adopted this technique in 1976. Although he emigrated to Germany in 1980, his influence on Estonian music remains strong. The tintinnabuli style is rooted in the function of the tonic – melodies proceed normally in small intervals, enveloped by the notes of the tonic chord that decorate the melodies like tinkling bells. This style, where the tonic function remains static for long periods, could thus be described as tonicalism. Pärt began his career as an avant-garde composer. His tintinnabuli style was influenced mainly by the modal music of the Middle Ages. The ancient folk music promoted by Veljo Tormis has also influenced the ‘single tonality” that characterizes a lot of Estonian music.

The works of Urmas Sisask (1960- ) are good examples of contemporary Estonian tonicalism. For example, Kuu loomine (1992) for flute, violin, cello and piano is based on a B flat minor chord – a harmony prolonged through varied repetition of motifs, dynamic and rhythmic shifts and a gradual expansion of the compass to its extremes until the tonic function breaks down and the music erupts into a voluptuous Romantic outburst before returning to the original B flat minor. Linnutee (1992) for two pianos is in a B tonality, and the sound fields of the transition phase lead without a break to a short epilogue-like second movement in A minor.

Sisask studied with René Eespere (1955- ), whose music represents pure tonal traditionalism with Minimalist overtones. Estonia’s leading elder woman composer Ester Mägi (1922- ) is also a traditionalist.

The works of Estonian folklorists and exoticists also usually have a firm tonal foundation. As early as in the 1960s, some Estonian composers felt that Western European Modernism had arrived at an impasse and began to seek inspiration elsewhere, either in their own ancient folk music or in other cultures altogether. The main composer in this group is Estonia’s most significant composer after Pärt, Veljo Tormis. In his considerable body of choral works, Tormis continues the tradition of Mart Saar (1882-1963) and Cyrillus Kreek (1889-1962) in evolving a distinctive national choral style. Although Tormis has also written works that are not folkloristic, he is known in Finland primarily for his frequently-performed choral cycles based on the most ancient folk music, scales, melodies and structures of the Baltic-Finnic peoples. Often these works manifest a shamanistic primeval energy. Tormis has said that actually he does not use folk music; folk music uses him.

Kuldar Sink, who died accidentally in a fire three years ago, made his breakthrough as an avant-garde composer in the 1960s, moving in the 1970s towards exoticism and ultimately to an extremely austere brand of simplicity. His piano sonata trilogy Mäed ja inimesed (1977) shows the influence of Central Asian folk music, particularly Kyrghyz music. The static, “Oriental” concept of time in his later works is also alien to the dynamic Western concept of time. In an extensive setting of poems by Lorca, Sünni ja surma laulud (1985-87), Sink created one of the most important contemporary Estonian vocal works, using Arabian scales or maqam; and in Maarjamaa missa (1988-90), he combines Gregorian chant with shamanistic Estonian runo singing and 19th-century tonal folk songs.

Sven Grünberg (1956- ), who specializes in electroacoustic music, can also be considered an exoticist. For example, his ten-movement intricately constructed suite Milarepa laulud (1993) betrays Oriental influences.

Vilepuhuja by Rein Rannap (1953- ) harks back to Balinese gamelan music. The work is written for one pianist playing two grand pianos placed at an angle to one another: one instrument is normal, the other is prepared to produce a gamelan-like sound throughout. This improvisatory pioneering composition produces a fascinating sound quite unlike anything that I have come across in the piano repertoire. Typical features include rapid unison passages that the pianist plays on the normal piano with his right hand and on the prepared piano with his left, creating a highly original fractured atmosphere. Rannap also often uses a kind of melodic heterophony found in folk music, where the parts are not in exact unison but differ slightly from one another.

From Neo-Classicism to pluralism

An important group of styles in Estonian contemporary music consists of the successors of Neo-Classicism, the most important of which could be called vitalism. This is characterized by dynamic rhythms, “swing”, repeated ostinato patterns and slowly shifting harmonies; typically, a chord is repeated for several bars before moving to the next. Often the tonality remains static for long periods, much like in tonicalism. Pop music rhythms also occur.

