The idea of founding an Estonian establishment of musical education emerged on the eve of World War I. It began in the form of a mixed choir of the Estonian Society Musical Department (EMD). The assembly of the Estonia Society then decided on November 17, 1918, to create the Tallinn Higher Music School, the opening ceremony of which took place on September 28, 1919, in the Estonia Concert Hall. From 1919–1923 the Principal of the school was Mihkel Lüdig.
In 1923 the educational institution was renamed Tallinn Conservatoire. In 1925 the school’s administrators adopted new bylaws, and in keeping with these changes the school elected an official slate of professors: R. Bööcke, A. Kapp, J. Paulsen, P. Ramul and A. Topman. Together with A. and Th. Lemba and J. Tamm, who had previously received their professorships from the St. Petersburg Conservatoire, the Tallinn Conservatoire now had 8 professors. The numbers would later increase. The first class of young music artists graduated in 1925, a total of ten students. Although the conditions were not favourable for studying, the academic level of the Conservatoire can be considered as relatively high, as many of its students participated in international competitions in the 1930s. The most successful of them was Tiit Kuusik, who was awarded the first prize in the Vienna Competition in 1938.
Originally a private institution, the Conservatoire became nationalised in 1935. In 1938 the State Drama School was opened.
The Soviet occupation, which began in 1940, did not fail to influence the Conservatoire. The aim was to bring the musical education system into line with the prevailing views of the Soviet Union. Curricular reorganisation were felt almost immediately. An example of this change was the elimination of church music as a specialisation; moreover, the teaching of political subjects commenced.
Following the arrival of German occupation powers, the Conservatoire struggled to restore its earlier teaching activities. J. Aavik, who had returned to the post of Principal, sought to gather together as many former academic instructors as possible. However, the realities of war hampered the teaching work considerably. During the March 9, 1944 air raid, the building of the Conservatoire, as well as most of its equipment, was almost completely destroyed. In November 1944, following another change of power, the Conservatoire was reopened. A house at 3 Kaarli Avenue was chosen to serve as the Conservatoire’s temporary home. In 1950 the Estonian Communist Party Central Committee VIII plenary meeting took place. The outcome of this meeting proved devastating for the staff of the Conservatoire. For ideological reasons many remarkable lecturers were forced to leave; three of them – A. Karindi, R. Päts, and T. Vettik – were arrested and sent to a labour camp.
The Conservatoire’s creative environment began to see revival in the mid-1950s. Several lecturers who had been “temporarily away” returned. In 1957 the Drama Faculty was opened in the Conservatoire, and Voldemar Panso became its first head. The Drama Faculty began to use a pair of rooms in the former Toomkool building in Toompea. During the 1970s the organ class, which had been terminated in 1950, was reopened. In 1971, a programme to train music educators for work in the comprehensive school system was resumed. The number of students attending the Conservatoire increased considerably. Venno Laul, who was appointed rector in 1982, raised again the idea of building a new school facility. He went on to oversee the design phase of the project; actual construction work became the responsibility of the next rector.
In 1989, just prior to the 70th anniversary of the school, its former name – the “Tallinn Conservatoire” – was restored. But just four years later the school was renamed the “Estonian Academy of Music” (Eesti Muusikaakadeemia). This change was deemed desirable because throughout Europe, ”conservatoire” usually refers to an institution that gears itself more towards secondary musical education.
During the years 1987–1993 extensive renovation and reconstruction took place in the building of the Drama Faculty. The faculty began using the entire two-story building. In 1995 the Drama Faculty was renamed the Higher Theatre School.
In 1992 Peep Lassmann was elected rector. An extensive reform of teaching activities was instituted, followed by structural reforms. The school adopted a subject-based study system. A new system of degree studies was introduced: graduates of a four-year programme would receive a bachelor’s degree. In 1993, a two-year master´s degree programme was added. In 1996 a four-year doctoral programme was introduced in the specialisation of musicology. In 1997 Tartu Branch of EAM was founded.
In 1999 the Estonian Academy of Music was granted what it had been awaiting for the past 55 years – its own building in the centre of Tallinn. As of now, it is one of the best and most modern conservatoire buildings in the world, especially with respect to its functionality and technological solutions. The new building will probably meet the demands of Estonian music education for decades to come. Nevertheless, this does not mean that EAM has resolved all of its problems in relation to rooms. The Higher Theatre School remains housed in its building on Toompea.
In the new building of EAM there are 7 500 square meters of usable space designed and built especially for the higher musical educational establishment. There are 60 classrooms plus 14 rehearsal rooms where classes can be held. Special mention should be made of EAM’s chamber hall, which seats 130–200, a choir class combined with a big auditorium for 77 students, an audition room for 40 persons with a new baroque organ, opera studio, electronic music lab, recording studio, library with all music listening and computer facilities, and dining room. The number of pianos and grand pianos total up to 95. The building meets the highest acoustical requirements for its soundproof rooms, and the option exists with removable wall panels to adjust a given room’s acoustic. To sum up, it is among the most modern educational music buildings in the world.
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