Eduard Tubin

Tubin 1

Eduard Tubin

In Estonia (1905-1982)

Eduard Tubin was born on 18 June 1905 in the village of Torila in Tartumaa county, about one kilometre from the shore of Lake Peipus. He grew up in modest circumstances. As a child, he helped his parents with all farm-work, also herding swine. His father was a fisherman, who enthusiastically took part in amateur music events and played in the village orchestra; his mother sang in the church choir.

When Tubin was 3 years old, the family moved to Naelavere near Alatskivi. He started his education in the Naelavere village school and continued in the Russian-language Torila elementary school. After the proclamation of the Republic of Estonia in 1918 it was changed into an Estonian-language primary school. Tubin graduated in 1920. From early on, his father took him to rehearsals of the village orchestra, where he first played piccolo and later also normal flute. At home he learned to play chorales on an old table piano. The schools also provided a variety of musical education.

In 1920 Tubin joined the Teachers’ Seminary in Tartu, where a string orchestra was founded during his tenure. He joined its rehearsals and became so fond of the violin that he later created a number of large-form works as well as solo pieces for that instrument. In 1924 Tubin started simultaneously to study at the Tartu Higher Music School. For a year he studied organ with Johannes Kärt and later composition with Heino Eller. Eller’s school gave Tubin a good technical basis and interest in new trends in music. His first preserved compositions are from 1925: ‘Lullaby’, for piano and the solo song ‘In the Evening’, to lyrics by Karl Eduard Sööt. It was dedicated to singer Linda Pirn, Tubin’s future wife. In 1926 the young man graduated from the Seminary and began work as a schoolteacher in Nõo, at the same time continuing his studies in Tartu with Eller.

In 1927 Tubin wrote ‘Shepherd’s Song’ for male choir on folklore lyrics, piano preludes in B flat minor and F minor and the solo, ‘Dreng’s Song on a Glacier’, to lyrics by Johann Vilhelm Jensen. In the latter the young composer used harmonies in fourths, something new and unusual in contemporary Estonian compositions. The composition met with conflicting reviews – on one side Karl Leichter expressed approval, on the other side Artur Lemba took the stand that it was an improvisation with little content in a too “modern” style. Many other first performances of Tubin’s works met with similar, both approving and disapproving, receptions.

From 1928 stems the poetic song, ‘Autumn Sun’, to lyrics by Juhan Liiv, one of Tubin’s most popular solo songs, and the Piano Sonata No.1, his first large form work.

The same year Tubin was appointed conductor of the choir of the Tartu Male Choir Society. It was the beginning of one of his main occupations. He conducted choirs, mostly male choirs, with some interruptions until nearly the end of his life.

In 1929 Tubin wrote his first orchestral work, Estonian Folk Dances, and in 1930 the Piano Quartet in C Sharp Minor, his graduation work at the Music School. In his early works he leaned on the national traditions of Rudolf Tobias, Artur Kapp, Mart Saar and Heino Eller. His tonal language was also influenced by Gustav Mahler, Johannes Brahms, Jean Sibelius, Alexander Scriabin, Béla Bartók, Igor Stravinsky et al. In general, Tubin’s musical handwriting was characterized by conservative use of form and rather modern ways of expression, which he didn’t regard as a goal but as means to express the content.

In 1930, Tubin started working at the “Vanemuine” theatre as pianist for rehearsals and conductor. Before he left Estonia he conducted more than 40 operas, operettas, ballets and incidental music for plays. He also wrote incidental music himself. In addition, he conducted numerous orchestra concerts and performances of vocal and instrumental works. In this way Tubin became acquainted with a large repertoire and had a good foundation for his own work as composer.

The Suite on Estonian Motifs for symphony orchestra was completed in 1931 and was first performed on 1 November at the “Estonia” concert hall in Tallinn, conducted by the composer himself. The leading circles in the capitol turned up their noses and Otto Greiffenhagen found in his review that it was “a bizarre way to be original”.

