Sunday 23 August 2015

The music of Estonian composer Cyrillus Kreek

Cyrillus Kreek
Until I heard performances by the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, the music of Cyrillus Kreek was unknown to me. An important figure in Estonian musical history, knowledge of him and his music does not seem to have particularly travelled. Cyrillus Kreek (1889-1962) was one of the composers who laid the foundations for Estonian national music. Like many of his contemporaries such as RVW (1872-1958), Percy Grainger (1882-1961), Bela Bartok (1881-1945) and Zoltan Kodaly (1882-1967), the basis for his work was folk-song. Kreek was one of the first people to use a phonograph to collect folk songs (something espoused by Kodaly, and Percy Grainger but never used by RVW).

Kreek's father was a poor schoolmaster in Estonia, and Cyrillus Kreek was the ninth child. Born Karl Ustav, he became Kirill when his father's job required the family to become Russian Orthodox (Estonia was a Russian colony at the time) and later he used Cyrillus for his musical work. The young Cyrillus was musical, all the family seem to have been, and despite their frugality he was bought a trombone, participated in local choirs and music societies and finally 100 roubles were borrowed to send Cyrillus to St Petersburg Conservatoire in 1908 (there was of course, no conservatoire in Estonia and this was the nearest and most obvious). During his time there he was labelled by Alexander Glazunov, after one examination, as 'No talent, but diligent'.

In 1916 his studies were interrupted by his father's death and his subsequent mobilisation in the army, joining the military orchestra. After being demobbed he started as a teacher, a role he would fulfil for 40 years. He was writing music even before he went to the conservatoire and though his first study there was trombone, composition was a serious interest to. One he shared with another Estonian friend at the conservatoire, Peeter Suda (1883-1920), the two would discuss their compositions.

Whilst at the conservatoire he took part in collecting folk-songs as part of a systematic collection being made by Oskar Kallas helped by the Estonian Students Society. Kreek took part from 1911 to 1914, working in Läänemaa County, Western Estonia (Läänemaa County was his home and that of his family). In 1914 he use a phonograph for the first time, something which made the job easier. He also became interested in the phenomenon of folk versions of choral melodies, something he came across during his collecting trips including sacred folk songs.

From this would come, after the war, Kreek's Sacred Folk Songs the first volume of which was completed in 1916-1918. One feature of Kreek's work was that he was interested in other people's work too; Sacred Folksongs includes versions of folk-songs collected by Peeter Suda.

Perhaps one of the reasons for our lack of consciousness of Kreek's music is that during the Soviet era the Sacred Folk Songs were not performed at public concerts because of the religious texts and it was only in the late 1980's that the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir performed them and they were published for the first time in 1989.

From this point on, Kreek's career as a teacher and as a composer developed. He would teach music to teachers in training, and his own music included a Requiem (1929) for tenor, choir, organ and orchestra and the Psalms of David (1923). He also conducted choirs, though rarely his own music, but other choirs in Tallinn and Tartuu became increasingly interested in his music. After the Second World War he worked at Tallinn Conservatoire, though his music was rarely performed during the Soviet era. In 1950, when most of the earlier Estonian intelligentsia were labelled `bourgeois nationalists', professor Kreek was forced to "voluntarily" resign from his post at the conservatoire for "not meeting the qualifications, neither professional nor ideological, required for a work at a higher education school".

Though Kreek wrote in a wide variety of genres, it is his choral pieces particularly the folk-based ones which are most notable. Virtually all of Kreek's music is based on existing material (usually folk material). He seems to have needed something on which to start (in this he is like Percy Grainger, the vast quantity of whose music uses pre-existing material in some highly imaginative way), but as he left no articles, diaries or speeches we have no knowledge of his interior life. What we do have is his careful records of all the folksongs he collected and others collected. A child of his age, his knowledge of music seems to have been very much widened by radio broadcasts so that his scores for Wagner's operas record the dates of radio transmissions during the inter war period (Das Rehingold ten times, Tristan und Isolde six times)

Music such as the Sacred Folk Songs and Psalms of David has a numinous quality, allied to a complexity in the treatment of the folk material, which can be heard in the work of later Estonian composers such as Veljo Tormis (born 1930). Another influence, when listening to the Psalms of David seems to be the Rachmaninov of the Vespers.

There is not a lot of Kreek's music available on CD, the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir's recording of the Psalms and Sacred Folksongs is available (see the advert below) though the recording of the Requiem seems to be available only as an expensive import (you can find it on YouTube).

You can, however buy much of it on-line from Edition49 and catch performances of his music on YouTube:

And if you are interested in Estonian music, then that of Cyrillus Kreek is well worth catching.

Elsewhere on this blog:

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