in From the Archives

In Estonia, music is celebration

by Antti Häyrynen

The Estonian song festival is a concept whose history and significance cannot be assessed with conventional artistic criteria. Since the last century, the song festivals organized in Tallinn have been a demonstration of Estonian culture and national spirit whose power has been strongest at crucial turning points in the nations history. On the other hand, they have also served as a showcase for a rich and original culture of singing and as a demonstration of a rare and heartfelt musical togetherness.

Choral singing as we know it today was born in the 19th century as a result of the need of the emerging middle class to reinforce its sense of community and national feeling. Choral singing was seen as an educational and ennobling genre of music through which the people could be guided towards the fine arts. The patriotically charged song movement that originated in Germany (Was uns eint – der Heimat Lieder, What unites us – the songs of the homeland), an uplifting combination of language and music, soon spread to the Baltic states and from there to Finland. Estonia, like Finland, belonged to the Russian Empire at the time, but in terms of cultural influence it was the Baltic German upper class that took the lead.

Choral singing had become established on a regular basis in Estonia as early as in the 1840s, but it was some time before song festivals could be arranged, due to delaying tactics by the authorities and the slow growth of the nationalist ideology. The German-speaking community organized its own song festival in Tallinn in 1857. It was at the initiative of J.V. Jannsen, a journalist and former serf, that a three-day “rejoicing and thanksgiving festival” was organized in Tartu in 1869 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the release of Livonia from serfdom. This was the first proper Estonian song festival, with 800 to 1,000 singers performing and a total audience of about 15,000. Only male voice choirs performed at the first three song festivals, since their diction was considered better than that of other choirs. The first song festival in Tallinn was organized in 1880, and Tallinn became the permanent venue in 1896.

At the Estonian song festival of 1869, the strongest criticism was levelled at Germanophilia, which was considered an upstart attitude; no one dared yet criticize the Russian regime. Radical critics felt that the occasion was nothing more than a German song festival presented in the Estonian language: the choral singing and music was German in style, while only the texts were Estonian – and even they were in a universally applicable National Romantic style. The romantic concept of tribal solidarity endeared the song festivals to the Finns, and from 1884 song festivals were organized in Finland too, following the Estonian model.

Nationalist attitude

According to composer Leo Normet, in the early years the purpose of the Estonian song festivals was above all “to combat national depression, not to meddle in politics”. Nevertheless, the song festivals had an obvious Nationalist attitude, and this persisted even when Estonia became independent in the early years of the 20th century, whereas at Finnish song festivals Nationalism had given way to artistic ambitions by then. The Estonian song festivals were open and tolerant, though, and the material performed was diverse – Normet says that the “national character” was more important than racial purity. Early Estonian composers were mainly educated at the St Petersburg Conservatory, where they adopted a cosmopolitan rather than a Slavonic style. This cosmopolitan approach is quite evident in early 20th-century Estonian music, compared with the more introvert Finnish concert music; however, Finnish music was quicker later on in adopting influences from Impressionism, Expressionism and atonal music.

In the early years of this century, Estonian choral music was also influenced by the folk music collecting and research work that had begun towards the end of the previous century. The collections of the Estonian National Museum, founded at the initiative of Oskar Kallas, were augmented with about 13,000 folk tunes between 1904 and 1919. The first phonograph recording was made by Finnish folk poetry specialist A.O. Väisänen, and Estonian composers such as Juhan Aavik, Cyrillus Kreek and Mats Saar participated in the field work.

Linguist and composer Karl August Hermann was responsible for the artistic profile of the song festivals in the late 19th century. The tightened nationality policy of Imperial Russia manifested itself in the popularity of the song festivals at the turn of the century: in 1891, the festival had over 3,000 singers and musicians participating; in 1894, the figure was over 6,000; and in 1910, it was estimated that there were about 10,000 performers and 100,000 listeners. The song festival of 1910 was the first to feature a wholly Estonian programme; the Russians banned all speeches and the closing number, Maamme (Our land), the song shared as a national anthem by Finland and Estonia.