In 1932 the composer visited Vienna for the music days of the International Society of Contemporary Music (ISCM), where he on one hand developed a knowledge of new music and on the other hand admiration for well-performed classical music. For the first time Tubin heard and was inspired by the music of Anton Webern.

The Symphony No.1 was finished in 1934, partly as a result of unofficial lessons by Eller, resulting in a work where Tubin’s characteristic long and intensive symphonic arches are already clearly heard, successfully combining lyricism and monumentality. The first performance in 1936 was as usually followed by approving and disapproving reviews, but the fact is obvious that Tubin could masterfully use large forms. The views on his music began gradually to change, thanks to Olav Roots, who in 1935 became conductor of the State Broadcasting orchestra and did much to introduce the music of his fellow student.

During 1935-1936 Tubin travelled once a week to Tallinn to conduct the mixed choir of the “Estonia” music section, but quickly had to give up because of the tiring train trips. He was never offered a permanent position in Tallinn.

Soon several works appeared, which have a firm place in the history of Estonian music: the ballade ‘Ylermi’ to lyrics by Eino Leino (1935), Violin sonata No.1 (1936) and the Symphony No.2 “Legendary” (1937). Writing the 2nd symphony, the composer had thoughts about the historic fate of the Estonian people, but there is no concrete program in this nor in any other of Tubin’s symphonic works. Despite complaints in the press about “excessive density of sound and dissonances”, Symphony No.2 was repeatedly played and afterwards recognized as the top achievement of Estonian pre-war symphonic music. For drama performances at the “Vanemuine” Tubin wrote incidental music: to ‘1905’, based on the 3rd part of Anton Hansen Tammsaare’s novel ‘Truth and Justice’ (1936) and to Eino Leino’s ‘Simo Hurt’ (1939).

Although Tubin had a great workload, he busied himself with the Tartu Male Choir and even made some tours abroad: in 1935 they performed in Riga and 1937 saw them in Warsaw and Cracow. In 1938 Tubin travelled alone to Budapest, where he became acquainted with Zoltán Kodály and also met Béla Bartók. Meeting the national composers of Hungary also brought out Tubin’s interest in folklore. Soon after returning he created the Suite on Estonian Dances for symphony orchestra, which became one of his most performed works. At the same time, the composer started on the ballet Kratt (The Goblin). He asked “Vanemuine” dancer Elfriede (Erika) Saarik to write the libretto; later she became his second wife.

All in all, Tubin met with rather large acclaim in Estonia, although it was not unanimous. In 1940 Karl Leichter applied to President Konstantin Päts to give the composer a state salary. It was refused.

In June 1940 Soviet forces occupied Estonia, bringing tragic events. At first Tubin’s life was only changed by an offer to become head of the composition class of Tartu Higher Music School, since Eller had been invited to head the composition class of Tallinn conservatory. The war years were some of Tubin’s most fruitful in a creative sense. For Tubin’s music, as well as for Estonian music in general, the first years of the 1940s brought a certain simplification of the tonal language. During that time, the ballet Kratt was completed (1941), with the composer conducting the first performance at “Vanemuine” in 1943. Also completed  were the Violin Concerto No.1 (1942), Symphony No.3 “Heroic” (1942), containing rage and despair over what was happening to the homeland, and Symphony No.4 “Lyrical” (1943). Its unexpected bright song-like mood is connected with romantic events in Tubin’s family life – he had married Erika and their son Eino was born. This idyllic interlude didn’t last – on 9 March 1944 the “Estonia” theatre was destroyed in a bomb raid on Tallinn and with this the only score of Kratt. On 20 September Tubin fled with his family on a small sailing ship to Sweden, to an uncertain future. By this time, the composer had managed to create about half of his 130 opuses.


