Kahvatu valgus 'Pale light' [1'22]
The Holst Singers are acclaimed as one of England’s greatest amateur choirs. The talent and commitment of the individual singers and the leadership of their mercurial conductor, Stephen Layton, ensure that their performances are always of the very highest standards.
Veljo Tormis is—along with Arvo Pärt—Estonia’s most famous living composer, holding an almost mystic status in his home country. He is also the passionate and practical torch-bearer for folk-singing revival, and the integration of an ancient cultural inheritance into thoroughly modern, post-Soviet lives. Interestingly, he trained at the Moscow conservatoire and was steeped in Soviet instruction during his early musical life. His music is almost all written for choirs; few composers have ever been so committed to one genre. Tormis’s choral specialism marks him out from Bartók, Kodály, Vaughan Williams and Grainger, whose pioneering interest in folksong was ultimately less purist given their use of the tunes alone in instrumental or orchestral works: for Tormis, the words and the music are inseparable.
The Holst Singers have recently been invited to Estonia to perform Tormis’s music—a great honour, and a mark of their mastery of the repertoire.
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Imagine this: a post-war totalitarian Britain, where creative artists are housed in their own discrete, genre-defined communities, looked after by the authorities but subtly contained and controlled too. One tenement, somewhere flanking central London and suburbia, has been for decades the shared address of writers and poets—Drabble, McEwan and Amis Jr occupying one storey, Larkin and Amis Sr two miscreants together on the fifth floor for a while many years back.
A few minutes’ walk away, in a slightly grubbier block of flats, are the state-housed composers. Harrison Birtwistle shares, somewhat tensely, a landing with Richard Rodney Bennett, and together they tolerate the keyboard vamping, up the stairwell and through prefab ceilings, of Michael Nyman one storey below. It is not the happiest of musical communities, but there have been some good parties there over the years.
Hard to imagine, yes; but the bricks-and-mortar reality is a 150-minute plane ride away, just west of St Petersburg and a ferry shuttle across the Gulf of Finland from Helsinki. Tallinn’s No 7 Lauteri Street is the residential block of the Estonian Composers’ Union. And here, under one roof, lived for several decades many of the country’s musical elite—at least until the end of Soviet rule in 1991. Neeme Järvi used to live there, and Arvo Pärt’s first wife still does. Her neighbour, sharing a stark, functional landing of stone floor and iron stair balustrades, is one of Estonia’s most illustrious figures. Within national boundaries he is widely celebrated—though not in lifestyle a ‘celebrity’—and in composer-terms he is an Estonian household name in such a way that only one composer can claim in Britain, Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber.
Internationally, Arvo Pärt, an émigré since 1980, may be Estonia’s most famous living composer. But Veljo Tormis—five years his senior and his one-time teacher—is the composer Estonia cherishes most on home turf. In November 2000 no fewer than fifty-five choirs marked his seventieth birthday in a concert in Tallinn; and within a period of two months around his August birthday a further twenty-three concerts were given in his honour across Estonia.
2000 was the year Tormis chose, perhaps unusually for a composer, to retire. He now describes himself—even on his Tallinn apartment’s doorbell—as ‘Composer Emeritus’, but he remains fully engaged with a lifelong evangelism for his country’s folk-song tradition. Alongside an almost mystic, shamanic status in Estonia, he is the passionate and practical torch-bearer for folk-singing revival—from kindergarten to pensioner homes—and the integration of an ancient cultural inheritance into thoroughly modern, post-Soviet lives.
‘We must stop treating our own song culture as a museum exhibit or as tourist exotica meant for a chosen few’, he wrote in his 1972 manifesto Folk Song and Us. That pamphlet, apart from cleverly aligning personal artistic credo with a certain line-towing Soviet political correctness, was above all a love-letter to Estonia’s ancient runic songs, ‘regilaul’. This was the folk heritage Tormis had become interested in during the previous decade—duple-metered, single-voiced songs, with alliterative non-rhyming texts and the call-response pattern of soloist and chorus.
‘Regilaul’, Tormis wrote, ‘is our people’s oldest, unique, most highly evolved and complete creation throughout the centuries, an expression of the people’s creative genius … ancient folk song can be, and indeed is, independent art—primeval, original and complete. As such, it could serve as the basis for our contemporary national art, not merely as an ornamentation. As important as its aesthetic worth is its ethical value. For regilaul embodies the life values of working people which have evolved over thousands of years. Why should we now abandon this heritage to oblivion or scorn it as archaic?’