The main Estonian vitalists are Jaan Rääts, chairman of the Estonian Composers” Association from 1974 to 1993, and Raimo Kangro (1949- ); both teach composition at the Tallinn Music Academy. Rääts’s 24 preludes (1968) form one of the finest works in the Estonian solo piano repertoire. Each prelude has a nominal key of its own, but the harmonies are rich and varied, extending from fragile triads to thick chromatic clusters. Many of the preludes have a rhythmic drive that at times escalates into a moto perpetuo. In the C minor prelude, the left hand thumps out a rock-like rhythm directly on the strings using a blunt instrument, while the right hand plays a melody on the keys. In the 1970s and 1980s, Rääts simplified his idiom; it became more clearly tonal and also more restrained. However, his orchestral work Viisi eskiisi rekviemile (1997) is again a richer work. It recalls the vitality and abrupt shifts of his earlier output. Harmony and rhythm are paramount; what melodies there are only appear as short motifs. The contrasts are enormous, as when the quiet tinkling of a marimba is interrupted by an aggressive cluster from the entire orchestra.

Rhythm is also an important element in the vibrant, temperamental output of Raimo Kangro. His three concertos for two pianos are fine examples of his style. In the brisk Concerto no. 1 for two pianos and chamber orchestra (1978), one of the pianists is occasionally called to play the bass drum with a pedal, recalling disco music. The four-movement Concerto no. 2 for two pianos and chamber orchestra (1988) is a more diverse work. Its palette of expression extends from dynamic and whimsical dancing (the 2nd and 4th movements) to expectant tension (the 1st movement) or calmness and solemnity (the 3rd movement). The music is mostly modal and diatonic; the finale is nearly exclusively in the tonality of C. Kangro’s Concerto no. 3 for two pianos and orchestra was premiered at the Helsinki Festival in 1992, and its two predecessors have also been performed in Finland. Kangro’s entire output is characterized by a virtuoso musicianship, and instead of the minor-key mood that dominates so much of Estonian music, his works bubble with a major-key joie de vivre often highlighted by the use of the Lydian scale (as in the cantata Gaudeo, 1987).

Pluralism and its successors constitute another important element in the stylistic gamut of contemporary Estonian music. The first pluralist works in Estonian music were created by Arvo Pärt in the late 1960s. Eino Tamberg, Professor of Composition at the Tallinn Music Academy since 1983, emerged as a Neo-Classicist (Concerto grosso, 1956). In the 1960s, he enriched his idiom – for instance, his important ballet Joanna tentata (1970) contains dodecaphonic melodies (though not dodecaphonic technique as such) and aleatorics. In the 1970s, Tamberg’s style drifted towards a new simplicity (“neue Einfachkeit”); for example, the Violin Concerto (1981) is largely diatonic in its melodies. Tamberg’s operas and concertos are among the finest of their kind in contemporary Estonian music. In his most recent works, Tamberg combines different kinds of musical material but not in a collage as with Schnittke or Pärt in the 1960s. Tamberg’s works are always written with a sensitivity for the instrumental idiom, but the mosaic-like form of some of his recent works poses a dramaturgical problem because the overall form that the mosaic pieces constitute is difficult to perceive.

Lepo Sumera (1950- ), chairman of the Estonian Composers” Association since 1993 and present head of the composition programme at the Tallinn Music Academy, writes music in a style that parallels the output of Georgian composer Giya Kancheli and Ukrainian composer Valentin Silvestrov, although Sumera’s original idiom developed on a national basis – he has named Veljo Tormis as one of his major influences. From the early 1980s onwards, Sumera began to construct his works on a diatonic basis, following on Pärt’s tintinnabuli style. A Minimalist kind of repetition has also appeared, deriving according to the composer from Estonian runo singing. Sumera’s main works are his five symphonies (1981-1995), which are among the best and most original Estonian orchestral works ever written. The subdued and impressive First Symphony (1981) opens with a tonicalist E minor landscape, scales in an E Phrygian mode, repetitions and layered diatonic sound fields. In the second movement, the aggressive pluralist music of the “outside” world breaks in on the “inside” status quo, and the symphony escalates violently into a kind of desperate circus music. Despite the contrasting materials they contain, Sumera’s works give an impression of coherence, which is due to the composer’s strong sense of form and of the internal logic of form.