In Sweden 1944-1982

 In Sweden the Tubin family was placed together with other cultural figures who had fled Estonia in the Neglinge refugee camp in a suburb of Stockholm, where they stayed until 1945. There the composer had to build up his life once more – a great number of his scores had been left behind in the homeland and he had also lost his social status. In 1945 some important works were completed in Neglinge: the Concertino for Piano and Orchestra, which Olav Roots premiered the same year with the Swedish Radio orchestra conducted by Tor Mann; the Violin Concerto No.2 with bright solo cadenzas written for Zelia Aumere, who stayed at the same camp as the composer and performed it next year at the Composers’ Union on an event welcoming Estonian colleagues in hard times, and the ‘Ballade on a Theme by Mart Saar’ with variations on Saar’s choir song ‘Seven Moss-Clad Tombs’. One of the most demanding Swedish critics, Moses Pergament, found it a “brilliant composition”. Pergament and composer Hilding Rosenberg became Tubin’s closest colleagues in Sweden.

By the end of 1944, the YMCA male choir was founded, developing into the Stockholm Male Choir. Tubin worked as its leader from 1944-1959 and again from 1975 until nearly the end of his life. Most of Tubin’s choir works written in exile were meant for this choir.

In the spring of 1945 Tubin became acquainted with Einar Körling, who published some of his works over the coming years. The same year he obtained through Körling a position as archive worker at the Royal Drottningholm Castle Theatre museum, where his main task was to restore scores and piano scores of old operas and ballets. Tubin continued with this work, which took only a part of his day and made it possible for him to continue composing, until mandatory retirement in 1972.

In Sweden Tubin developed further his individual style of expression. Its most conspicuous milepost is Symphony No.5, which he began in Neglinge and finished in 1946: a grand work with explosive power about the tragedy of Estonians who had lost their homeland. In addition to two folk tunes – ‘On my Beloved Country Lane’ and ‘The Night Ends There’ – Tubin used themes similar to folk tunes and combined them with contemporary means of expression, thus creating his personal national style. Symphony No.5 brought the best reviews in Tubin’s whole life and was played tens of times all over the world. A concert at Carnegie Hall in New York in 1952 with Endel Kalam merits special attention.

In 1947 ISCM continued its work and Tubin visited the music days in Copenhagen. In 1952 he also visited Bayreuth and in 1956 the Salzburg festival. He continuously listened to various concerts on radio.

A cycle for piano Four Folksongs from my Native Country was finished in 1947 and played by Käbi Laretei the same year in Eskilstuna. In 1948 he finished the Concerto for Double Bass for Ludvig Juht, who played in the Boston orchestra. It was a surprising success in the Soviet Union, where a pirate edition of 1500 copies sold out in short time and the Melodija record company produced an LP with Neeme Järvi conducting.

In 1948, the first exile Estonian song festival took place, with Tubin among the conductors.

After the war, the composer was frequently visited by Soviet diplomats and other functionaries who tried to allure him to return to his homeland. Tubin left no doubts about his views. Attempts to influence him were repeated later, even in the 1970s.

The Piano Sonata No.2, so called “Northern Lights”, was written in 1950 with Tubin being inspired by the mighty display of lights over Stockholm. The XVI Song in “Kalevipoeg” – the Estonian national epic – influenced Tubin to chose two Sami folk tunes as material for the sonata. They were found in Karl Tirén’s collection “Die lappische Volksmusik, Acta Lapponica III” (Stockholm 1942) and were the only non-Estonian folk tunes that the composer used in his entire life. Written in free tonality and senza tempo, this work passed without much attention in Sweden. Only later has it been appreciated as one of the foremost achievements in the piano repertory of the 20th century.

In Symphony No.6, Tubin continued on his path to a modern tonal language, sometimes approaching atonality. This symphony has commonly been seen as the composer’s philosophical and unanswered quest in the surrounding world. Tubin usually did not add the saxophone to the orchestra. Here he used it to draw parallels between jazz, classical music and sensual dances like tango and rumba.

In Sweden radical composition techniques were gaining interest in the 1950s, which didn’t quite correspond to Tubin’s inner needs. He was therefore considered somewhat behind his times. Since the composer didn’t find it necessary to adapt to current fashions only to gain success, his opportunities to present his work widely were diminished.

