Half a century of “Curse Upon Iron”

04 May 2023

2. Raua needmine (6. mai 1973)

The composer took home a trophy from his own concert, a program sheet, on which he later wrote: “I beat the drum myself”. But that was not his only contribution then. Before the performance, he addressed the audience briefly in Tartu University Hall, emphasizing that this time his new piece was not a folk song arrangement, but he tried to capture the essence and form of this phenomenon. Then the composer read out the text of the work, as he considered it important.
This iron curse set to music was actually an incantation for peace. And officially, the concert itself was also a kind of peace concert.

“Curse Upon Iron” is a special work in Veljo Tormis's oeuvre. Over half a century, it has reached dozens and dozens of recordings, hundreds of choirs probably on all continents have sung it and let themselves be enchanted by its energy.
This music is both archaically old and expressively new. And this charm has an effect on the audience even when Americans or Germans or Frenchmen does not understand Ugric-language exclamations. This work is modern choral music classics.

The birth story and journey of “Curse Upon Iron” to its premiere was bumpy. Tormis had, according to his own words, been interested in old shamans since the mid-1960s and had visioned this kind of music in his mind for several years.
Certainly one of the catalysts was also Lennart Meri's invitation in the late 60s to become a musical consultant for films about Siberian indigenous peoples. Then Tormis visited the International Music Council congress in Moscow and saw Siberians beating drums at a concert. That was like the moment of revelation. And as Lennart Meri had just a right Siberian shaman drum at home - quite genuine and brought from far away - the composer went, took and brought it home with him to start working.
From that moment, the notes lined up on paper with great momentum.

The right moment was the new music competition announced for the 10th anniversary of the Tallinn Chamber Choir. This choir had made a big name for itself in Estonia in 1971 with the victory of the Arezzo choir competition and one of the reasons for the success abroad was Tormis' music. It was stunning to foreigners.
Therefore, it was quite justified for the choir to hope that maybe Tormis would write them something special again.
In mid-May 1972, the jury of the singing competition made a decision. The first prize was not awarded. Two second prizes went to Veljo Tormis for "Three Estonian Folk Songs" and "The Curse Upon Iron". He presented the latter piece with the keyword "Neoneandertal".

Why the excellent "Curse of Iron" did not get first place and why it took more than a year to reach the premiere, we can only guess afterwards. One of the choir's conductors, Kuno Areng, later admitted (with shame probably) that their first impression after getting acquainted with the score was that Tormis had written some weird nonsense vocal piece.
And Tormis, in turn, recalled those times, saying that he had to heat up the sauna in the basement of the Composers' House several times to soften the conductors in the steam room and smooth out tense relations. There was also a lot of foreignness for the singers in this music - strange rhythms, unusual voice production, and on top of that, body movements for singers (turns and squats) were written in the score.
The text, which was translated into Estonian by August Annist on the basis of "Kalevala" and supplemented by Jaan Kaplinski and Paul-Eerik Rummo, gave an old-fashioned impression, although the content itself was in some moments very contemporary.

But when the work finally reached the audience, its further momentum was unstoppable. In a concert review published in the newspaper Sirp ja Vasar (18.05.1972), Uno Uiga wrote that "the work itself was stunning".
The "Curse Upon Iron" reached Tallinn in the autumn of the same year. Then the radio choir made the first proper recording for the record, which Veljo Tormis himself liked very much. A little later, Tõnu Kaljuste and his choir took over the work and the audience went crazy about it. The ecstatic conductor with a shaman drum was an unforgettable sight.
When Kaljuste got so carried away on one TV broadcast that he broke Lennart Meri's drum, a replacement(s) was quickly found for it. Soon there were enough drums. Estonian choirs took the "Curse Opon Iron" with them to their foreign performances and won audiences almost everywhere. Then foreigners started performing it.
Soon the work lived on its own and Tormis eventually lost the ability to follow all its performances somewhere in distant corners of the world. The composer made arrangements for mixed choir, male choir and female choir in addition to the mixed choir version, and we can also find them on numerous records.

For decades, the "Curse of Iron" has captivated critics, singers and listeners alike. It is at once archaic, contemporary and timeless. It grabs both body, senses and spirit. And it has a message that is more relevant now than ever before.

Photos of the “Curse Upon Iron” premiere (Veljo Tormis Virtual Centre Photo archive. Repros: Tõnu Tormis Photo gallery.