Erkki-Sven Tüür (1959- ) is somehow akin to Sumera. Tüür, who studied with Rääts and Sumera, began his career as a rock musician – in 1976, he founded the group In Spe, for which he wrote several works exploring the boundaries of rock music. In the early 1980s, Tüür also wrote music for the early music ensemble Hortus Musicus of Tallinn. The stylistic range of Tüür’s works extends from Baroque or pseudo-Baroque elements to rock rhythms, from modality to atonality, from Minimalist repetition to modern field technique, from archaic modality to improvisation and energetic rhythms. Contrasts are often strong, as in the Third Symphony (1996-97) premiered in April last year. This is Tüür’s major work to date and one of the finest achievements of Estonian music in the 1990s. Tüür has become one of Estonian’s internationally best-known composers in the 1990s.

Peeter Vähi (1955- ) also shows signs of pluralism in his work. In the dextrously composed work for tape 2000 aastat pärast Kristuse sündi (1993), the basic material consists of early music played by Hortus Musicus and sung by a soprano. This music has been processed and combined with purely electronic material; a clear-cut case of musical collage. Vähi’s instrumental works are more traditional.

From Neo-Impressionism to Neo-Expressionism

There are also contemporary composers in Estonia whose output is characterized by lyricism, soft sensualism, general consonance and avoidance of sharp dramatic shifts. The leading Estonian Neo-Impressionist is Alo Pildmäe (1945- ). His music does not aim at monumental grandeur; it is diminutive, naturally breathing, sonorous and sensual. Neo-Impressionist features can also be detected in the output of Tinu Kirvits (1969- ), who studied with Kangro.

The Neo-Expressionists include Mati Kuulberg (1947- ), who has experimented with a number of styles. In his early works, he preferred chromatic materials and a tense, virtuoso-style mode of expression. According to musicologist Merike Vaitmaa, Toivo Tulev (1958- ) is an even more purebred Neo-Expressionist; unfortunately, his work is largely unknown to me. Many composers of the younger generation have a great respect for Tulev’s work, which has been described as original and “different” Estonian music. Mari Vihmand (1967- ), who studied with Tamberg and Sumera and continued her studies in Lyons (with Gilbert Amy and Philippe Manoury), is one of the great promises of the young generation. In Lyons, Vihmand concentrated on electroacoustic music, inspired by Kaija Saariaho’s Stilleben. Vihmand’s expressive, soaring orchestral work Floreo (1995-96) won first prize in the young composers” rostrum in Paris last year. Her other main work, Aknad unustatud maastikule (1996-97) was premiered by the Dutch Radio Chamber Orchestra in the Netherlands in August 1997.

The youngest generation of composers and electroacoustic music

Composer training in Estonia is characterized by its broad-mindedness. One of its principles is that most composers have to study with two different teachers. The young generation is well cared for – student composers are accepted into the community of elder composers and not isolated into a youth group of their own. It was typical that at the Estonian contemporary music festival last year, planned by Raimo Kangro, there were works from no fewer than eight composers born in the 1970s, the youngest of them only 18. Nearly all the performances were premieres.

By comparison, the Helsinki Biennale of 1997 featured not a single work by a Finnish composer born in the 1970s.

The Estonian State Symphony Orchestra also carries its share of the responsibility for contemporary music – the orchestra aims to make radio recordings of all the orchestral works of Estonian composers young and old that seem at all worth it.