In Estonia new winds started blowing after the condemnation of the Stalin cult in 1956. Contacts were resumed with relatives and friends across the iron curtain. Tubin began to receive new music literature, among them the first volume of Herbert Tampere’s “Estonian Folk Songs with Tunes”. After a long while, Tubin’s music was again sounding in the “Estonia” concert hall – his 5th symphony was performed with Sergei Prohhorov conducting. It certainly encouraged the younger Estonian composers of the time to study this and other Tubin works, contributing to a breakthrough of newer trends.

The Symphony No.7 was finished in 1958, where Tubin built up themes using all twelve notes.

Based on shepherd tunes found in the first volume of Tampere’s anthology, in 1959 the Suite on Estonian Shepherd Melodies was born, a simple but emotional work based on the principle of developing variations and apparently containing memories from the composer’s own childhood.

In 1961 Tubin received Swedish citizenship and visited Estonia, where “Vanemuine” staged Kratt, after the composer had restored the destroyed full score from instrument scores. On returning to Sweden, some Estonian exile circles accused the composer of collaborating with the occupying power. Ugly articles appeared in papers and the student fraternity “Ugala” threw him out. Tubin became depressed and his already rather solitary way of life turned even more eremitic.

This was, on the other hand, alleviated by Tubin becoming member of the Swedish Composers’ Union in 1962. He began receiving yearly stipends from the union. New works were born: Sonata for Violin Solo (1962), Music for Strings (1963) written for Zelia Aumere, conductor of the Luzern Chamber Orchestra, Concerto for Balalaika and Orchestra (1964), a virtuoso piece written in free dodecaphonic technique, and the sombre Sonata for Viola and Piano (1965). During that time Kratt reached the stages of Leningrad, Helsinki and Tashkent. In Sweden it was first performed in Gothenburg 1984, after Tubin’s death.

Tubin’s spiritual state reached a low point in the Symphony No.8 (1966), where the composer’s despair and rage accumulated in all these years found their expression. It was first performed on 24 February 1967, Neeme Järvi conducting. In this and the two preceding symphonies, the composer used ever more intricate harmonic means to express his inner conflicts, leaving tonal thinking and giving more weight to rhythm.

In 1968 Tubin completed Barbara von Tisenhusen, commissioned by Arne Mikk with libretto by Jaan Kross on themes in a short story by Aino Kallas. It is based on a freely developed chaconne form, which Tubin also used in many instrumental works. The opera was staged at the “Estonia” theatre 1969. The performances received huge acclaim. Dmitri Shostakovich, passing Tallinn, also praised Barbara.

In 1969 Symphony No.9, Sinfonia semplice, was born. It is a tonal work in classical form, conveying a feeling that Tubin was finding inner peace and balance. Carl-Gunnar Åhlén’s review gives the impression that Tubin’s oeuvre was with time gaining more and more appreciation. Symphony No.10 (1973) is also written in traditional form. The simpler and clearer symphonies of Tubin’s late period are in some way reminiscent of his early large works. The experiences of a long and difficult life are however giving them a depth, absent in his pre-war music.

In 1976 Tubin again agreed to conduct the Stockholm Male Choir. The same year he wrote his last piano pieces, seven preludes.

In 1979 the composer created his only Sonata for Flute and Piano and a Suite on Estonian Dance Pieces for violin solo. He visited Estonia, where “Vanemuine” at last staged his opera The Parson of Reigi from 1971, after an eponymous short story by Aino Kallas. On this last visit to the homeland he gave his Requiem to Fallen Soldiers to Gustav Ernesaks, the conductor of the State Academic Male Choir. It needed decades to mature and was finally finished in 1979. It is based on lyrics by Henrik Visnapuu and Marie Under. The head of the Estonian Communist Party culture branch of that time decided to uphold party orthodoxy, so the Requiem was instead first performed in Stockholm 1981. It was led by the composer and the concert became Tubin’s last public appearance as conductor. The same year the composer experienced one of the high points of his life, when he was present at performances of his Symphony No.10 in Boston, conducted by Neeme Järvi.

