Text: Immo Mihkelson

Jüri Reinvere - musician and thinker in the draught of anxious times

In January, the face of a bearded man with glasses repeatedly appeared on Estonian TV screens and newspapers. This man is composer and essayist Jüri Reinvere. He was named Musician of the Year.

This honorary title is given by Estonian Public Broadcasting to a musician whose creative achievements have helped to promote Estonian music culture. With the title, he joins the ranks of renowned conductors Paavo Järvi Paavo Järvi is an Estonian conductor. and Tõnu Kaljuste, composers Erkki-Sven Tüür, Tõnu Kõrvits and Helena Tulve and pianist Kalle Randalu, to name a few.

Although Estonian music and its top names have achieved fame worldwide, in comparison to older European states the tradition itself is relatively short. In his interviews, Reinvere emphasises that culture is the most important Estonian export. He came to the Musician of the Year ceremony from Frankfurt, his current hometown. In fact, he has spent most of his life of 50 years outside Estonia.

Reinvere says that his view of world affairs is German, but he always introduces himself as an Estonian. It’s important to him. In addition to music, he emphasises, one has to remain curious about the world – to see, understand and generalise. Reinvere is a composer as well as an eloquent writer and essayist. Online he introduces himself to the world as a composer, essayist and poet. Words and sounds are intertwined in his world, which is rare among musicians.

The role of chance

Born in Tallinn Tallinn, the largest city and capital of Estonia (population 440 000). , Jüri’s bright childhood world was the suburb of Mustamäe Administrative district in SW of Tallinn Tallinn, the largest city and capital of Estonia (population 440 000). (pop. 67 000). , filled with the geometry of identical white apartment blocks. This mathematical precision of his surroundings affected him surrealistically and suggestively so much so that his inclination to symmetry is still recognisable in his works.

“Chance plays a much bigger role in our lives than we think,” he says. This is how he found music. Since his mother was a swimmer, the toddler attended kindergarten near the swimming pool rather than near his home. The kindergarten specialised in English language and the kids were prepared for entry tests in order to be accepted for further education at a similar school. Singing was one of the required skills and music lessons changed Jüri’s life. As a six-year-old, he claimed that he wanted to become a composer.

Reinvere remembers the anxiety of his school years. The pressures of the late 1970s and 1980s in Estonia came from Soviet society. He remembers the continual war propaganda at school – it could break out any time, they said. The enemy does not sleep. The only way to escape the looming sense of the end of the world was to dive into the world of music.

He first studied piano at the Tallinn Tallinn, the largest city and capital of Estonia (population 440 000). Music High School, later taking composition classes with Lepo Sumera. Sumera was a talented composer and brilliant personality, however during the social changes of Glasnost, he entered politics and became the Minister of Culture. This marked the end of the teacher-student relationship.

A headlong plunge into the unknown

After graduation, Reinvere went to study composition in Warsaw. After the fall of the Iron Curtain, borders with the rest of the world started to open. He was among the first wave of promising music students who went abroad, into a foreign environment with other traditions. The eighteen-year-old boy’s headlong plunge into the widely interconnected world of Central European music culture left strong impressions on his art and personality.

Jüri Reinvere moved to Finland a couple of years later. He played the organ in churches and hoped to be accepted into the composition department of Sibelius Academy. Whether pure luck or hard work, the doors finally opened and he left Finland with a master’s degree a decade later. His new home became Berlin, however, Reinvere has lived in Frankfurt since 2017.

“As a composer of Estonian origin, I’ve had the good fortune of gaining an education that in many ways is oppositional and, in its severity, maybe even dangerous. But for my exuberant, bustling Estonian world, this terribly severe, detailed, matter-of-fact and precise work has been a lifesaver.“

Reinvere is on a constant quest to learn, he is curious about everything that surrounds him. “Being curious about the lives of others, their thoughts, other types of art – this is what gets me in motion in some other direction – it gets me to come out of myself. This brings the desire to understand what makes us human and the capacity to place things in right proportions.”


Although there have been many teachers in his life who influenced his thought-world and directing him towards Central European artistic values, Reinvere himself considers his most important mentor to be the Estonian ex-pat pianist and writer Käbi Laretei who lived in Sweden and who introduced him to her former husband, the Swedish film and theatre director Ingmar Bergman.

The young composer, who took piano lessons from Käbi and with whom he could discuss various issues related to being Estonian, was often taken along to the island of Farö where Ingmar had his so-called “nest”. The three of them spent many hours discussing music, culture and life in general. 

