Veljo Tormis - Biography

By Urve Lippus Professor of Musicology, Estonian Academy of Music 
(reproduced by permission of the author and Fennica Gehrman Oy Ab)

Veljo Tormis (b.1930) has composed almost exclusively for the voice: hundreds of songs, cycles, and large-scale compositions for different choirs, some stage works and cycles of solo songs, and only isolated instrumental pieces. His own explanation is that for him, music begins with words; he does not have "purely musical" ideas. Tormis is a real master of choral sound and large-scale choral composition. His colourful, almost orchestral style of 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 a music-loving farmer, the amateur violinist and conductor Riho Tormis, who became the köster (parish clerk and choir/schoolmaster Est.) at Vigala church. Under his leadership the church choir sang all kinds of music, participated in local social events and national song festivals, like most Estonian choirs at that time. 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, Veljo Tormis 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 enthusiasitc 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. The breakthrough of modern composition techniques and an anti-romantic attitude to folk music took place in the music of Tormis in 1959-1967. In 1959 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' attitude to the use of folk material. He then wrote the Kihnu Island Wedding Songs (1959), a cycle based on the thorough study of Kihnu songs.

His acquaintance with the music of Bartók and 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 that one of his most popular cycles, Autumn Landscapes (1964), was written under its influence. Some years later Tormis finished his first great cycle, Estonian Calendar Songs (1967), for male and female choir, drawing widely on the primeval enchanting power of ancient folk tunes. This was the starting point for "the Tormis' style", as we now 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 further motivic development; instead, the old rustic songs sounded in his compositions in their original manner. Around them he has built truly symphonic choral textures and dramatic musical structures.

In the 1970s the scope of Tormis' search for archaic material widened from the nearest Balto-Finnic peoples to different traditions, giving rise to such works as North Russian Bylina (1976), Bulgarian Triptych (1978) and Latvian Drone Songs (1982). Sometimes he wanted to use traditional material close to the singers (e.g. Latvian songs were composed for a Latvian choir). But no less important has been 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 the texts have therefore been made under his careful supervision and some compositions have versions in different languages. In the 1990's, Tormis has composed several works using the English and Latin translations of the Finnish epic the Kalevala, like Kullervo's Message (1994; the work was commissioned for The Hilliard Ensemble and W.F.Kirby's English translation was used as the original text for the composition) or 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' greatest works, the ballet-cantata Estonian Ballads, was premiered at the Estonian National Opera. This is music 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 of 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 reestablishment 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' music in general has demonstrated its power regardless of language or time.