Estonian student composers seem to have a more natural and relaxed attitude to composition than their Finnish counterparts. For some reason – whether it be due to the training itself or the paralyzing presence of older living composers – Finnish student composers often suffer from a severe mental block; they lose faith in what they do and the courage to write the sort of music they would really like to. This, in turn, atrophies their capacity for free musical expression and causes them to baulk at extensive composition projects. Also, Finnish student composers cannot really get their works performed anywhere except at “Korvat auki” (Ears open) or Ung Nordisk Musik (Young Nordic music) concerts, which are important occasions but terribly inbred.

In Estonia, the atmosphere is more relaxed. This is reflected in the musicianship and natural approach that I have sensed in works written by composers of the youngest generation. At contemporary music festivals, young composers can get their works performed on prestigious occasions and in parallel with works by more experienced composers. This is the best possible training for a student composer, and also the best source of self-confidence.

The output of Estonian composers born in the 1970s can be largely categorized in the same way as that of older composers. I was most impressed by Tinis Kaumann (1971- ), who has studied with Eespere and Kangro. His Neo-Classical op./97 for string orchestra became the highlight of the concert of the Tallinn Baroque Orchestra at the Estonian contemporary music festival last year, completely outshining the older composers featured in the same concert. This breezy and good-humoured composition also demonstrates the composer’s considerable gift for melody.

The development of electroacoustic music in Estonia has been hindered by the fact that a proper studio did not exist in Tallinn until the 1990s. However, even modest equipment have been used to good effect, as for instance by Sven Grünberg, mentioned above. Rauno Remme (1969- ) is a young composer specializing in electroacoustic music. It is typical for many Estonian works for tape that they are written as if they were instrumental works that just happen to be executed on tape. Mihkel Laur, on the other hand, follows a completely different approach. His unfortunately overlong work Pendulus II-III (1997), inspired by Edgar Allan Poe’s story “The Pit and the Pendulum”, opens with choral sounds and triads from under which strange noises begin to emerge: new worlds appear from under old ones.

In listening to the compositions and electroacoustic works of the youngest generation of Estonian composers, I was struck by the fact that there is really no avant-garde or Modernist school in the country at the moment. Estonian composer Lepo Sumera said to me back in the 1980s that the Estonians were in fact more advanced than the Finns: whereas Finnish composers had stagnated in their élitist and self-centred Modernism, Estonian composers had already discarded the dead styles and begun a new cycle in musical development.

By contrast, Finns have usually taken a condescending and patronizing attitude to Estonian contemporary music, which they consider too simple and banal, replete with clichés. The Finnish ideal is more complex and abstract. Also, Finnish composers are noted for being much more puritan in issues of style than Estonians; pluralism has often been given the cold shoulder, and one of the strictest taboos up to the 1990s was the introduction of pop or jazz features into concert music. There is very little Minimalism in contemporary Finnish music, and institutionalized Finnish Modernism has also declared an embargo on triads.

Regardless of this, the musical profile of Finland is more diverse than that of Estonia, if only because we have more composers. Also, creative music has attained dazzling heights in Finland recently. However, considering the problems encountered by the youngest Finnish composers, it is worthwhile to ponder what Sumera once provocatively said. Perhaps the Estonian composers, who have lived in difficult circumstances under political pressure and who have had to struggle to maintain their national identity, can see more clearly than us the musical core upon which a sustainable future and a continuation of tradition can be constructed – the musical core which is nationally significant. Only by being important nationally can music be important internationally, as witness the output of Sibelius and Pärt.

In 1995, the Estonian contemporary music festival suffered from audience loss. In 1997, there was no shortage of listeners; at a concert of electroacoustic music, there was standing room only. Now that the first wave of enthusiasm raised by independence and materialism has subsided, cultural values have, we may hope, re-emerged in Estonia after their slump in the early 1990s.

If this is the case, the prospects for the development of Estonian music are good.


Kalevi Aho is a Finnish composer and writer on music

From Finnish Music Quarterly magazine 4/1998

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