Veljo Tormis

Veljo Tormis (7 August 1930 – 21 January 2017) was one of the most exciting and well-known Estonian composers. This is a brief description of his work, references to his scores can be found below.

The old and the new intersect in Tormis’ music – having started in neoclassicism, the following decades saw him take the stylistic trend based on Estonian folk music to a new level by bringing into play modernist means of expression. Besides his musical theatre pieces, and symphonic and vocal chamber music, the main part of Tormis’s creative work consists of abundant choral works.

His years of studies were spent here and there. He said that the choice of composing as a profession was made in an atmosphere of constant change, and in the end, out of spite. Veljo Tormis took organ lessons from August Topman in 1942–1943 and continued studies with Topman at the Tallinn Conservatoire in 1943–1944. After the conservatoire’s reorganization, Tormis continued his organ studies in 1944 with Salme Krull at the Tallinn Higher Music School graduating in 1947. In 1949–1950, he studied choir conducting at the same school, in 1950–1951 he was a composition student of Professor Villem Kapp at the Tallinn Conservatoire. Tormis earned his composer’s diploma at the Moscow Conservatoire as a student of Professor Visarion Shebalin between 1951 and 1956. From 1955–1960, he served at Tallinn Music High School as a teacher of music theory and composition. Among his students were Arvo Pärt and Kuldar Sink. Between 1956 and 1969, Tormis was an adviser for the Estonian Composers’ Union, and between 1974 and 1989, a vice-president of the ECU. Starting from 1969, Tormis worked as a freelance composer.

Folk songs were immensely important to Tormis, and at the end of the 1960s, he began to speak out increasingly on the topic – at first, at the events of the Society for Nature Conservation and later at author concerts, conferences, in radio and television shows. He was critical about the beautification of folk songs and the glorified “nationality”, and he emphasised that runic songs are an “independent art – primeval, unique and comprehensive. As such, it sould be the basis for our current national art, not a decorative pendant.” (from the Estonian Theatre and Music Museum exhibition “Veljo Tormis – rahvalauluga loodud maailm” (“Veljo Tormis – world created by folk song”)

In addition to Estonian folk song, he has drawn on the folklore of kindred and more distant peoples in his works. His choral works echo with the melodies of the Ingrians, Setos, Estonians, Latvians, Livonians, Finns, Russians, Bulgarians and other peoples. The cycle “Unustatud rahvad” (“Forgotten Peoples”) is the result of a long-term effort, and holds great significance due to its idea and implementation. From the very beginning, Tormis has paid utmost attention to the verse and message underlying his music. His use of text is often theatrical or ritualistic. Many of Tormis’s works, especially those from the 1980s, have a philosophical point to make and level criticism at society.

Tormis’s music has been sung by most Estonian choirs, his music is often heard being performed by foreign choirs at festivals and competitions, and his music has been recorded by several foreign music groups. The premiere of one of his internationally best-known work – “Raua needmine” (“Curse Upon Iron”), took place at the Assembly Hall of the University of Tartu on 5 May 1973. The piece was a commission by Tallinn Chamber Choir (conductor Arvo Ratassepp) for their 10th anniversary and they have played a big part in popularising Tormis’s music. The Estonian Radio Mixed Choir and the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir have also contributed to making Tormis’s music known within Estonia but also internationally – they have performed Tormis’s music constantly and with great enthusiasm, and they have been the performers of several significant premiers (e.g. parts of “Kalendrilaulud” (“Calendar Songs”), “Bulgaaria triptühhon” (“Bulgarian Triptych”), “Kihnu pulmalaulud” (“Kihnu Wedding Songs”), “Sünnisõnad” (“The Birth Rite”), parts of “Unustatud rahvad” (“Forgotten Peoples”), etc.). Tormis held his cooperation with the Estonian National Male Choir in especially high regard. He considered the choir to be the vision of his youth and a strong influence in his life.

(Used material: from the Estonian Music Information Centre, the ETMM exhibition “Veljo Tormis – rahvalauluga loodud maailm” (“Veljo Tormis – world created by folk song”), and others.)

How to find and use Veljo Tormis’s scores?

If you would like to know more about Veljo Tormis’s music and/or purchase his scores, you can find relevant information from the website of the Estonian Music Information Centre, for example.

Chamber Choir Kolm Lindu wanted to perform the 3-part cycle “Kolm laulu eeposest ‘Kalevipoeg’” (“Three Songs from the Epic ‘Son of Kalev’”) for a mixed choir. The publisher of this work is Carus-Verlag, and on their website, we performed a search for Tormis’s works. We checked the box before “Mixed Choir a Cappella” to make navigation easier. As can be seen from the results of the search, they do not offer the complete cycle, which means that we had to order the scores for the parts of the cycle separately. The tree parts cost in total €2.20 + €3.95 + €3.95 = €10.10. Together with the conductor, our choir has about 30 members, which means that the total amount for the entire choir was 30 * €10.10 = €303 plus about a dozen euros for postage. We paid by invoice and the beautiful original scores reached us in a week or two. We performed the cycle at two concerts in 2018 and two concerts in 2019 – if we ever want to perform the piece again, the single purchase is enough and we will never have to buy these scores again. After each concert we just completed a report for the Estonian Authors’ Society. Based on this report, 7% of the ticket revenue from our concert was divided between the authors of the music we performed (if the ticket revenue is €1,000, €70 gets divided between the authors).