Maris Kirme: Estonian musical legacy buried in neglected library's archive

The ETMM storage facilities.
The ETMM storage facilities. Source: Mart Laul

Maris Kirme, a musicologist, writes that authentic sheet music for early Estonian composers of the 19th and 20th centuries is very hard to find, with fewer and fewer musicians willing to accept an illegible manuscript or a fraudulent copy. She suggests establishing an Estonian music institute with a permanent research team dedicated to unearthing and promoting the buried gems of Estonia's musical heritage.

In an opinion piece "Estonia's archaeological heritage: protected or unprotected?" published earlier this year in Sirp magazine, professor Heiki Valgu discussed the conservation of Estonia's archaeological legacy — l will attempt here a comparable approach to our musical legacy.

The latter, unlike the majority of archaeological sites, is not buried beneath our feet in the ground. The predicament of our musical heritage, which has languished unpublished on archive shelves for decades or even centuries, never reaching the ears of listeners, is not any better. Sadly, the majority of Estonia's older music – compositions, epistolary heritage, etc. – is in this condition.

Jordi Savall, a renowned viola da gamba player and conductor, once remarked that "every piece of music drifts in a long sleep until the moment it is performed." And this is entirely true: it is primarily during the performance that we can evaluate its worth and importance.

The untimely death of composer Rudolf Tobias in Germany in 1918 shocked the Estonian music community, leaving them wondering what would become of his priceless musical legacy. Then, two years later, composer and organist Peeter Süda, 37, passes away in Tallinn. This was a wake-up call for Süda's friends Mart Saar, Cyrillus Kreek, and August Pulst, all of whom were exceptionally far-sighted.
The Association for the Preservation of the Memory of Peeter Süda was founded in 1924 on their initiative, paving the way for the establishment of the Estonian Theater and Music Museum (ETMM), our largest music archive. Not only the Süda and Tobias collections, but also a large portion of our musical and theatrical legacy, await discovery or rediscovery there.

This museum on Tallinn's Müürivahe tänav – squeezed into cramped quarters and hidden behind thick walls – has been trusted by many of Estonian music and theater personalities who have passed on their (or their heirs) legacy, including foreigners, such as Juhan Aavik, Roman Toi, Lembit Avesson and Ludvig Juht.

On the one hand, we can be pleased with the outcome because we were able to collect and preserve their intellectual treasures. On the other hand, however, any heritage, whether tangible or intangible, requires structuring, research, interpretation and presentation – especially if it is a shared national treasure. /.../ And here we must admit that we owe a great deal to the field of music.

New status of the ETMM

The ETMM is no longer an independent institution, having been absorbed by the Estonian History Museum (Eesti Ajaloomuuseum) in 2019. Other than the anticipated financial savings, this author is unaware of the motivations that led to a museum of this caliber losing its independence.

It may also be too early to say whether the merger caused the museum to go from the frying-pan into the fire or whether it is the other way around.

Nonetheless, this act of losing/gaining independence reflects, albeit negatively, the state's broader approach regarding our musical legacy. The public satisfaction with the legacy's status – its visibility, accessibility, etc. – is also waning. Critical debates (e.g., Klassikaraadio's "Helikaja" show on April 9) have already brought some of the issues, most notably the precarious state of the ETMM, to the public's attention.

Sadness has been especially noticeable among interpreters who, despite their desire to perform our earlier composers, are still confronted with a lack of accurate sheet music. Fewer and fewer musicians today are willing to acquire a piece of music from an illegible manuscript or, at best, a false printed copy. And yet it is the performers who determine whether or not a musical composition is audible, whether or not it becomes music again.

For the record, the undersigned has neither the right nor the desire to interfere with the activities of the museum. Having worked as a researcher in the ETMM's music department in my youth, and later being a frequent user of these collections, I would, however, like to share some thoughts about its future.