From 1921 to 1940, the Estonian song festivals were organized by the Estonian Singers’ Association, founded in 1921. Wilho Siukonen, a lecturer at the Sortavala seminary in Finland, compared the Finnish and Estonian song festivals in 1923 and observed that the Finnish festivals had evolved into a primarily artistic occasion, whereas the Estonian festivals remained a festival for all the people. No competitions were organized in Estonia, which Siukonen considered made it easier for modestly talented amateur groups to participate. In Finland, the song festivals had diverged into two political and social camps even before the Civil War of 1918: in the 1920s, the different social classes and ideological groups held their own song festivals. Siukonen concluded his article with the observation: “The Finnish song festivals can never become such a spontaneous expression of the soul of a nation as those of Estonia.”

The Second World War served to separate the song festival traditions of Finland and Estonia even further. In Finland, the significance of such massed festivals declined, though the tradition was revived with the Joensuu Song Festival, organized from 1980 onwards. This festival expanded its programme powerfully into the field of popular music, and the losses incurred through this drove the festival into bankruptcy in 1997.

The Soviet oppression

In Estonia, which had been conquered by the Soviet Union, the song festivals gained an increased significance, albeit they were subjected to tight control and censorship. The classical, timeless and polyphonically advanced choral music of Estonia’s most famous choral composer, Cyrillus Kreek, was almost completely neglected. Censorship aimed at eliminating the cultural influence of Estonia’s period of independence also threatened the continuity of the song festival institution: for example, all the 36,000 books published between 1918 and 1940 were removed from all libraries, and about 19,000 of these books were banned altogether.

Nevertheless, the song festivals retained their national character which, if anything, became stronger and more profound. Although the trappings of national sentiment had to be concealed and Nationalist themes could not be demonstrated in public, the song festivals remained a common cultural outlet for the Estonian people through the years.

In 1944, Gustav Ernesaks founded the National Academic Male Voice Choir of the Estonian SSR (Eesti NSV Riikliku Akadeemiline Meeskoor), known as RAM, to act as a flagship for Estonian choral music. On its international tours, it was hailed as one of the best male voice choirs in the world. Ernesaks was also a key figure in developing the song festivals, and in later decades he was seen as the personification of the very institution itself.

The established practice was to organize the great song festival in Tallinn over three days approximately every five years (1947, 1950, 1955, 1960, 1965, 1969, 1975, 1980, 1985, 1990), with national song festivals organized by student organizations and youth organizations in the intervening years. Two years were spent in preparation for each song festival: the choir of choir conductors first rehearsed the repertoire planned by the artistic directors and then went back to their own choirs all over the country to rehearse that repertoire. A dedicated song festival field was built in Tallinn in 1960; it has a stage accommodating about 30,000 performers and stands for about 250,000 listeners. It was from 1960 onwards that wind ensembles began to participate in the festivals.

Ernesaks found no shortage of successors for his work, and the choir conducting department of the Tallinn Conservatory became one of the Conservatory’s most important departments.

The RAM male voice choir was later conducted by Olev Oja, Kuno Areng and Tõnu Kaljuste. The Estonian Radio Choir was founded in 1945 by Jiiri Variste, whose successors have included Ants Oleoja and Toomas Kapten. The Tallinn Chamber Choir, founded in 1962, has included Kuno Areng, Arvo Ratasepp and Ants Oleoja among its conductors.

More recent additions to the field that may be mentioned include the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir founded by Kaljuste in 1981, the Eesti Projekt Chamber Choir founded and conducted by Anne-Liis Treimann and the Tallinn Boys’ Choir founded by Lydia Rahula in 1988. Naturally, all the major choirs from outside Tallinn have also participated in the song festivals.

