In Estonian cultural life, the years ending with five or ten have turned out to be years of musical festivities, as we celebrate in turns the anniversaries of two masters, internationally best-known and beloved Estonian composers Veljo Tormis (1930-2017) and Arvo Pärt (b.1935). This year marks another anniversary of Veljo Tormis who would have turned 90 on August 7.
Veljo Tormis’ activity as composer spans just over fifty years, and most of his works were completed in the second half of the 20th century. However, the spirit of his work should be measured as spanning millenia: in his musical scores he gave new life to the deepest layer of Estonian and Finno-Ugric culture — traditional runic singing. By Tormis’ hand the ancient folk songs were shaped into deeply moving works of art that captivate the audience with both their original sound and their message, relevant for the contemporary listener. In every decade, he has hit upon something that is characteristic of that time, reflecting the turning points in Estonian music as well as cultural and political life in general. In his works from the fifties and sixties, the avant-garde strivings and the search for identity so characteristic of his whole generation are presented. The sixties and seventies brought along a turn toward folk music, a vigorous manifesto that stayed with Tormis as an inexhaustible source of inspiration. In the seventies and eighties, a dissident self-expression added itself in the form of socially critical poetry and songs (lyrics by Estonian poets Juhan Liiv, Hando Runnel and Juhan Viiding). Throughout the nineties, Tormis’ themes and message worked as a warning against forgetting one’s past and losing one’s roots.
At the center of Veljo Tormis’ work lies the word – and the word carries force. This force was well understood by the composer; by his music and word he has taught, raised and inspired several generations of singers, listeners, composers, folk musicians and folklorists. In the broadest sense, he has been the bearer of a spiritual world. In 2000, Veljo Tormis decided to give up composing. Symbolically, his last work became the Songster’s Last Words, music to the 50th runo from the epic Kalevala (later, he did finalise new arrangements of earlier works). Veljo Tormis himself had become a songster, someone who knew when it was time to conclude his singing and bid farewell.
It is customary to wish happiness to the person celebrating their birthday. But Veljo Tormis, with his brilliant creative life, has himself brought happiness to the entire Estonian culture and made us greater and richer as a musical nation.
Thank you, dear Veljo! May your stories and songs reach many more hearts still!