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Mark Morris’s Guide to Twentieth Century Composers

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Estonia had an independent and sometimes nationalist musical life during the period of the Estonian Republic, between the end of Tsarist domination (1918) and the Soviet take-over (1940), a heritage that has blossomed again since the break-up of the Soviet Union. The natural inclination of this compositional life has been to look to Scandinavian rather than Russian models, with the sense of space and luminous light that is characteristic of Northern composers. Now Estonia has again achieved independence, her music should be grouped with the other Scandinavian countries rather than with those of the former U.S.S.R., and is likely to give pleasure to those who already enjoy other Scandinavian music.

The origins of modern Estonian music go back to Rudolf Tobias (1873-1918) and Artur Kapp (1878-1952); the latter's best-known work is the overture Don Carlos (1889). The first Estonian symphony was written in 1908 by Artur Lemba (1885-1963), and gradually Estonian composers introduced Estonian folk-music into their works. The main Estonian composers before the takeover by the U.S.S.R were Heino Eller (1887-1970) and Eduard Tubin (1905-1982). Eller's idiom was Romantic, but with Scandinavian colours, and his output included three symphonies and five string quartets. The late-Romantic nationalistic tone-poem Dawn (1918) and the Five Pieces for String Orchestra (1953), with their modal shades and a sense of northern space, provide an attractive introduction to his work. He was also an important teacher of the next generation of Estonian composers. The core of Tubin's output are his ten symphonies in a neo-Romantic style that has recently attracted much attention. He left for Sweden in 1944.

Estonian music languished in the later 1940s and 1950s under the dead weight of Soviet Socialist Realism, but a revival came with the work of three composers who came to the fore in the 1960s. Eino Tamberg (born 1930) continued the use of folk music, while Jan Rääts (born 1932) turned to a neo-classical idiom; his fine Symphony No.4 op.13 is recommended. The third composer, Arvo Pärt (born 1935) has become the best known of all Estonian composers. To the distaste of the Soviet authorities, he turned to the influence of 12-tone and serial music in the 1960s, and then during the 1970s started to develop a spare, neo-tonal style of slow moving, rarefied meditations, often in a religious context, which have connections with the Minimalists while retaining a general atmosphere that is still recognizably in the Scandinavian tradition. These have received world-wide attention and acclaim. There is now a lively group of younger composers in Estonia whose works are starting to be heard elsewhere, often under the influence of Pärt and the Minimalists, and Estonian music's long obscurity (which until the late 1970s included Tubin and Pärt) seems finally over.

Estonia has produced an outstanding conductor in Neeme Järvi (born 1937), who has championed Estonian and 20th-century music in general, especially often-neglected composers who have written in a generally mainstream idiom.





PÄRT Arvo (sometimes spelt Pårt, Piart, Pyart)

born 11th September 1935 at Paide, Estonia


The Estonian composer Arvo Pärt is, with Schnittke, the most interesting and inventive of the younger generation of composers who emerged in the former Soviet Union in the late 1960s. Like Schnittke, his music has had considerable international impact, especially after his temporary emigration in 1988, and he is now the best known composer from the Baltic countries.

His early works combined the influence of the Soviet tradition with an awareness of the Second Viennese School, as well as the Estonian inheritance exemplified by the more traditional Tubin. He was one of the first Soviet composers to make public use of 12-tone techniques, especially in Obituary (1960, also known as Necrologue) commemorating the victims of fascism. It was condemned as `ultra-expressionist', though this did not prevent his music becoming quite widely known inside the Soviet Union in the 1960s and 1970s. Post-Webern serial techniques lie behind the Symphony No.1 (1964, sometimes known, with its canonic writing, as the Polyphonic Symphony). The organization is strict (the tone-rows are numbered in the score), divided into two movements (`Canons' and `Prelude and Fugue'), themselves each in two sections. It is a lean work, influenced in spite of its serial elements by both neo-classicism (in its orchestral layout and clarity) and Shostakovich, moving to a forceful close with ever-thickening textures. It was preceded by Perpetuum mobile (1963) for orchestra, an angry arch that builds to thick orchestral textures before dying away, and an early indication of Pärt's later concentration on a single focus of idea.

Pärt's music in the 1960s is dark, with an undercurrent of destruction, and it started to involve direct quotation of the music of earlier periods in collage effects (the Symphony No.2, 1966, for example, takes apart material by Tchaikovsky). Baroque fragments, tone clusters, and tonal chords juxtapose in the short Cello Concerto `Pro et Contra' (1966), where the slow movement is a 30 second snatch of pseudo-Baroque music, and the final movement is a sarcastic but catchy comment on other Russian and Soviet composers (notably Shchedrin). The severe and discordant Symphony No.2 uses a squeaky toy for tone colour, which is otherwise dominated by percussion.

