Eduard Tubin

 by Hanna C. Sanchez


Eduard Tubin is one of the best known of the composers produced by Estonia.  Having lived from 1905-1982, his life saw many significant historical changes for his country, many of them turbulent.  As a result of his life experiences, his music and compositions reflect a great deal of his country's history and struggle for independence, while introducing to the rest of the world a unique musical style.  While his music took longer to gain popularity in Western musical circles, Tubin's work was well known in Estonia, Sweden, and the surrounding areas as far back as the 1930s.

Tubin descended from a musical peasant family on June 18, 1905 in Alatskivi, right after the Russian Revolution of 1905 and the subsequent declaration of martial law, which resulted in a politically tumultuous state that was to last for quite some time in Estonia.  Although Tubin grew up in a period of Estonian independence not known to his countrymen before him, the freedom lasted only until 1940 as a result of the Nazi-Soviet Pact that led to the Soviet occupation.  When the Soviets again occupied Estonia in 1944, Tubin left his country for Sweden where he continued to write his music, often representing his feelings for his homeland as well as the events taking place.  Although he eventually gained Swedish citizenship, Tubin did not forget his Estonian heritage or his country.  He was already participating in local orchestras by the time he was twelve and entered the Teacher's Seminary in Tartu in 1920.  In 1924, Tubin entered the Tartu school where he studied the organ under J. Kart and theory with Eller, although he eventually became Eller's private composition student.


The most significant of Tubin's works are his ten symphonies, which were written throughout the largest span of his lifetime.  His style was appropriate for the twentieth century, which was defined by post-romantic composers such as Mahler, Prokofiev, and Shostakovich, and he fit in well with his musical counterparts of other countries.  Unlike some of the more innovative composers of the time, Tubin was relatively conservative in his style.  This was demonstrated by the way he maintained tonality or closed forms in his compositions and explored the incorporation of church modes once in a while.  The themes of his compositions are post-romantic, if not falling into the category of classical.  Tubin's music can be said to demonstrate his exposure to the vocal tradition of his native country at a young age.

In addition to the influences of Estonian traditional music in Tubin's works, there are many foreign influences as well since the twentieth century was a period consisting of a wide range of musical styles.  He possessed an interest in contemporaneous works, particularly those of Sibelius, Barber, and Honegger.  Mostly in the years immediately after his emigration to Sweden, he was also very interested in the new music emerging in his adopted country.  Tubin's main influences were Russian, possibly a reflection of the Russification policies enacted upon Estonia and other countries occupied by the Soviet Union.  Stravinsky, Scriabin, and Ravel in particular were the strongest influences in his earlier years of composing, and their influence can be seen in Tubin's early development of a highly rhythmic and ecstatic orchestral style along with his later use of neoclassicism.  Tubin would claim Haydn as his favorite and as the "father of the symphony", this was only appropriate since Tubin's fame would come as a result of his own symphonies. 


Despite the incorporation of the musical influences in his life, Tubin's music is distinctly his own.  His compositions reveal a "unique combination of exacting craftsmanship, cosmopolitan influences, and an endearing simplicity of purpose that divulges the composer's peasant upbringing"(Ashby).  Tubin's personal qualities of warmth, humor, reticence, and humility as described by those who knew him are seen and felt in his music.  In each of his symphonies, one can detect his "highly developed, romantic, imaginative, and accessible sensibility that is unmistakable Nordic"(Ashby).

The development of Tubin's musical style was tied to the political and cultural development of Estonia and other countries he at some point called home.  It is sometimes argued that the history behind his first five symphonies cannot be separated from that of his homeland.  The War of Liberation of 1918-1919 occurred at point in his young life in which he was susceptible to impressions, and the events of this period would follow Tubin throughout the rest of his life


Tubin's symphonies can be divided into five different periods of his life.  His first three symphonies fall into the first period, which ranges from 1931-1942.  In these compositions, the effects of Estonian folk music, Eller's impressionistic manner, and the Russian orchestral tradition of Scriabin and Stravinsky are revealed.  Tubin leaned towards more organic styles in the midst of the politically turbulent and subsequently culturally restricting period of the 1940s, experimenting with the sonata and absolute forms.  In addition to more traditional influences in his music, Tubin was also influenced by forms of jazz in the early 1950s, although this exploration with the different genre did not last for very long.  In each of his symphonies, there is a distinct sound and character, as though each is a separate attempt at finding new methods of presenting the symphony.

Between the wars, a strong nationalist movement spread throughout Europe and was also felt in Estonia and this occurred before Tubin began writing his symphonies.  This nationalist fervor led many composers to study Estonian folk music, and the best recognized forms of a nationalist style were developed by Mart Saar and Cyrillus Kreck.  However, they composed mostly in vocal forms and their compositions did not gain foreign recognition as a result of language differences.  Tubin was his country's first composer to "write extensively in the large classical orchestral forms which were able to make their way into the world's concert halls"(Ashby). 


He began writing his first symphony after his graduation from the Tartu school in 1931.  Scriabin's influence is most clearly detected in this particular work through the orchestration and in the melodic and harmonic composition.  The second symphony is one of the most noted works to come from prewar Estonia.  To reflect its intended character, Tubin gave his second symphony the subtitle "Legendary" and some may even classify the work to be almost Wagnerian.  This was his first creation to attain national attention and its popularity caused Estonians to note that their country did not have the ability to support its musicians in the manner that other countries did.  For example, Finland granted financial support to its native composer Sibelius.  The third symphony was written during a period of unrest in Estonia in which occupation of the country was in the hands of Germans and Soviets, and the work reflects this turmoil with the tension and drama it conveys in its tragic character.  Tubin's fifth symphony was his greatest success and was a very nationalist composition.  The sixth symphony demonstrates his experimentation with bolero and tango rhythms and truly stands out among his other works; however, this was a style that he did not pursue further in his subsequent writings.  Some consider the seventh symphony to be one of his finest and it is his "own genuine contribution to the art of counterpoint"(Ashby).  His eighth symphony came to represent the lack of attention his work received in his home country compared to other composers and the reception their homelands gave them, and Tubin maintained a restrained manner throughout his ninth symphony.  He called tenth and last complete symphony his best piece, and it possessed a combination of complex and simple styles.  Tubin began his eleventh symphony, but this was not completed.


Tubin died on November 17, 1982 as a result of cancer in Stockholm.  While most of his fame attained during his lifetime was in his native country, his music is increasingly gaining international attention and is being performed more in Western areas.  His music was unique in that he combined the traditional music of Estonia, the foreign musical influences he encountered, as well as the significant events his country endured.



Ashby, Arved.  "Eduard Tubin: An Introduction to the Man and His Symphonies".  Journal of Baltic Studies.  Vol 18, No 1, 1987.  Pgs 21-44.

Reilly, Robert R.  "Coming to Terms with an Estonian Symphonist".  High Fidelity.  Vol 37, Jan 1987.  Pgs 78-79.

Reilly, Robert R.  "Tubin, Eduard: Symphonies no.4, no.9".  High Fidelity.  Vol 37, Aug 1987.  Pg 70.




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