The Estonian composer Veljo Tormis passed away on January 21. Here is an obituary from the New York Times. He was one of the elder statesman of musical life in Estonia — a country that punches well above its weight in this sphere. Arvo Pärt was one of his students.
Tormis’ music is quite interesting. He was greatly indebted to folk music traditions, and many of his compositions are inspired by folk songs or are new settings of traditional texts. Although he may have written some sacred music, I am not aware of any. His music is often extremely dramatic, charged with a Dionysian energy.
As an example of his art, here is Curse Upon Iron. The choir in this video (Nederlands Kamerkoor) is led by Tonu Kaljuste, one of the leading interpreters of Tormis’ music. I once had the privilege of attending a master class with Kaljuste in which he led his choir (the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, on that occasion) in a performance of this same piece. It was in a small room, with maybe thirty or so people present, and I’ll never forget how I felt engulfed by this strange, violent, and urgent music.
But Tormis could write simple, beautiful music as well. Here is “How Can I Recognize My Home”, one of my personal favourites:
Veljo Tormis, rest in peace.