I am aware that the neglect of musical heritage is not caused by or dependent on this single museum. In fact, many museums in Estonia are beset with existential worries. However, in comparison to literature and art, for example, I believe that the preservation, study, and dissemination of our musical legacy has been in a worse position throughout history. /.../

The poor state of affairs is not necessarily linked to the unsatisfactory storage conditions, but rather to the conspicuous absence of staff. The number of employees dealing directly with the collections at the ETMM, for example, has been reduced to an absolute minimum: the music collections (858 total holdings, of which 531 belong to individuals and 327 to institutions and organizations, with many containing hundreds of items) can now be managed by a single person! A single person is also in charge of overseeing the entire theater collection. A lack of research positions in music and theater is also problematic. /.../ The pianist Sten Lassmann said on Klassikaraadio's program said that "the ETMM is starving to death."

In such circumstances, how can a museum fulfill its research mission? In addition to merely preserving cultural heritage, this role involves a comprehensive study of the legacy and its dissemination to the public. Indeed, curators, digitizers and other professionals may have been hired to help with these efforts, but they do not take the role of academic scholars.

While there has been progress in the digitization of museum materials, research and publication have taken a step backward. The series "Elavik" (20 volumes released between 2005 and 2018) and "AegKiri" (four books published between 2004 and 2011) have been discontinued. However, Veljo Tormis' correspondence may now be added to the "Elavik" series.

The ETMM library is a separate area of concern. The entire curating work is now being done by a music librarian in the absence of a specialist.

This unusually rich musical and dramatic collection, which contains a number of rare memorial collections (of musicians, such as Anton Kasemetsa and Karl Leichter, to name a few) is, figuratively speaking, been swept under the rug.

I have often wondered why it was not considered necessary to register the ETMM library's holdings in the ESTER e-catalogue (the shared catalogue of Estonia's main libraries) given that equivalent items can be found in the libraries of the Estonian Art Museum and the Estonian Literary Museum (although it is administered by the Ministry of Education and Research).

Is it because of the Estonian Libraries Network Consortium (ELNET) or anything else? Bafflingly, the URRAM e-catalogue (web-based information system for libraries) where the ETMM library is supposed to be found, does not show it either.

It appears that just a small number of people are aware of the existence of this rare collection. Nonetheless, I am convinced that this collection contains many rare musical scores and (music) books that cannot be obtained anywhere in Estonia.

Future visions

To avoid sounding pessimistic and to look a little further ahead, let's discuss the Estonian History Museum's founding documents (found on the museum's website) to get a sense of the institution's future direction.

The document "Tasks, Objectives, Structure, and Work Processes of the Foundation (2016-2020)" identifies museum staff with a research degree as a key resource and predicts an increase in the proportion of researchers' work based on collections as well as participation in collaborative research projects. One can only hope that these dreams don't leave music and theater, which are now large and important parts of the museum, in the orphan's ward.

Speaking of visions, Krista Sarve, the research director of the History Museum, said in the Sirp opinion article: "Museums have used art historians to varying degrees, but have failed to capitalize on the potential of art history to strengthen exhibitions, shows and events on historical themes. Because the current times are difficult, a pessimistic beginning could still take an optimistic lead in the collaboration between art historians and museums. /.../ Art history now has much more to offer and to say than a purely historical narrative."

Although this was said in the context of visual arts, it is unnecessary to remind the esteemed Krista Sarve, as well as the lay reader, that the term "art science" includes musicology, theater studies, and so on. With the addition of music and theater collections to the museum's holdings, it is even more important to consider the richness of this concept and its potential applications in a broader sense and to reinterpret the museum's wealth in a new light.

Any development of the museum should not overlook the music and theater collections. This, however, necessitates, above all, an increase in their research potential. Only in this way is there a hope of taking major steps towards improving the overall situation of our musical heritage.

The Estonian History Museum needs more than good intentions to implement the significant reforms necessary to make music legacy more visible and accessible. Other decisive measures are required as well.

Based on my experience, I would say that we should not rely on the current public research and development organizations – in the case of music, that is EMTA, where we currently have the only research positions aside from the ethno-musicologists of the Estonian Literary Museum.