Tormis’s father was a Lutheran music teacher and church organist, and from early on he was steeped in Estonia’s rich, essentially Germanic, song culture. Early twentieth-century folk revivalism was all part of this, stemming from Estonia’s ‘National Awakening’ in the nineteenth century and the country’s first United Song Festival in 1869. Composers from the generation before him, such as Cyrillus Kreek and Mart Saar, created a new body of choral folk-song arrangements, more sentimental and rounded than regilaul’s rugged terrain. Much Estonian folk song ‘collecting’ went on in the early decades of the twentieth century too—an important ethnographical exercise similar to that of Vaughan Williams, Grainger and Cecil Sharp in Britain, and Bartók and Kodály in Hungary and Romania. So Veljo Tormis’s towering achievement has been, in the last four decades, to bring back to life this ‘primeval’ heritage—what he calls his ‘musical mother-tongue’—within the broader context of his country’s proud and vibrant singing culture. With means as varied as entry-level school songbooks, articles, lectures and several hundred choral arrangements of great character and sophistication, Tormis approaches his ninth decade optimistic that ancient Estonian song will hold its own in the consciousness of younger generations otherwise bombarded by globally homogenized pop culture.
Less than two decades on from gaining independence, Estonia’s capital is a tourist-friendly place of gentrified lanes, towers, turrets and themed taverns just the right side of tacky—a medieval fantasy made affordably real for plane-loads of beered-up, low-fare stag-weekenders. But for Veljo Tormis, Tallinn is something much more complex, a city of foreign occupation and influence, of imposed political regimes and cultural dictat. Born in the middle of Estonia’s twenty-two years of self-rule (1918–40), Tormis subsequently witnessed as a boy the to-and-fro of wartime annexation (Soviet 1940–41, German 1941–44) and then the enforced stability of the Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic from 1944 to 1991.
The central paradox, then, of a man whose life’s work has been almost entirely devoted to defining Estonian musical nationhood is that he is a Soviet artist, the product of a regime dedicated strictly to ‘Russifying’ its satellite peoples. After teenage studies in organ, conducting and composition in Tallinn, it was the Moscow Conservatoire that gave Tormis his rigorous, formative training in the early 1950s. He was present at Prokofiev’s funeral in 1953. His teacher was Vissarion Shebalin, and fellow classmates included Rodion Shchedrin, Edison Denisov and Gennady Rozhdestvensky. Shostakovich was Chairman of the Jury for his graduation portfolio in 1956. And there are KGB files on Tormis from 1960 to 1989.
Tormis the Soviet, Tormis the folk nationalist: the two don’t immediately sit well together. But just as Shostakovich famously walked the tightrope of official censure over many decades, Tormis cleverly managed the balancing act too. He learnt early on, in 1948 from his organ teacher Edgar Arro, that a certain kind of nationalism found favour in Moscow, that the right tunes used in the right ways actually fitted with the anti-formalist policies of Socialist Realism. In the same way, the extraordinary phenomenon of Estonian Song Festivals—said to attract nearly a third of the entire population every five years to Tallinn’s stadium-like Song Festival Field—was enthusiastically adopted in Soviet times. This huge statement of sung nationalism, born in 1869 of German-Swiss origins and the driving force of independence in the late 1980s, became in Soviet Estonia a useful tool of massed cultural (and therefore political) communication.
The cultural isolation of Soviet-era Eastern-bloc composers led inevitably to a skewed perspective of recent music history. Tormis recalls how the official textbooks stopped with Grieg, and how as a student in Moscow he obtained access to scores of Debussy and Stravinsky as if they were contraband from the decadent West. Later he flirted unenthusiastically with twelve-tone composition technique—though it was Arvo Pärt who became the first Soviet composer to out himself as a serialist with Nekrolog in 1959. The turning-point of Tormis’s musical discovery was a rare trip beyond Estonian borders to Hungary in 1962. There, he took the opportunity to buy dozens of scores by Bartók and Kodály, and to study the integration of folk material within their own individual musical voices. From this point, Tormis began to specialize more and more in folk-song-derived choral writing. His output to this point included sonatas, overtures, an epic cantata on the story of Kalevipoeg. From the mid-1960s onwards, apart from some film scores and music theatre works, the Tormis catalogue is almost exclusively music for choirs. Few composers have been so committed to one genre, medium or instrument—Corelli’s writing for violin and Chopin’s for piano are two such other cases. And Tormis’s choral specialism marks him out from Bartók, Kodály, Vaughan Williams and Grainger, whose pioneering interest in folk song was ultimately less purist for their use of only the tunes in instrumental or orchestral works. For Tormis, the words and the music are inseparable.
