Obituary: Veljo Tormis, Estonian composer

Veljo Tormis, a prolific Estonian composer whose innovative choral works helped propel his Baltic nation's drive to restore independence, has died at the age of 86.
Veljo Tormis estonian composer obitVeljo Tormis estonian composer obit
Veljo Tormis estonian composer obit

Tormis died on Saturday from long-term illnesses in the Estonian capital, Tallinn.

Tormis was considered a national icon in Estonia, where choral music has been central to the culture going back hundreds of years under Swedish and German rule.

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Estonia’s budding independence drive in the 1980s was dubbed the Singing Revolution for the massive and peaceful rallies when crowds often sang in old-form, chanting styles popularised by Tormis.

His haunting, beautiful a cappella compositions typically incorporated a chanting, runic style that conjured up images of shamans and now-forgotten ancient peoples along the Baltic Sea shores.

His works garnered international acclaim after Estonia regained independence in 1991, with choirs from Korea to the United States performing his music. His most performed work, Curse Upon Iron, became an unexpected staple in an unexpected place – Oregon City High School in suburban Portland in the US. Amy Aamodt, the school choir director at the time, explained how the choir first took on the difficult piece around 2010 with hesitancy as they sang in the original Estonian – but quickly became enthralled.

“Even when we were learning his music, I would look up and there would be tears in the kids’ eyes.Something just clicked about his music.”

Curse Upon Iron is an ode to the horrors of war written for choir and hoop drum in which singers are instructed in the score to spin, crouch and shriek, adding to its power. The Estonian lyrics speak of the curse of war and its weapons: “Wretched iron! You flesh eater, gnawer of bones!”

Soft-spoken and modest, Tormis described his compositions as keeping alive the memories of ancient peoples, whose cultures and languages have long since died. “It is not I who makes use of folk music. It is folk music that makes use of me,” he was quoted as saying on several of his albums.

Born 7 August, 1930, Tormis got his diploma from the Moscow Conservatoire in 1956, wrote symphonic music and other mainstream forms early in his career, but increasingly focused on ancient forms after researching music going back centuries of the Estonians and Finns, as well as their lesser-known relatives, such as the Liivs and Ingrians.

Tormis is survived by his wife, Lea, and one son, Tonu.