This period gave serious creative impetus to Reinvere. Bergman introduced him to the tradition of Northern-European drama and to the psychological characterisation of dramatic figures. They both encouraged him to write, which led to prose experiments soon followed by idiosyncratic poetry written in English. Now, Reinvere often uses his own written texts in his musical compositions and he is also the librettist for his operas.


The role of the radio in the composer’s life deserves separate attention. When a classical music radio programme was established on Estonian Radio in the middle of the 1990s, Jüri, who at that moment was studying across the gulf in Finland, became a frequent guest host. He made radio shows on musical phenomena and musicians, travelling all around Estonia with his microphone.

I remember him as a joyful and modest young man who transformed into a totally different type of person in his shows. This other person moved in bold steps from the surface of the cultural sphere across time and space, making courageous generalisations and occasionally announcing quite arrogant standpoints. But he never attacked or offended anyone. Those flights of fancy were creative, they were based on a broad cultural surface and his viewpoints often diverged from the opinions we were used to hearing.

These days, Jüri Reinvere warmly recalls his times on the radio for another reason – it helped him to better understand musical dramaturgy and interaction with the audience. His first editor on the radio was the experienced and always positive Helve Võsamäe who, as if in passing, gave him a golden tip. Whenever you get the feeling that the show is becoming boring and there is too much text, you have to include a short and sharply ending piece of music to create a change, an interruption. Jüri says that this advice served him well in shaping his creations.

The other creative impulse came from a late-night show of eclectic music called “Fantasy”, which included various authors. As expected, Reinvere jumped into this adventure too. In summer, when there were fewer people around, he took it upon himself to do a number of the two-hour shows. He has colourfully described the feeling he had in the beginning of the night when the hustle and bustle of the radio station calmed down. He was there with his microphone, blinking lights and piles of music albums that he always tried to shape into a dramaturgic whole for the listeners. This was a very educational experience for the young composer, he said years later.

Radio also played a role as one of the first promoters of Reinvere’s music internationally. In 2000, he won the International Rostrum for Composers in Amsterdam in the category of composers under 30 with his chamber ensemble piece “Loodekaar” (Northwest Bow), which was entered into competition by Klassikaraadio Klassikaraadio - Radio of Classics is an Estonian radio station. . Rostrum participants are radio stations from all over the world that play serious music and offer each other new compositions. Reinvere’s piece played on the radio stations of over thirty countries after the event.

In order to celebrate this long and meaningful collaboration, Reinvere dedicated his new piece “Klara’s Two Bracelets” to Klassikaraadio Klassikaraadio - Radio of Classics is an Estonian radio station. . This work was performed by Tallinn Tallinn, the largest city and capital of Estonia (population 440 000). Chamber Orchestra and conducted by Tõnu Kaljuste at the studio concert “ Klassikaraadio Klassikaraadio - Radio of Classics is an Estonian radio station. – 25”.

Times are changing

To date, Reinvere has written three operas, all of which have been staged in different countries. His works have been performed by many well-known German orchestras, including one of the best symphony orchestras in the world – Berliner Philharmoniker – and it has been played by different groups at many German festivals. Various projects for the next few years are in process.

Classical music and the art of composing is the cultural business card of Estonia. A new composer in the world arena naturally attracts attention in Estonia. In addition, Reinvere’s signature style differs considerably from the local mainstream. He is not captivated by statics or linear movements and masses of sound. He is different and that’s a good thing as there is richness in diversity.

But there are some concerns as well. Composer Reinvere’s success takes place in a sphere that essayist Reinvere sees as problematic. The main subject of his essays is the relationship between culture and society, between creation and power.

“The political elite no longer listens to classical music, does not consider it its own. This was not the case thirty years ago. For centuries, classical music has been the music of those in power, the music of the elite. Today’s leaders, politicians and governors listen to a completely different kind of music,” the musician said in his interview to Klassikaraadio Klassikaraadio - Radio of Classics is an Estonian radio station. . But that is not all.

“The other big change is that society has become resistant to elitism. Everything that is considered elite is despised. The high arts are increasingly rejected by people and elitism is seen as something negative.”

Add to this the short attention span of the internet era, which prevents people from reaching processes (as well as long musical pieces) that require time. For the same reason, people are less likely to acquire skills that require rehearsing for longer periods, such as playing an instrument on a level required in the world of classical music.

Reinvere is sailing in these draughts with his music. Nevertheless, he remains optimistic and he has opportunities. As his success is also our success, we in Estonia keep our fingers crossed for him.

The article was published first in Life in Estonia.

Edited for web by eesti.life.