Academic Estonian music in the 1990s

Never before have Estonian music and Estonian musicians enjoyed as much international renown as they do today. During fifty years of Soviet occupation Estonian arts (and music) existed largely in isolation. The first appearance of Estonian music on the international scene after WWII did not occur until 1960, when Eino Tamberg’s ballet The Ballet-Symphony premiered at the State Theatre of Schwerin.

This does not, however, mean that the entire period of occupation can be treated simplistically in black-and-white, in fact, the period from 1970 (the time when Tamberg’s ballet Joanna Tentata was staged) to the mid-1980s was in a way the golden era of Estonian music. Much happened during these years: Veljo Tormis composed his major works from Raua needmine (Curse upon Iron, 1972) to Kalevala XVII runo (The Seventeenth Runo of Kalevala, 1985), Arvo Pärt turned to the new and innovative tintinnabulary style that has subsequently established him in the international music scene, and also, the most significant original Estonian operas were composed during this period. The 1980s also marked the beginning of a gradual break from the isolation of the occupation — in 1980 Neeme Järvi emigrated to the United States and Arvo Pärt to Germany.

Academic Estonian music of the 1990s is characterised by a lessening in importance of symphonic music and a considerable increase in chamber music projects and in performances of instrumental music.

From 1990 to 1999 Estonian composers wrote a total of 9 symphonies, including Viies Sümfoonia (The Fifth Symphony, 1995) by Lepo Sumera, Kolmas sümfoonia (The Third Symphony, 1997) by Erkki-Sven Tüür, and Neljas Sümfoonia (The Fourth Symphony, 1998) by Eino Tamberg. In comparison, during the previous decade, i.e. from 1980 to 1989, Estonian composers had written 32 symphonies. The reasons for the decline in popularity of symphonic music are twofold. Firstly, the 1990s witnessed the emergence of project-based musical ensembles (the NYYD-Ensemble being the most influential), and secondly, there were economic reasons: the system of state commissions was changing and the process of sound recording was becoming more and more expensive.

The increase in the number of chamber music projects must have been influenced by similar factors: it is less costly to commission chamber music. Project-based ensembles are usually fairly active. Another feature of the era was the boom in chamber operas written by Estonian composers in the 1990s. Chamber operas were often composed to be performed only once or twice but at a time when no full length Estonian operas were being staged, this gap on the Estonian musical scene was, in a way, filled by chamber operas like Reetur (Traitor, 1995) by Raimo Kangro, Dispuut (Dispute) by Alo Mattiisen, Depressioon baaris (Depression in the Bar, 1997) by Alo Põldmäe, Olivia meistriklass (Olivia’s Master Class, 1997) by Lepo Sumera, and Uku ja Ecu (Uku and Ecu, 1998) by Raimo Kangro.

During recent years a new genre of multimedia performances has emerged in Estonia with Rauno Remme and Lepo Sumera being the leading figures. Thus the multimedia performances Zond (1999) by Remme and the electronic performance Südameasjad (Matters of the Heart, 1999) by Sumera could be heard during the festival of contemporary music NYYD ’99.

Another characteristic feature of the Estonian music of the 1990s is the great number of instrumental concertos composed — from 1990 to 1999, Estonian composers wrote 31 concertos, i.e. more than had been written during any previous decade. This genre enjoys continuous popularity; the last concert of the Festival of Estonian Music 2000 included the premieres of four concertos: Silver Concerto for soprano saxophone and a chamber orchestra (1999) by Peeter Vähi, Time Sculpture (2000) for piano and a big orchestra, percussion concerto op. 62 (2000), and Concerto grosso (2000) for soprano saxophone, piano and percussion by Lepo Sumera. Interestingly, Estonian composers often compose for foreign artists: Erkki-Sven Tüür and Lepo Sumera wrote their cello concerto for David Garengas from Lithuania, Erkki-Sven Tüür composed a violin concerto for Isabelle van Keulen from the Netherlands, Silver Concerto by Peeter Vähi was written for Anders Paulsson and the percussion concerto by Raimo Kangro for Mark Pekarski from Russia. Such phenomena help disseminate Estonian music internationally, even if Estonian audiences cannot always attend the premieres of such nationally important works when the premieres occur abroad.

It can be concluded that while Estonian music suffered a slight decline during the first half of the 1990s largely because of the political transition (regaining of independence), the second half of the decade, i.e. the years of stable national growth, have witnessed steady development. The progress of Estonian music becomes evident when we look at the fairly successful performance of Estonian composers at the International Rostrum of Composers in Paris.

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