“Being an Estonian composer, I consider it natural that my work is based chiefly on the motifs of Estonian folklore. I turned to our natural heritage in order to discover my musical mother tongue.”
Veljo Tormis, 1990
The elemental power of ancient folk music was the life force that drove the compositions of Veljo Tormis (1930-2017). As the great Estonian composer famously said, “I do not use folk song. It is folk song that uses me.” This sentiment is echoed in definitive performances by the Estonian Philharmonic Choir and the Tallinn Chamber Orchestra under the direction of Tõnu Kaljuste, for decades one of Tormis’s closest musical associates. Four orchestral cycles celebrate the changing seasons: Autumn Landscapes, Winter Patterns, Spring Sketches, Summer Motifs. And three pieces – Worry Breaks The Spirit, Hamlet’s Songs and Herding Calls - feature new arrangements by Tõnu Kaljuste, continuing and commemorating Tormis’s work.
The album opens with The Tower Bell In My Village with words by Fernando Pessoa (recited and sung here in Estonian) that seem entirely pertinent in the context of this tribute. “Oh death, it’s a bend in the road/You can’t be seen when you’ve passed by/But still your steps continue.” For most of his life, Tormis’s music was little heard beyond his homeland – a situation that began to change with the release of Forgotten Peoples in 1992, and Litany to Thunder in 1999, both with the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir under Kaljuste. Meanwhile, his influence continues to spread with each passing year.
Reminiscentiae concerns itself with memory at multiple levels, evoking scenes from Veljo Tormis’s childhood, and underlining the feeling of closeness to nature that is a thread throughout his life’s work. The album also reflects upon the decades-long creative collaboration between Tormis and Kaljuste. The conductor commissioned The Tower Bell In My Village from Tormis, 45 years ago: “I went to his door holding in my hands the text by Fernando Pessoa and asked him to create a piece for a concert tour with my choir.” Since the church tower bells of then-Soviet Estonia were notably silent, and the churches themselves abandoned sanctums, the authorities looked with disfavor on this musical gesture drawing attention to them. In her biography, Ancient Song Recovered: The Life and Music of Veljo Tormis, Mimi S. Daitz writes, “Tormis was an artist sensitive to and expressive of the Zeigeist in Estonia. He was a political composer. That is, he expressed his political point of view through his music in varying degrees and with greater or lesser directness.”
A powerful voice for national independence he stressed the importance of choral singing as he explored the ancient cultures of which Estonian folk song forms a part. Veljo Tormis, a composer deeply in tune with his country’s vital tradition of choral singing and ancient folk culture, was born in Kuusalu, Estonia in 1930. Tormis studied at Tallinn and later Moscow Conservatories and when a teacher at Tallinn’s Music High School numbered Arvo Pärt among his students.
Many of Tormis’ works are written for choir and based on an ancient form of Estonian folk song called regilaul. He has written: “National musics can also convey religious feelings; they often represent pre-Christian forms of spirituality, which should also be important and meaningful in our integrating world. Old Estonian runo songs certainly communicate the nature worship and rituals of prehistoric times.”
Reminiscentiae was recorded at the Methodist Church in Talinn in October and November 2020.Earlier that year, on what would have been Tormis’s 90th birthday on August 7, the Veljo Tormis Virtual Centre was launched,
An authorized database based on the composer’s own materials, it has as its goal the collection, availability, preservation, dissemination and promotion of Veljo Tormis' creative heritage. Open to the whole world, it will be the main tool for disseminating information related to Tormis' compositions and activities.