Veljo Tormis, one of the choral music greats, celebrates 85th birthday

Veljo Tormis, regarded as one of the greatest living choral music writers and one of the most important composers of the 20th century in Estonia, celebrates his 85th birthday on 7 August.

Tormis‘s contribution to the Estonian choral tradition and to choral music worldwide is invaluable. One can say he has created a choral tradition of his own, the unique “Tormis’ style”. From his student days until his retirement from composition in 2000, Tormis composed over 500 individual choral songs, as well as other vocal and instrumental pieces, 35 film scores and an opera.

Although having started in neo-classicist style – a good example is his Overture No. 2 that was the first work of an Estonian composer performed at the Warsaw Autumn Festival in 1961 – he later took the usage of Estonian folk music to a new level by bringing modernist composition techniques into play.

In addition to Estonian archaic musical material, his interest widened to other finno-ugric people’s music, such as Ingrians, Setus, Livonians, Finns, but also Latvians, Russians and Bulgarians.

Estonian runo song (“regilaul” in Estonian) can no longer be called a living tradition, but largely thanks to Tormis, it was brought out of museums and given a new lease on life. His original style that derived from runo song, not only made it again popular in Estonia, but also gained recognition worldwide.

“It is not I who makes use of folk music, it is folk music that makes use of me,” Tormis said of his settings of traditional melodies and verse.

It is fair to say that along with Arvo Pärt, Tormis is the most acknowledged Estonian composer in the world. Despite the censorship of several of his more politically provocative works in the late 1970s and the 1980s, he remained an incredibly celebrated composer whose works were performed throughout the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Since Estonia regained independence in 1991, his works have been increasingly performed in the West, including in the United States. Performers include some of the world’s most renowned ensembles, such as The King’s Singers (“The Bishop and the Pagan“, 1992) and The Hilliard Ensemble ( “Kullervo’s Message”, 1994).

Among his numerous works, two extensive cycles come forth: Estonian Calendar Songs (1967), based on the folk melodies of different Estonian counties and tied to important dates in the folk calendar, and also Forgotten Peoples (1970–1989), based on the folklore of the endangered Baltic and Finnic people.

His composition most often performed outside Estonia is Curse Upon Iron (Raua needmine, 1972), that invokes ancient Shamanistic traditions to construct an allegory about the evils of war.

In August, major choirs and theatres celebrate Tormis’s 85th birthday during numerous events throughout Estonia: Estonian National Male ChoirChamber Choir Collegium MusicaleEstonian TV Girls’ ChoirEstonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, theatre Von Krahl and Nargen FestivalThe Chamber Choir Voces Musicales.

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Cover: Veljo Tormis by Kaupo Kikkas.

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About the author: Estonian World

Estonian World is a global independent online magazine, founded in London in 2012 and headquartered in Tallinn, Estonia. The magazine has editorial representations in London, New York, Toronto and Tallinn, and contributors all over the world, on every continent. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Instagram.