As in other European countries, music education in Estonia has historically been linked with the activity of universities and churches. Already at the end of the 19th century, there were several private music schools providing specialist education in different instruments.
The year 1919, when two independent institutions of music education were established in Tallinn and Tartu, is considered to be the beginning of higher music education in Estonia. The Tartu Higher Music School became a strong secondary music education institution, now known as the Heino Eller Music School.
The Tallinn Higher Music School which is considered to be the predecessor of the current EAMT was established by the Music Department of the “Estonia” Society, with the opening ceremony taking place on September 28, 1919, in the Estonia Concert Hall. From 1919–1923 the Principal of the school was Mihkel Lüdig.
In 1923 this institution was renamed the Tallinn Conservatoire. In 1925 the school’s administrators adopted new bylaws, and in keeping with these changes the school elected a faculty 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 ten students graduated in 1925. The academic level of the Conservatoire can be considered to have been 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 at the International Singing Competition in Vienna 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 followed almost immediately. An example of this change was the elimination of church music as a area of specialisation; moreover, the teaching of political orientated 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 recruit as many former academic instructors as possible. However, the realities of war significantly hindered the study process. 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 with a devastating outcome for the staff of the Conservatoire. Many remarkable lecturers were forced to leave for ideological reasons; three of them – A. Karindi, R. Päts, and T. Vettik – were arrested and sent to a labor camp.
The Conservatoire’s creative environment began to see revival in the mid-1950s. Several lecturers who had been “temporarily absent” were able to return. In 1957 the Drama Faculty was established at the Conservatoire, with Voldemar Panso becoming its first head. The Drama Faculty opened in the building of the former Toomkool in Toompea. During the 1970s the organ class, which had been closed in 1950, was reopened. In 1971, a program to train music teachers to 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. Four years later the school was renamed the “Estonian Academy of Music” (Eesti Muusikaakadeemia). This change was deemed necessary because in Europe, “conservatoire” more often refers to an institution of secondary musical education.
During the years 1987–1993 extensive renovation and reconstruction took place in the building of the Drama Faculty, which enabled the faculty to start using the entire two-story building in Toompea. In 1995 the Drama Faculty was renamed the Higher Theatre School.
In 1992 Prof. Peep Lassmann was elected rector. An extensive reform of the study structure was introduced and the school adopted a subject-based study system. Degree studies were introduced enabling students of the four-year program would receive a bachelor’s degree. In 1993, a two-year master´s degree program was added. In 1996 a four-year doctoral program in musicology was introduced, whereas in 2000 specific curricula were designed for performers and composers. In 2006 a new program for dramatic art was added, which also has a creative emphasis.
In 1999 the Estonian Academy of Music was finally granted what it had been awaiting for the past 55 years – a new building in the center 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.
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 the EAMT’s small 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, the opera studio, the electronic music lab and recording studio, a library with computer facilities, and a students dining hall. The building meets the highest acoustical requirements, boasting soundproofed rooms with options to adjust any given room’s acoustics exists by adding or removing wall panels.
Today EAMT is an internationally competitive learning and research facility. Most Estonian musicians have been involved with EAMT either through their own studies or through teaching. Our best-known alumni include composers Arvo Pärt and Erkki-Sven Tüür, pianists Peep Lassmann and Kalle Randalu, as well as conductors Olari Elts, Tõnu Kaljuste, Eri Klas, Vello Pähn and Arvo Volmer. Most of the actors and directors in Estonian theatres are also alumni of our Drama School. The present name of the academy – Estonian Academy of Music and Theatre – was adopted in 2005.