Grand old lady of Estonian music Ester Mägi dies.
Estonian composer Ester Mägi died yesterday at the age of ninety-nine, just a few months shy of her hundredth birthday. The author of an extensive oeuvre, her music was never at the centre of the stylistic disputes that characterised the music of the last century – the beginning of the avant-garde in the 1950s, for example, or the transformations towards consonant and minimalist music at the end of the 1960s – but she was recognised throughout her career as a sovereign, serious and sincere composer. The abrupt modernisation of the musical language that took place in Estonian music in the 1960s sidelined Mägi, but her individual style absorbed new elements and changed greatly over the years.
Mägi, born in Tallinn on 10 January 1922, studied piano at the conservatory in her hometown and received composition lessons from the founder of the Estonian national music school, Mart Saar (1882-1963). Saar had collected folk melodies in his youth and was famous for his choral compositions in which he combined folk melodies with complex, advanced harmonies. Mägi inherited his teacher’s interest in folk music and his love for the national musical heritage. After graduating in Tallinn in 1951, Mägi studied for three years in Moscow and his graduation composition was Kalevipoja teekond Soome (Kalevipoeg’s Journey to Finland), a cantata for male voice choir, soloist and orchestra based on the Estonian national epic, Kalevipoeg, by the Estonian poet Friedrich Reinhold Kreutzwald published in the mid-19th century. Although the cantata was written in 1954, it was not premiered until 1961, by the Estonian National Male Choir (RAM) and the Estonian State Symphony Orchestra (ERSO) under the baton of Neeme Järvi. She earned her living as a teacher of music theory at the Tallinn Conservatory – mainly courses in analysis and counterpoint – until her retirement in 1984. She was not tempted by officialdom and shunned poisonous state commissions that might have required political commitment: her first state prize did not come until 1980. And the highest distinction she received was an honorary doctorate from the Estonian Academy of Music in 1999.