Legend among composition educators. He founded the Tartu School of Composition and taught at the Tallinn Conservatory from 1940 until 1970.
He studied violin as a child and performed as a soloist when he reached his teens. He continued to pursue violin studies at the Saint Petersburg Conservatory.
He taught future notables Eduard Tubin, Kaljo Raid, and Lepo Sumera.
He lost his wife pianist Anna Kremer during World War II.
He and Dmitri Shostakovich were both named People's Artist of the USSR during their careers.