It is nearly impossible to ask EMTA scholars and lecturers to focus more on Estonia's musical legacy. Even if only because the project-driven world of research and the necessity to remain competitive in it is not conducive to the study of so-called "home cultures." So Sten Lassmann's proposal to establish an Estonian music institute would be perfectly viable way forward.

Perhaps it is not important whether it is part of an already existing institution or whether it operates independently, such as the Institute of the Estonian Language. It could have a certain autonomy, with a permanent staff whose funding does not depend solely on the existence of a project.

This institute's primary mission should be to investigate in-depth and make accessible Estonia's musical history: to prepare for publication of collected works by a single author; to establish scholarly catalogues of composers' works; to compile annotated editions of other cultural materials (correspondence, articles, diaries).

There are plans in Russia to publish all of Tchaikovsky's musical and literary works; we do the same with some of our outstanding classics. Moreover, the institute should be able to publish biographies and monographs on our musicians and music that has (for various reasons) remained in the shadows in newly independent Estonia.

Future generations will wonder why, 150 years after Rudolf Tobias's birth, not all of his compositions have been published or why there is no (academic) monograph written in Estonian on him. Similar questions might be addressed regarding Heino Eller, Mart Saar and many more Estonian music legendary composers.

Or why have the anniversaries of our greats been passed over silently, frequently without a trace at all, instead of being commemorated with honor? The emphasis on the scarcity of suitable material, which we like pointing to in response, is unlikely to persuade anyone who inquires about it.

The lack of trained musicologists is a serious problem. Where can we find the people to staff both the History Museum and the "dream" Institute of Estonian Music? Along with the lack of funds, this is one of the most challenging current issues, but one that could perhaps be resolved, if the will exists.

We could start thinking how to avoid unnecessary fragmentation of our already limited human resources and to maximize the expertise and abilities we already possess. In this case, I'm specifically referring to the knowledge gained through the publication of Eduard Tubin's collected works.

In the context of this – certainly unique for us – undertaking, a great deal of valuable experience in the compilation and editing of works has been accumulated, with all 33 volumes of the composer's works scheduled to be published within two or three years.

The skills and abilities required to become an expert editor are acquired through sustained and consistent effort. Many people have contributed to the Tubin project over the years. Yes, the majority of them have done this work in addition to their other pursuits, but there are also others who may wish to devote their time to it. Regardless of the composer's legacy, the (future) Estonian Music Institute could provide enthusiasts of Estonia's musical legacy, who have the necessary knowledge and skills, with this research opportunity.

After the completion of the publication of Eduard Tubin's collected works, the baton could be passed to another composer, and so a decision must be made: to whom? Mart Saar has been mentioned. Beginning with a catalogue of the composer's works would be a good start as it would speed up considerably the entire publishing process.

In summary, the problem of musical heritage depends on many factors, which also include the broader situation and trends in musicology as such. Mart Jaanson in his article "100 Years of Estonian Music" divides musicology broadly into two disciplines based on "how well it serves/guides musical practice." On one hand, the musicologist's role is to introduce and reflect on musical works and events. /.../ On the other hand, musicology also develops new musical concepts and so influences the actual creation of works and performances. /.../

If we approach Estonian musicology from this perspective, we might say, in a very broad sense, that prior to the restoration of independence, musicology served primarily the actual practice of music and new Estonian composition.

Following that, the pendulum swung in the opposite direction: the emphasis shifted to preservation of the fundamental disciplines of musicology and to some extent inventing new ones (music semiotics, music therapy), while also looking more attentively into our own musical past.

In the 21st century the study of the musical life of the 18th and 19th centuries, which was mainly marginalized for ideological reasons during the Soviet era, has become prominent.

Art historian Professor Krista Kodres in "Artology under fire" wrote that in the 1990s the contextual connections were more important in the study of art than the interpretation based on the intrinsic parameters of work itself. This I believe was valid also in musicology at the time, and possibly is still valid today.

The shift to contextual methodology to which Kodres refers is what forms a background for musicologists focusing again on musical works today, and thus on the creative heritage of our musical past.


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Editor: Kristina Kersa

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