Interpreting folk humour and wisdom, Estonian style: Lepo Sumera's vocal cycle as a window to the language and tradition


  • Dina Lentsner Capital University
  • Saale Konsap Estonian Academy of Music and Theatre


Although contemporary Estonian composer Lepo Sumera (1950-2000) is mostly known in North America as a symphonist, he has contributed to the development of the world-famous choral and vocal music culture of his homeland. Mushroom Cantata and Songs from Estonian Matrimonial Lyrics are, perhaps, the two most curious compositions from Sumera's vocal/choral oevre. In these works the composer uses a non-artistic texts that, he believes, may be more suited for the use in a musical composition than a poem, which already is a complete work of art. In such texts, “some casual words with a suggestive sound” may offer a deeper meaning and allow for a musical reading (Vaitmaa 2005). Specifically, in Mushroom Cantata, Sumera utilizes Latin names of mushrooms growing in Estonia, and in his Songs from Estonian Matrimonial Lyrics – texts from Estonian folk anthology full of sounds of ancient dialects. In the latter work, Sumera sets five texts, structured in a continuum, progressing from a humorous depiction of a folk-style dating scene to a vulgar self-reflection, to a glance into gender roles in a traditional family, a recipe of how to get to heaven, and finally a song about death. And while folk texts are sequenced to intensify the emotion and darken the mood, the composer creates an aura of lightness, humor, and tenderness through the use of eclectic musical language. The spoken phrase “My dear my darling,” positioned between songs, creates a type of a rondo form, where the songs function as episodes. In his setting, the composer capitalizes on the idiosyncrasies of Estonian language phonetics, rich in vowels, and unique prosody known as the quantity system (Lippus 1993). This paper advocates exploration of contemporary vocal literature written by composers of different traditions in order to offer a meaningful musical and linguistic journey to performers and listeners.

Author Biography

Dina Lentsner, Capital University

A native of St. Petersburg, Russia, Dr. Dina Lentsner joined the faculty of Conservatory of Music in 2004. As a musicologist, Dr. Lentsner is interested in the relationship between poetic and music structures in vocal compositions, primarily focusing on contemporary music. She has been active on the American and international musicological scene as a presenter at the numerous international, national, and regional conferences. Her other professional engagements include a three-month research grant at Paul Sacher Foundation -international center for studying 20th century music - and teaching a seminar on Russian 19th-20th century opera for the Slavic Department of University of Basel (2006). Dr. Lentsner’s articles, focusing on music of contemporary Hungarian composer György Kurtág, have been published in musicological journals in France, Hungary, and Switzerland. She has contributed a chapter on György Kurtág and George Crumb in the recently published book Centre and periphery, roots and exile: Interpreting István Anhalt and György Kurtág (Wilfrid Laurier University Press, Canada, 2011). 

As a pedagogue, Dr. Lentsner is interested in transforming and improving traditional method of teaching music classes using Dee Fink's philosophy of "significant learning" through active student engagement. In addition, she modified common chronological approach to teaching music history using intertextual connections between composers, styles, and music eras. Currently she is working on the article for the Music History Pedagogy Journal that discusses her pedagogical innovations. Dina Lentsner is also a strong supporter and promoter of interdisciplinary projects and undergraduate students scholarship. Under her supervision, music students have been presenting annually at the Undergraduate Scholarship Symposium as well as at the National Conference of Undergraduate Research. In 2007 National Organization for Women-Capital University recognized Dina Lentsner with the Inspiring Female Teacher Award.