Veljo Tormis

From the webpage of Veljo Tormis’ publisher Fennica Gehrman

Veljo Tormis (b. 1930) has composed almost exclusively for the voice: hundreds of songs, song cycles, largescale compositions for choirs, some stage works, and only the occasional instrumental piece.
His own explanation is that for him, music begins with words; he does not have “purely musical” ideas. He has emphasized that he cannot (or does not want to) write music for pleasure or entertainment; his music always has something to say about the world, nature, men and peoples.

Tormis is a real master of choral sound and largescale choral composition. His colourful, almost orchestral writing for voices is always remarkable, to say nothing of his skill at creating tensions with the cumulative, seemingly monotonous repetition of an ancient folk tune.

Tormis was the eldest son of musicloving farmer, amateur violinist and conductor Riho Tormis, the parish clerk at Vigala Church. The church choir practised at their home, his mother singing alto and Veljo often sitting next to her. The church choir sang all kinds of music, and like most Estonian choirs of that time took part in local social events and national song festivals. This early experience of choral music and his involvement with national ideas and feelings related to the Estonian choral movement were certainly important for the future composer.
At the age of 12 VeljoTormis went to Tallinn to study music. A year later he was accepted for the organ class at the Conservatory. In 1951 he continued his composition studies at the Moscow Conservatory with Professor Vissarion Shebalin, graduating in 1956. Shebalin supported his student’s interest in national style based on the use of folk music.

In Estonia, the years around 1960 were marked by the enthusiastic study of modern musical ideas made possible by the general intellectual liberation in the Soviet Union. The young composers Arvo Pärt and Kuldar Sink became the leaders of the local avant-garde, experimenting with serial techniques at a time when neoclassical models were more widespread. Modern composition techniques and an anti-romantic attitude to folk music made their breakthrough in the music of Tormis in 1959–1967.
In 1958 he led a student expedition to the little Estonian island of Kihnu, where they attended a real traditional wedding with old folk songs and dances. This event proved so enchanting that it changed Tormis’s attitude to the use of folk material. He then wrote the Kihnu Island Wedding Songs (1959), a cycle based on thorough study of Kihnu songs.
His acquaintance with the music of Béla Bartók and Zoltán Kodály during a visit to Hungary in 1962 was to have a great influence on Tormis. He has confessed that the choral compositions of Kodály were particularly close to him, and one of his most popular cycles, Autumn Landscapes (1964), was influenced by it.


Veljo Tormis in 1962

Some years later Tormis finished his first great cycle, Estonian Calendar Songs (1967), for men’s and women’s choir, drawing widely on the enchanting primeval power of ancient folk tunes. This was the starting point for “the real Tormis style”, as we know it, and several choral suites based on ancient folk songs of different peoples followed (Livonian Heritage in 1970, Votic Wedding
Songs in 1971, and many others).
No longer did Tormis use a folk tune as a melodic idea for motivic development; instead, the old rustic songs sounded in his compositions in their original manner. Around them he built truly symphonic choral textures and dramatic musical structures.


Veljo Tormis in 1971

The scope of Tormis’s search for archaic material widened in the 1970s from the nearest Balto-Finnic peoples to a variety of traditions, giving rise to such works as North Russian Bylina (1976), Bulgarian Triptych (1978) and Latvian Bourdon Songs (1982). Sometimes he wanted to use traditional material close to the singers (such as Latvian songs composed for a Latvian choir). But no less important was his deep conviction that the ancient song traditions of different peoples have much in common: they reflect a way of life that is closer to nature, its beliefs and morals.

Tormis has often encouraged foreign choirs to sing his compositions in translation, as he insists that the singers and audience should understand what the song is about. However, words do have their musical aspect; music follows the rhythms and accents of verse prosody. Singable translations of texts have therefore been made under his careful supervision and some compositions have versions in different languages.


Veljo Tormis in 1980

In the 1990s, Tormis composed several works using English and Latin translations of the Finnish epic the Kalevala. These include Kullervo’s Message (1994, commissioned for The Hilliard Ensemble and using W. F. Kirby’s English translation as the original text for the composition) and Incantatio maris aestuosi (1996, based on the Latin version by Tuomo Pekkanen). An interesting work is The Bishop and the Pagan (Piispa ja pakana, 1992), commissioned for The King’s Singers, the text of which combines a medieval sequence telling the story (in Latin) of an English priest killed in Finland, a Finnish folk song reflecting the same event (in Finnish) and
comments (in English).

In 1980, one of Tormis’s greatest works, the ballet-cantata Estonian Ballads, was premiered at the Estonian National Opera. It is scored for chorus, soloists and orchestra, and the stories of the ballads are represented by dancers in abstract and modern style.
This was a difficult period for the Estonians, for the political climate in the Soviet Union had become harsher during the late 1970s. As a reaction, Tormis wrote several song cycles that almost brought him the aura of a dissident. He has always been outspoken, though in musical terms, about what he thinks about life around him.
Some of his most serious compositions are also related to the new turning point in Estonian history, the re-establishment of independence in 1991 – A Vision of Estonia. It may be that the meanings and musical symbols embedded in these songs can be fully grasped only by people who have some experience of that life, but the message of Tormis’s music in general has demonstrated its power regardless of languageor time.


Veljo Tormis and Manfred Eicher (from ECM) in 1998

The 1990s were an extremely productive decade for Tormis, bringing numerous international commissions due to the explosive spread of his music,
particularly after the 1990 symposium of the International Federation for Choral Music in Tallinn (including a special concert of Tormis’s music) and the 1992 tour of the World Youth Choir in Spain (when Tõnu Kaljuste conducted the Curse upon Iron to great acclaim).

After his 70th birthday in 2000 Tormis officially announced that with The Singer’s Closing Words, based on the epilogue to the Kalevala, he had finished his creative career and would retire. He has, however, been amazingly active during the past decade or so and devoted all his energy to editing earlier compositions, supervising performances and recordings of his music all over the world, and teaching the style of singing old folk songs at the Estonian Academy of Music and Theatre and the Viljandi Culture Academy.
It is true that he has not composed any new works, but the number of transcriptions of earlier compositions is steadily growing.
In 2009 Tormis composed a series of pieces for string orchestra called Reminiscentiae that are arrangements of earlier choral compositions from different periods and now form a cycle of orchestral music lasting nearly an hour. Reminiscentiae was premiered in summer 2010 for Tormis’s 80th birthday.
He says it is like gazing from the top of a mountain back over the road he has travelled during his long creative life.

Urve Lippus
Professor of musicology,
Estonian Academy of Music and Theatre


Veljo Tormis in Vigala, 2015