LEPO SUMERA (1950-2000) was one of the most inventive composers and brightest personalities in contemporary Estonian music. He was considered the greatest living symphonist in Estonia, and a pioneer in electro-acoustic music. He was one of the central figures in the cultural life of Estonia. In the times of the country’s re-awakening in the late 1980s he belonged to the most active and influential group of Estonian intellectuals generating ideas and strategies for social and political changes. In 1989-1992 he served as Estonia’s Minister of Culture.
Lepo Sumera studied composition with Veljo Tormis at Tallinn Music High School and, from 1968, with the renowned Professor Heino Eller at the Estonian Academy of Music. After Prof. Eller’s death (1970) he studied with Heino Jürisalu, graduating 1973. He took post-graduate studies at Moscow Conservatory 1979-1982.
Sumera worked as recording engineer and producer at Estonian Radio in his youth. He began teaching composition at the Estonian Academy of Music in 1978 and was appointed a professor in 1993. He was one of the founders of the studio of electronic music at the Music Academy and worked as its first director in 1995-1999. Sumera also lectured in the Summer Courses of New Music in Darmstadt (1988, 1989) and in Musikhochschule in Karlsruhe (1992).
His list of works includes two ballets – Anselm’s Story (libretto by Mai Murdmaa after E.T.A. Hoffmann’s “The Golden Pot”) and The Lizard (Andrei Petrov after Alexander Volodin, 1987/93) –, six symphonies (1981-2000), a Piano Concerto (1989/93), Cello Concerto (1998/1999), and Concerto Grosso (2000) with three soloists (soprano saxophone, percussion, and piano), oratorial works, chamber music, and approximately 70 film scores.
From the late 1980s electro-acoustic music continually gained significance in his work. It seems natural that Lepo Sumera, with his experience in working with film directors also created multimedia works, including two based on particularly ingenious ideas: in a multimedia chamber opera Olivia’s Master Class (libretto by Peeter Jalakas after the novel of Ervin Õunapuu; 1997), paintings by Caspar David Friedrich (one of the main characters of the opera) were used for video; the entire material for Heart Affairs (1999) was derived from sounds and rhythms of a human heart:, and from its ‘portrait’ produced by echocardiography.
Works by Lepo Sumera have been performed in numerous European countries, in the USA, Canada and Australia, and on Cuba. He took part in the festival ‘Composer- to- Composer’ in Telluride, Colorado (1988). In 1989 he was composer-in-residence at the festival New Beginnings in Glasgow and, in 1993, special guest at the Sydney Spring Festival of new music and the Norrtälje (Sweden) Chamber Music Festival. He was awarded numerous annual music prizes and four state prizes in Estonia, and a prize for the best film music score at the international festival of animation films in Espinho (Portugal). His Fifth Symphony (1995) was chosen the 1st recommended work at the International Rostrum of Composers in Paris in 1996.
Sumera’s musical language demonstrates his individual approach to contemporary composition techniques. He preferred ‘impure’ – blending or contrasting – use of them. Among Estonian composers and musicians, he was always one of the persons best informed in contemporary music. There is no reason to speak about the ‘iron curtain’ (which, in fact, functioned properly only until the middle 1950s) in connection with Sumera’s music, albeit the history of rising his ‘quasi-minimalist’ works written between 1981 and 1986 has suggested the idea to some western critics. It is true that American minimalism was unknown in Estonia until 1983 and Sumera learned his repetition technique from the archaic Estonian ‘runo’ song. But minimalism was noticed relatively late also in the West-European countries, in the Scandinavian countries it had been ‘discovered’ only a few years earlier. The overall form in his works differs completely from the intentionally static forms of American minimalists. Sumera’s works with their clear and consistent dramatic (=psychological) lines could easily be defined as programmatic "stories". Nevertheless, in his commentaries he never specified his narratives: "I may have had a "story" in mind or I may not, but each listener must be allowed the chance to create his or her own story, quite different from mine. In actual fact, the musical ‘story’, the motivic development, is always more important for me".
The symphony orchestra was his favourite medium. His works abound in fascinating solutions regarding timbre, and the tone colour is also treated as an important dramatic factor.
There is a peculiar semantic casting in Sumera’s oeuvre. Many of his chamber music and chorus works display all grades of humour. In his symphonies he wrote down his most serious and painful experience. Even his instrumental concertos are close to the symphonies in this respect.
From the stylistic point-of view, the first two symphonies (1981; 1984) are closely related: diatonic modes, long sections of motivic repetition and variation that appear in complex polyrhythmic and tonally ambiguous textures are characteristic to his works written 1981-86.
Since the late 1980s he preferred chromatic synthetic modes, some of them created by him, and paid special attention to the variety of harmonic colours. In that period he wrote his Third Symphony (1988) and Fourth Symphony “Serena Borealis” (1992).
The complex textures in the anxious, explosive Fifth Symphony (1995) are based on an extensive use of determined aleatorics (aleatoric counterpoint).
Musical material of the Sixth symphony (2000) calls back to several of his earlier symphonic works, including his breakthrough on the international musical arena – In memoriam, written while still a student (1972) and dedicated to the memory of Professor Heino Eller. In his works of the 1970s Sumera had applied free 12-tone technique. In the Sixth Symphony the 12-tone set of the In memoriam serves as basis for musical material, with no consideration of dodecafony as a system.
The Sixth Symphony consists of two movements. The 1st movement alternates the parts indicated as Andante furioso with meditative ‘delaying’ sections (Andante – Rubato – Lunga, quasi senza misura) and ends with a gradual ‘freezing’ of the dramatic elements. The 2nd movement Andante is characterized of multilayered but translucent textures and ambiguous expression, with intertwined reflection, anguish, resignation and transfiguration. It is the most fascinating, enigmatic, and tragic meditative music Lepo Sumera ever wrote.
On May 8, 2000, Lepo Sumera celebrated his 50th birthday. The brand-new Sixth Symphony had been premiered by Estonian National Symphony Orchestra under Arvo Volmer in jubilee concerts on 5th and 6th of May. On June 2 Estonia was shocked by sudden death of Lepo Sumera from a heart failure. The Sixth Symphony remained his last work.
The first performance abroad was in Frankfurt am Main in April 2001 under Paavo Järvi. At present time he is the only conductor who has all six symphonies by Lepo Sumera in his repertoire.
© edition 49 Merike Vaitmaa