The Estonian Influence

Two of the shorter works in our upcoming concert are composed by Estonians:  Arvo Pärt (b.1935) and Tõnis Kaumann (b.1971). 

One of the most performed and celebrated composers currently working in the field of classical music, Pärt was born during the brief window before World War II, during which Estonia and the other Baltic countries were sovereign nations, before being taken over, first, by the Nazis, and then by the Soviet Union. The Soviet occupation profoundly impacted his musical development—little news and influence from outside the Soviet Union were allowed into Estonia, and Pärt had to make a lot up as he went along, with the help of illegally obtained tapes and scores, and under constant threat of harassment from the Soviet authorities.


His compositions are generally divided into two periods. His early works demonstrate the influence of Russian composers such as Shostakovich and Prokofiev, but he quickly became interested in Schoenberg and serialism, planting himself firmly in the modernist camp. This brought him to the attention of the Soviet establishment, which banned his works; it also proved to be a creative dead-end for him. Shut down by the authorities, Pärt entered a period of compositional silence, having "reached a position of complete despair in which the composition of music appeared to be the most futile of gestures, and he lacked the musical faith and willpower to write even a single note (Paul Hillier)." During this period he immersed himself in early European music, from Gregorian chant through the development of polyphony in the Renaissance.   The music that began to emerge after this period—a date generally set at 1976-- was radically different from what had preceded it. Pärt himself describes the music of this period as tintinnabuli —like the ringing of bells. It is characterized by simple harmonies, outlined triads, and pedal tones, with simple rhythms which tend not to change tempo over the course of a composition. The work Chorale will present, Nunc dimittis (2001), is an outstanding example of Pärt’s later, tintinnabuli style. He converted from Lutheranism to Russian Orthodoxy, and became immersed in the mysticism of the latter faith.  and began to set Biblical and liturgical texts, with an obvious faith and fervor which once again brought him into conflict with the Soviet regime.

In 1980, after years of struggle over his overt religious and political views, the Soviet regime allowed him to emigrate with his family. He lived first in Vienna, where he took Austrian citizenship, and then relocated to Berlin, in 1981. He returned to Estonia after that country regained its independence, in 1991, and now lives alternately in Berlin and Tallinn.

Pärt’s colleague, Tõnis Kaumann, is one of the best-known of Estonia’s younger composers. Active in several musical genres, Kaumann is also a baritone singer in the professional choral ensemble Vox Clamantis, which has performed and recorded much of Pärt ‘s work. Kaumann’s compositional style is classified as post-modern, and is characterized by a high degree of improvisation, humour and a keen sense of the absurd, while being deeply rooted in Gregorian chant and early polyphony.  His musical tastes range from the medieval to post-bebop jazz and Abba.  The work Chorale will perform, Ave Maria, displays this broad variety of influences, alternating between fauxbourdon-like passage for the choir, chant sung by tenor and bass soloists, and improvisation by three soprano and alto singers. 

Bruce TammenComment