Composers – who have had the opportunity to write challenging works for top ensembles – have constituted a major resource in Estonian choral music. A case in point and also a central figure in upholding the Estonian national spirit is Veljo Tormis, much of whose work is derived from the primitive and shamanistic features of folk music and the Estonian national epic, the Kalevipoeg. In the 1960s, Modernist influences made inroads into Estonian music, for instance through the Polish school; by comparison, the 1980s have seen the introduction of Minimalism and Neo-Simplicism, approaches that have been evident in choral music too.

Adoration for choir conductors

The song festivals have been and are a quintessentially national great event valued by the entire nation and linking all Estonians, which is important considering that cultural activities in Estonia are largely concentrated in Tallinn and Tartu. Distinguished choir conductors are great stars and some – like Ernesaks – have also been great leader figures.

The national and ideological significance of the song festivals came to a head again during the “singing revolution” of the 1980s. While the Soviet Union was disintegrating, Estonians organized massive rallies where old national emblems and banned songs were resurrected. The political work of the Popular Front, founded in 1988, soon became evident in the declaration of independence and the new language laws, but its influence was also seen at the song festival of 1990, with about 30,000 performers and no fewer than 500,000 listeners participating.

The unofficial national hymn of Estonia, Mu isämaa on minu arm (My fatherland is my love) by Aleksandr Kunileid and poet I.ydia Koidula, became known far beyond the borders of the country. National flags were displayed at the festival for the first time in decades, the programme was nearly wholly Estonian, and a large contingent of Estonians living abroad was present among the international visitors for the first time ever.

Competing events

After Estonia gained her independence, the significance of the song festivals has somewhat declined, and in the 1990s it was caustically observed that Michael Jackson attracted a larger audience than the song festival did.

The song festival has been joined by competing events organized in the song festival field, such as beer and pop music festivals, which did not exist earlier. However, the number of musical events has also proliferated and diversified: there are now festivals dedicated to piano music, saxophone music and contemporary music, for instance. The biennial Nyyd festival covers the field of contemporary music, and the triennial Orient festival features music from the East.

There are various ethnic music events, the best-known of which is perhaps the folk music festival in Viljandi. The best-known music festival in Tallinn is no doubt the international summer festival launched during the Soviet era; its artistic director is conductor Neeme Järvi. There is also an organ music festival (Orgel) every August and a Baroque music festival organized by Andres Mustonen and his Hortus Musicus ensemble every February. The Jazz-Kaar festival is also an annual event.

But then, the Estonians have a lot to celebrate: Tallinn is full of gorgeous, acoustically gratifying concert halls for music both ancient and modern. The Estonians are “festival animals”, so much so that there is often only mild interest in everyday concerts during the normal concert season. Whereas festival concerts may sport only a modest level of artistic achievement, the festive mood easily grips the audience. Even small towns strive to put together open-air pomp and pageantry, as in Viru, where the Netherlands Radio Orchestra once found itself playing on a lake.

Concerts by visiting artists have also spiced the musical life of independent Estonia: foreign orchestras and star soloists are part of the new exclusive programme aimed at the elite; and although Estonian artists are not yet as cosmopolitan as they could be, the concert life of Tallinn has within a very short space of time become more international than that of Helsinki. For example, an extensive network of contacts enabled Mustonen to present performances by Jordi Savall, Gustav Leonhardt, Michael Chance, Patrick Gallois, Monica Groop, Emma Kirkby and the Kuijken brothers all at one Baroque festival. On the other hand, there is a danger of regular concert series sinking into provincial oblivion; the concentration of musical activities in Tallinn has already detracted somewhat from the traditionally active cultural life of Tartu. Tartu has an early music festival in May every other year, and early music is also featured at the Haapsalu music festival.

Diversification is of course a good thing, and it is not altogether bad that the song festivals are no longer needed as an outlet for forbidden Nationalist sentiments or repressed cultural aspirations as was the case in the past. However, it is probable that the song festivals will in fact retain their significance once the first rush of new opportunities and modes of music and expression has subsided. After all, the Estonians are hardly likely to grow bored with singing and celebrating.

This article was first published in FMQ 4/1998.

The festival situation keeps changing all the time, with new events coming up – for an updated overview, check for example