By the stylistically transitional Symphony No.3 (1971) in three-movement classical form, that assimilation of the past started to include techniques inspired by the medieval European polyphonists, and by Gregorian chant (by coincidence using in the symphony the same chant as Respighi's Botticelli Pictures). With this largely peaceful work his harmonic language evolved into a more lyrical and free harmonic idiom with tonal associations; the anger seems to have dissipated, and a luminosity emerges.

After a compositional pause until 1976, a series of sacred pieces under the spell of this liturgical influence emerged, including Missa (1977/79) for vocal ensemble and old instruments, and Cantate domino canticum novum (1979, a setting of Psalm 95) for vocal ensemble and instruments. On his departure from the U.S.S.R., he developed an association with the English Hilliard Ensemble, a vocal group who specialize in early music and who have championed Pärt's music. Accompanying this change of musical direction is an introverted spiritualism, and (like his historical models) a concentration on purity of internal colour and effect rather than any dramatic or overtly emotional expression. The results have similarities with Minimalism, and a slow moving, often quiet, sense of contemplative ritual pervades. The basis of his harmonic language has become extremely simple and traditionally triadic (although the polyphonic webs set up overlapping areas), and classical forms are abandoned in favour of slow moving, long-phrased repetitive structures. Pärt himself has pointed to the mystical significance of the tones he uses, which he has described as `tintinnabulation' (the sounding or the sounds of bells).

Among these recent works are Tabula rasa (1977) for two violins, prepared piano and strings, and Fratres (1977) which, like a number of Pärt's later works, exists in more than one version: for violin and piano, for twelve cellos, and arranged for string quartet. The work that first brought international attention was the short Cantus in memory of Benjamin Britten (1977) for strings and bell. Its deceptively simple waves of polyphonic string-writing are based on the extension of a single falling idea, rich, moving, and sonorous, punctuated by the tolling of one of Britten's favourite instruments; in its basis of perpetual variation Pärt has reconciled the influences both of Webern and of medieval polyphonic models. Early liturgical chant and a monastic contemplation are emulated in the Passio (Passio Somini Nostri Jesu Christi Secundum Joannem, 1982), a very slow moving, meditative setting of the St.John Passion using a countertenor voice. The extended nature of this rarefied work is likely to appeal mainly to those already used to Pärt's ruminative and hypnotic idiom. The lovely Stabat Mater (1985) for three soloists and string trio, similar in evocation, is a more immediate approach to Pärt's haunting liturgical idiom, built on the simplest of materials, relying on the slightest touch of timbre or colour for its movement. The Te Deum (1984-1986) for chorus, strings, prepared piano and organ opens with long-breathed swathes of string and vocal sound, with little attempt at dramatic colour: even the words `Patrem immensae maiestatis' are given to a simple high soprano line. But the mesmerizing effects of this idiom belie the intensity that very slowly emerges, building to a grand climax before a sparse close in one of Pärt's finest later works. The Magnificat (1989) for chorus has a similar effect. But the danger of this religious style is that it is inclined to be repetitive, and the Berliner Messe (1990-1992) for chorus and strings, while attempting a little more variety (including the use of solo voices), simply emerges as a less effective variant of the Te Deum, without its passion.

Pärt's more recent and rarefied style has attracted considerable international acclaim, appealing both to those who have been attracted by Minimalism, and those who see in his style elements of a more complex tradition. Whether the extremely sparse nature of his recent works will continue to hold such appeal remains to be seen; but his instinct for compositional metamorphosis suggests that he will remain a composer worthy of attention.


works include:

- 3 symphonies (No.1 sometimes known as Polyphonic Symphony); cello concerto Pro et Contra; Double Concerto for violin, cello and orch.; Necrolog and Perpetuum Mobile for orch.

- Collage on Themes of B-A-C-H for oboe, harpsichord and strings; Dash and Dot for chamber ensemble; Arbos for instrumental ensemble; Musica Sillabica for 12 instruments; Tabula rasa for chamber orchestra; Silhouans Songs for strings

- Fratres for violin and piano, and for 12 cellos; wind quintet

- 2 piano sonatinas; Diagrammid and Partita for piano; Pari Intervallo for organ

- children's cantata Our Garden; Te Deum; Berliner Messe; oratorio Stride of the World; cantata Song for the Beloved for 2 soloists, chorus and orch.; Soffeggio for chorus and string quartet; Credo for piano, chorus and orch.; De Profundis for vocal quartet, percussion and organ; Stabat Mater for 3 soloists and string trio; Summa for vocal quartet and other vocal works


recommended works:

Cantus in memory of Benjamin Britten (1977) for strings and bell

Stabat Mater (1985)

Symphony No.1 Polyphonic (1964)

Symphony No.3 (1971)