With the exception of the second Ernst Enno setting, which was one of the last pieces Tormis wrote before retirement, the works on this disc divide neatly into two: those written before the mid-sixties are ‘original’ settings, and those written afterwards are arrangements of folk material.
The two settings of Ernst Enno (1875–1934) effectively bookend Tormis’s career. The first was composed when he was only eighteen and is a simple, lilting 6/8 pastoral dedicated to his girlfriend of the time. The second was written in 1998, and is dedicated to his wife of all the intervening decades, Lea. Constructed, superficially, from the same simple materials—the 6/8 metre, the parallel thirds and triadic harmony—this is a work of infinitely greater scope and sophistication. Free of folk song, but imbued with all its influence, this near-final act of pure creation links back to the start with craftsmanship and control.
The first of the three Kalevipoeg songs, O, my gentle tender mother, was written in 1954 as a tribute to Tormis’s mother. She had died the year before while he was away studying in Moscow, so his choice of text and musical response to the disturbing, bitter twist near the end—a suitably anguished climax—is poignant.
The other two settings of texts from Kreutzwald’s nineteenth-century national legend, Kalevipoeg (Kalev’s Son), were written in 1960. In Daughters of the Meadow Matron, with its rustic calls and charming alto patter, we hear Tormis properly finding his folk-art voice for the first time. With only limited harmonic and melodic range, he creates real character through texture and refined textual essence instead. This is the case, too, with The wave rolls, where a satisfying, dramatic architecture is built on the simple foundation of repeated bass patterns.
Autumn landscapes, seven settings of poems by Viivi Luik (born 1946), is the last freely composed work on this disc before Tormis’s full folk song conversion. Written two years after his visit to Hungary, there is an indebtedness to Kodály, a wider harmonic and textural palette, and greater confidence with colouristic effects such as glissandi, parlando and feather-light staccato.
In 1966–7 Tormis fully found his way into a distinctive folk-song style with the five-part, twenty-nine-song Calendar Songs cycle. His next large project began with a musical-anthropological visit to north-western Latvia with some students from Tartu University. This ‘expedition’, as Tormis calls it, triggered a fascination with tiny, ever-declining populations of kindred Finno-Ugric peoples. The 1969 visit to Livonia was followed the following year by visits to Votia and Izhoria, regions mostly in modern-day Russia near the Estonian border. Eventually, a complete cycle of fifty-one songs Unustatud rahvad (‘Forgotten peoples’), compiled between 1970 and 1989, comprised Livonian heritage, Votic wedding songs, Izhorian epic, Ingrian evenings, Vepsian paths and Karelian destiny. As a vast project of ethnographic, musicological preservation it was noble enough, but the raw material also forged some of Tormis’s most imaginative writing. Livonian heritage’s opening song, Waking the birds, is a five-minute drama of drone-based incantation and atmosphere. The other songs contain much vivid nature depiction, and evocations of something primevally connected to the land.
The looping repetitions of the fourth Livonian song, Wee winkie mouse, are heard again in the Ingrian song Singing aboard ship (1983). Here the verses keep on coming from alto soloist and chorus, as they describe the exodus of young men conscripted to fight, while their sweethearts stay behind weeping on the shore.
Again, in the Three Estonian game songs (1972), Tormis takes three regilaul melodies of limited melodic range and weaves something mesmeric out of their repetitive, haunting spirit. The 5/8 ostinato of bass paired thirds is a masterly touch in The grindstone game—its nagging, mechanical quality finally overwhelming the dogged tune. Masterly too is the sonorous spacing of Tormis’s characteristically parallel chords in The finger-binding game. And with such simple means—the shifting oscillation of adjacent triads—The ship game is given a dreamy, swaying character and rich harmonic scope.
In complete contrast to the compact, largely unembellished four-part settings of Four Estonian lullabies (1989), Childhood memory (Herding calls) is an expansive, dramatic treatment of Tormis’s chosen material. ‘On small ancient Estonian farmsteads’, he writes, ‘it was customary to have children herd the cattle. They called out to neighbours’ children and so kept in touch on woody pastures. Everybody had his or her token melodies which varied according to the time of day, weather and mood.’ This is Tormis’s most honest, even sentimental tribute to a rustic childhood—in memory of his sister, and based on herding motifs by the singer Aino Tamm and composer Miina Härma.
Tormis has said that he is ‘more a mediator than a creator’—that ‘it is not I who makes use of folk music, but folk music that makes use of me’. It is surely this appealing humility that has enabled the arranger-composer’s interventions to be judged so well—allowing the musical personality of one not to smother those of nameless millions that came before him and which, through these melodies, still live on.
Meurig Bowen © 2008