In memoriam: Veljo Tormis

Sad to learn over the weekend of the death of the Estonian composer, Veljo Tormis, at the age of eighty-six.

Choral master: Veljo Tormis (1930-2017)
Choral master: Veljo Tormis (1930-2017)

His extensive output of choral music is imbued with his love of native Estonian folksong, in which, within the space of a few bars, with notes carefully scattered here and there, he evokes landscapes and emotional spaces far beyond the often miniaturist scale of his colourful choral writing.

We performed his Spring Sketches last year, an exquisite series of tiny portraits of the season for upper-voices. The evocative opening of the St John’s Day Songs, building upwards to short fragments of melody echoing between the upper voices, captures this perfectly; the robust rhythm underpinning Bridge of Song illustrates his use of dancing rhythm inherited from his native musical tradition. The skittish, semi-chanted St Catherine’s Day Songs for upper voices evokes an almost ritualistic scene, gradually becoming more intense as static chords build to a feverish cry. Here’s the intimate On hilissuvi (It is later summer) painting the colours of the season:


But it’s the wonderful Laulud pulmades opitud (Songs learned at weddings) that perhaps encapsulates his music; hypnotic, rhythmic, dancing, powerful yet tinged with a wisp of melancholy.


A teacher at the Tallinn Music School, Tormis included Arvo Pärt amongst his students. As Tormis once remarked, ‘It is not I who makes use of folk music, it is folk music that makes use of me.’ His choral legacy stands as a testament both to the energy and power of folk music and to his exquisitely crafted choral writing.

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