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

Dina Lentsner, Saale Konsap


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.

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