Also known as
Also known as
Prominent Estonian composer Veljo Tormis is mostly known for his masterly, folk-inspired choral compositions. Perusing his works list, one is amazed at its lopsided appearance: while Tormis wrote songs, chamber, orchestral, stage, and film music (more than 30 film scores!), his massive choral output easily surpasses the other genres combined. Almost all his choral works are based on Estonian folk songs, not only thematically but often harmonically. Some of his choral works are actually arrangements of Estonian folk songs. Tormis' texts, too, exude the spirit of his homeland in their setting of poems by Estonian and Balto-Finnic poets, and in texts critical of Soviet domination of Estonia. Not surprisingly, Tormis' music has been immensely popular throughout Estonia and the Baltic region since the 1960s. Up to about 1975, Tormis was even a popular composer in the Soviet Union, where his works were widely performed. Though Tormis' music is not internationally popular, his works are highly regarded, and a spate of recordings issued in the new century augurs well for his general acceptance.
Veljo Tormis was born in the Estonian town of Kuusalu (near Talinn) on August 7, 1930. His first teacher was his father, organist and choir director at the local church. His mother was a singer in the choir, which often practiced in the Tormis home. Young Veljo's predilection for choral music undoubtedly relates to these childhood circumstances.
In 1943 he began organ studies at the Talinn Conservatory, but the exigencies of war forced a delay in his training. Tormis resumed organ studies at the Conservatory in 1949, and eventually took up choral conducting there. From 1951-1956 he studied at the Moscow Conservatory under Vissarion Shebalin.
By this time, he had already produced several notable compositions, including his 1950 choral work Ringmängulaul (Circle Game Song), which received a composition prize at the Moscow Conservatory. From 1955-1966 Tormis held several teaching posts, but was also quite busy composing works like his epic cantata Kalevipoeg (The Son of Kalev; 1954-1959).
From the late '60s Tormis earned a good living from composing (manuscript sales, commissions, prizes, etc.), but after about 1979, the year he was commissioned to write his ballet/cantata Eesti ballaadid (Estonian Ballads), he was less financially successful. Since the 1991 fall of the Soviet Union, however, Tormis has enjoyed great success once again. Among his more notable late works is the 1999 choral piece Sünnisõnad (Birth Rite). In 2000, after his seventieth birthday, Tormis announced that his life's work was done and that he would compose no more music. One of his last compositions was The Singer's Closing Words, a choral piece using texts from the Kalevala, the Finnish epic that was the source for dozens of his vocal and choral works. Since 2000, Tormis has remained active, editing and revising his work.