Te Deum (1984-1985) for chorus, strings, prepared piano and organ


TUBIN Eduard

born 18th June 1905 at Kallasta (Estonia)

died 17th November 1982 at Stockholm


Eduard Tubin was the most eminent composer to have emerged from Estonia before Pärt. His current prominence, prompted by the understandable advocacy of his fellow Estonian, the conductor Neeme Järvi, has been created by a number of critics who, unable to cope with musical developments since the war, have turned to the sudden discovery of his conservative oeuvre with a certain amount of relief. The subsequent praise, heightened by the composer's long neglect and his escape from Estonia to Sweden in 1944 on the return of the Russians, has been exaggerated. Many of his contemporaries are just as interesting and just as neglected, while readers who have not yet explored the symphonies of such figures as Marti, Vagn Holmboe, Schuman, or even the Swede Pettersson, to name but a few, are advised to turn there first.

That having been said, Tubin's work often has moments of considerable interest, always well-wrought and patently sincere. His ten symphonies, the centrepiece of his output, have a number of features in common. The harmonic language is conventional, even the moments of polytonality more the result of orchestral blocks than harmonic experiment. Two- or three-movement structures are preferred. The orchestral colours are usually sharp-edged and dark, emphasizing the favoured opposition of brass against strings. An almost continual rhythmic vigour is maintained by the prominence of percussion, especially timpani, combined with the use of ostinati. The progress of quiet, building to climax, and back to quiet is a regular structural feature. The strengths of these symphonies lie in a kind of Scandinavian inevitability, in the earnestness of an exile, in a rhythmic rigidity of purpose, and a in generally dark-hued view of the world. Their failings are generally unmemorable melodies, and moments of considerable banality (e.g. the quasi-jazz rhythms crossed with Khachaturian-like melodic line of the second movement of the sixth symphony); overall they add little to the body of symphonic language or structure.

The Symphony No.2 (Legendary, 1937), with its impressive and quiet opening and close, its echoes of Sibelius, and its ruggedness and sense of drama, sets out the main features of his work. The Symphony No.4 (Sinfonia lirica, 1943, revised 1976) is elegiac, with long spans of softer colours and an unfolding sweep of melodic idea in one unbroken movement, mostly pastoral in feel with strings predominant in homogeneous textures, but with sterner climaxes. The Symphony No.5 (1948), Tubin's first work in Sweden and sometimes seen as a political statement, uses an Estonian folk-song and chorale in its neo-classical slow movement. Marred by the banality of its opening, there are echoes of Shostakovich, but the cumulative vigour of the first movement is compelling. With the Symphony No.6 (1954) his symphonies take on a new maturity, integrating more closely the elements that had been introduced in the earlier works. Dramatic, and for large forces, it is exotically rhythmical, the saxophone is prominent, and the middle movement has, as already mentioned, jazz echoes. The Symphony No.7 (1956-1958) is similarly dark, but for a smaller orchestra, and is perhaps the most impressive of the cycle in its purposeful construction and its scope, with the sombre scherzo placed inside the second movement. The two movement Symphony No.9, Sinfonia Semplice (1969) is a rather ineffectual return to a less complex idiom, with echoes of Janáček in the use of block orchestration in the climax.

Of the minor orchestral works, the Estonian-inspired works such as the Süit eesti tantsudest (Estonian Dance Suite, 1939) or the Suite on Estonian Dances for violin and orchestra (1943, orchestrated 1974) are too trite to merit consideration, the former having shades of Alfvén. Three of the four movements of the latter were reconstructed after the score had been lost when Tubin fled Estonia. The Sinfonietta on Estonian Motifs (1939-1940) has an anachronistic Sibelian drive, while the totally over-blown and unmemorable Concertino for Piano (1944-1945) has a quasi-romantic virtuoso solo part and grandiose gestures. The Violin Concerto No.1 (1943) fails to hold the interest, while the Balalaika Concerto (at one point sounding exactly like Vaughan Williams in rumbustious mood) is best avoided. Among a number of choral works, the Reekviem langenud sōduritele (Requiem for fallen soldiers, started 1950, completed 1979) is in a simple and affecting style, aimed at a wide audience, and with percussion and timpani to the fore. Its premiere in 1981 was Tubin's last appearance as conductor.


works include:

- 10 symphonies (No.2 Légendaire [Legendary], No.4 Sinfonia lirica, No.9 Sinfonia semplice); Sinfonietta on Estonian Motifs

- balalaika concerto; 2 violin concertos; piano concertino

- Süit eesti tantsudest (Estonian Dance Suite), Prélude solennel, Tokaata for orch.

- violin sonata; saxophone sonata; Ballade for piano

- Reekviem langenud sōduritele (Requiem for fallen soldiers); Ave Maria for male voice choir and other choral works

- ballet Kratt

- opera Barbara von Tisenhusen


recommended works:

Symphony No.2 (Legendary, 1937)

Symphony No.6 (1954)

Symphony No.7 (1956-1958)





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