From the beginning of the 1970s Tubin suffered from a severe malady, which subsided for a while and then returned. Despite this, Tubin patiently continued working and even began his Symphony No.11, of which he nearly managed to complete the first movement. During his last years Tubin got the highest awards for a composer in Sweden: in 1979 he received the Kurt Atterberg Prize and in 1982 he was elected member of the Swedish Royal Music Academy.

All his life Tubin waited for recordings of his works, which was not done in either Estonia or Sweden, despite general appreciation. On his deathbed he received Neeme Järvi’s promise by telephone that all his symphonies would be recorded. Rejoicing over this message, Tubin died peacefully on 17 November 1982 in Stockholm.

After his passing, his music was banned in the Soviet Union until 1985. Even scheduled concerts in Kiev, Vilnius and Leningrad were cancelled. Then slowly, but steadily, the situation began to improve, especially thanks to the decisive activities of Vardo Rumessen.

Only after the composer’s death were the works that he had created in Estonia discovered in Sweden. When his “Legendary” symphony was played on a concert in 1984, the audience was stunned. CD records with Tubin’s symphonic music conducted by Neeme Järvi and produced by the Swedish firm BIS brought the name of the great composer to the whole world.

Tubin was a prolific composer, writing in all genres of classical music. The core of his oeuvre are his symphonic works, where he travels the long road from national romanticism to atonality. Tubin has been called a modernist, but strictly speaking his music doesn’t fill all criteria for modernism. Maybe it suffices to say that Tubin’s music ranges somewhere between post-romanticism and modernism, while containing various modernistic traits. During his whole creative journey, the composer stayed true to the basic principle that the theme is the most important basis for a musical composition. Its development was based on his concept of form; his treatment of sparse thematic material was often tightly bound to contrapuntal rules. Still, all of Tubin’s symphonies are original and do not repeat formal solutions or means of expression. His music is lively and rich in fantasy. There are extreme emotions as well as quiet lyricism; pride of place is given to multi-layered orchestral thinking and ostinato rhythms.

From time to time it has been asked if Tubin was more a Swedish or Estonian composer and examples to prove one or the other have been taken from interviews and conversations with the composer. Reading these statements, one should keep in mind that Tubin from 1945 was salaried by the Swedish government and from 1962 could get more or less the same benefits as other Swedish composers. He had no other real choice, although he lived in a free country. There is no doubt that Tubin’s tonal language developed in a different way in Sweden than it would if it he had remained in Soviet Estonia. But as a fact he never used any Swedish texts or Swedish folk tunes in his works. Tubin was a foreigner and remained as such until the end of his life. Even in his private correspondence the composer was careful in what he wrote. He seldom expressed what he really thought and felt.

In later times Tubin has more and more been regarded as a composer transcending borders between nations and countries, who realized his ideas on such a high level that he has been compared to the great masters of the 20th century. The Finnish musicologist Veijo Murtomäki has expressed the opinion that if Tubin had not fled to Sweden during the Second World War and lost his connection with the homeland, he would have become a similar national symbol in Estonia, as Sibelius is in Finland.


Sources in literature:

Margus Pärtlas. Tubina sümfooniad, teemastik ja vorm. Tallinn 1995

Veijo Murtomäki. Jean Sibeliuse rahvuslikust tähendusest ja Eduard Tubina saatusest – Muusika 2004, no.12, pages 14-17.

Eduard Tubin ja tema aeg. Text by Vardo Rumessen. Tallinn 2005.

Eduard Tubin. Kirjad (Letters) I and II. Tallinn 2006.

Veijo Murtomäki. Sümfoonik kahe maa vahel – Yearbook of International Eduard Tubin Society 9/2009, pages 9-14.

Vardo Rumessen. Lisandusi eesti muusikaloole. Fakte ja avastusi, meenutusi ja mõtisklusi. Artikleid, ettekandeid ja intervjuusid aastaist 1972-2009. Tallinn 2010.

Vestlused Eduard Tubinaga (Conversations). Compiled and commented by Vardo Rumessen, Tallinn 2015

Eino Tubin. Ballaad. Eduard Tubina lugu. Tallinn 2015


Note: The complete English edition of Eino Tubin’s biography ”Ballaad” is available here.