Estonian libretto for Rudolf Tobias' oratorio discovered in old suitcase
The 150th anniversary of the birth of Rudolf Tobias, Estonia's first professional composer, is on May 29, but his best-known work, the oratorio "Des Jona Sendung," is shrouded in mystery. A few years ago, an Estonian language version was discovered in a forgotten suitcase belonging to his daughter Silvia, whose previously unknown work will be premiered at the jubilee concert as well.
Kirke Org-Jaanus was cleaning up her late grandparents and aunt's flat on Gonsiori tänav in Tallinn four years ago when she discovered a plain brown suitcase among the items to be discarded. Examining its contents revealed that it had belonged to Silvia, Rudolf Tobias's daughter, who had resided in the same flat for a long period.
Org-Jaanus discovered a letter between Silvia Tobias and her aunt Helge. Among the correspondence and notes in the suitcase, a libretto titled "Joonas" ("Jonah") referring to Rudolf Tobias's oratorio, attracted attention. The Org-Jaanus family guessed that this was something significant.
"I read the score, and some of the titles were familiar to me, but I immediately felt out of my league," Org-Jaanus said, turning to conductor Tõnu Kaljuste.
Tobias wrote Estonia's first oratorio "Jonah" in 1907, which was performed two years later in Leipzig but was not received well and was forgotten for 80 years, until pianist and politician Vardo Rumessen revived it during the Estonian national renaissance in 1986-89. The oratorio was performed again in 1989 in a version adapted by him and entitled "Des Jona Sendung" ("Jonah's Mission").
Thus, while a version by Tobias was put forward at the beginning of the last century, and a version adapted by Rumessen at the end of the last century, a third version of the forgotten suitcase was discovered in 2019.
Vardo Rumessen changed Tobias' version, according to Kaljuste, in order to produce an overwhelming, powerful piece of music.
"I think he had a great mission as a politician: he was a member of Isamaa Party, who wanted Estonian music to be very powerful," Kaljuste explained. He then invited his former student Mai Simson to perform a critical examination of it.
Vardo Rumessen added bells and whistles to Tobias's original German-language rendition of the work for the target market at the time, so to speak. In the history of music, it happens often that a composer's original work is slightly changed, and Rumessen's action was in no way malicious. It was an attempt to introduce the world to an outstanding genre of Estonian oratorio music.
The libretto located in Tobias' apartment on Gonsiori tänav, which his daughter Silvia, a harpist, had written for the piece, was of great importance in determining Tobias' original thoughts and lyrics.
The most significant distinction is that the text is in Estonian, as the composer, who perished at age 45 in 1918, originally intended.
Silvia Tobias, a music graduate who worked and performed in several countries, played the harp in Estonia from 1935 to 1970 and taught at the Estonian National Conservatory until she immigrated to the United States, where her two sisters resided, in the late 1970s.
Silvia was killed in a fire at the home of one of her sisters in New York in 1985, and the Org-Jaanus family discovered some of her possessions that had been left in a suitcase for nearly 40 years in her former home in Tallinn only four years ago.
Conductor Kaljuste considers this version to be the most authentic. In addition to performing the oratorio in this form — albeit not in its entirety — on the birthday anniversary of Rudolf Tobias on May 29 in Kärdla church, he plans to record it in Tallinn in the fall.
Silvia Tobias' own composition "Armeenia vastlapidu", ("Armenian celebration") a chorus from the opera "Tuuled Tartust" ("Winds from Tartu"), composed in 1939, will be performed for the first time in the church of Kärdla. Her own work was also discovered in a neglected suitcase — even Tobias daughter's closest colleagues were unaware of its existence.
"There are often unnoticed people among us who quietly do their work and whose language is only the language of their action. They don't shout about what they are doing," Kaljuste said. "People like Silvia Tobias show us that there are different values and very sensitive and highly educated people."
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Editor: Karmen Rebane, Kristina Kersa