The Estonian song festival: a chameleon strategy
evi arujärv

The first song festival took place in 1869, and ever since that time it has served as the symbol of Estonian national culture and identity. The song festivals of the second half of the 19th century crowned the budding national sense of unity felt by Estonians no longer tied down by serfdom. The festivals carried the spirit of nationalism during the years of Russian occupation between 1940 and 1991. The events of the "singing revolution" in the late 1980s before the restoration of independent Estonia took place under the song festival arch in Tallinn. At most, the number of performers has exceeded thirty thousand with an audience of hundreds of thousands. The traditional opening and finishing songs, Mihkel Lüdig's "Dawn" and Gustav Ernesaks' "My Homeland is My Love" have acquired an almost liturgical function. Throughout the ages, however, song festivals have been accompanied by a discussion about their cultural purity.

Estonian composer Rudolf Tobias, graduate of the St Petersburg Conservatory and later professor at the Imperial Berlin College of Music, writes in the newspaper "Postimees" in 1906: "The fact that secular a cappella songs are of no particular merit, has been rightly recognised by the masters of classics. /.../ Then came the banal mean German spirit and found that this new field can be profitably ploughed; all it needed was to establish song societies all over the country, churn out song according to a set pattern, and finally organise displays of noise industry (in other words, song festivals)./.../ Our own beautiful folk song is timidly silent, since the musical sergeant majors are pushing "artificial" songs down our throats instead, in the hope of gaining further merit at the next song festival."

Song festival
estonian song-festival. photo: toomas tuul

Tobias' scepticism is not without reason. The Estonian song festival has from the start been compiled of "borrowed material" and surrounded by alien ideology. The paradigms of "familiar" and "alien" crossed paths here, as did the inert and epigonic mass culture and professional culture aspiring towards uniqueness. The first song festival, held in 1869 in the university town of Tartu, was a festival of "jubilee and rejoicing", dedicated to the 50th anniversary of the end of serfdom of the Livonian peasants. It followed the example set by the song days of male choirs in Germany and Switzerland. The festivities were headed by Estonian and German cultural figures. It took two years to obtain permission from the Baltic governor. Amongst other things, Tartu was decorated with flags of the Russian empire, although many participants wore national clothes. Performers included around 800 singers and 60 wind instrument players, mainly rural schoolmasters, parish clerks and farmers.

Besides the Orthodox church, Russian central power and German barons, there were opponents at the very first song festival also among our "own" people. Carl Robert Jakobson, a leading figure in the Estonian national movement, groaned: "Pastor of German origin (provost A. H. Willigerode from Tartu St Mary's church - E.A.) as head of the Estonian festival, German songs, everything German!" The prominent St Petersburg newspaper "Golos", on the other hand, asked crossly: "Is Livonia a Russian guberniya or a German province?" The first song festival only presented two Estonian choral works - Aleksander Kunileid's songs "My Homeland is My Love" and "Until I Die" with the words of Estonian poet Lydia Koidula. However, the sense of belonging together, experienced for the first time, suppressed all critical observations. In later festivals, the number of participants increased, as did the role of Estonians, Estonian-language repertory and musical professionalism, but the political packaging remained. Nearly all 19th century song festivals were dedicated to the Russian tsars. At the 7th festival (1910), plainclothes policemen stood among the singers, greeting the tsarist anthem with loud hoorays. The 12th song festival (1947) took place in an occupied country largely in ruins, and was organised by the Council of People's Commissars and the Estonian Communist Party. The procession was adorned with pictures and slogans of the leaders of the red power. One of the opening pieces was Vano Muradeli's "Under Stalin's Iron Will", and the programme included a letter of gratitude to Stalin. Nevertheless, quite a bit of classical Estonian choir music was performed as well, including the premiere performance of Ernesaks's song "My Homeland is My Love" that later became a hymn to the Estonian spirit. Song Festival number 13 took place in 1950, after mass deportations of Estonians into the expanse of Russia, and was totally Stalinist. The old Estonian choral music did not re-appear until the 1960s.

In the late 1980s, on the threshold of regaining independence, new patriotic songs by Veljo Tormis, Rene Eespere, Ülo Vinter, Alo Mattiisen and Tõnis Mägi became hugely popular. The 21st Festival (1990) performed nothing but songs by Estonian authors. Many exile Estonians arrived from America, Sweden, Canada and Australia. The patron of the 22nd Festival (1994) was Lennart Meri, the first president of the newly independent Estonia. Had a borrowed ritual finally been sung into a familiar one?

Throughout the years, a song festival has nevertheless been the Estonians' means of expression within a foreign ritual, a certain chameleon strategy. Our choral songs are influenced by Biedermeyer-style drawing-room romanticism and the Soviet mass song encouraging collectivism. Estonian choral song's "own style" from Mart Saar and Cyrillus Kreek to Veljo Tormis developed through blending with and opposing stylistic loans. Performing patriotic songs in between "tsarist cantatas" people seemed to sing about a paradise lost or a forbidden land. A manifestation of both the collective euphoria and dissident ideas, a song festival expressed a split identity, typical of a colonised culture. Just like a leader of the choral movement of the "awakening period", the "father of song", Ernesaks (1908-1993), played a double role as well - acting as a tool of alien powers and the general head of song festivals for more than four decades.

Along with the development of a cultural intelligentsia and during the relaxing of political pressure, the musical standard of the festivals became predominant. "A song festival or a music festival?" demanded Rudolf Tobias as early as 1908. "National colours seem no more than a business speculation, loud drums at a market place, just in order to take the audience for a ride," said the composer in 1913. During the years of the Republic of Estonia (1918-1940), song festivals turned into a grand festival of music with an abundant original repertory, opera and theatre productions.

Recently (2003) the UNESCO international jury included the Estonian tradition of song and dance festivals in the list of oral and intellectual heritage of humankind. The 24th song festival this year will take place soon after Estonia joins the European Union and NATO. The air is thick with ideas of harmony and integration. Global competition, however, also requires the opposite - self-determination, separation and difference. Time will show what will become of the 19th century Estonian song festival, carried by patriarchal national feeling, in the global cauldron of the 21st century. After all, there are many other unifying ideas in today's world. Consumer society offers plenty of means to achieve collective euphoria. Maybe the Estonian song festival is not preserved by UNESCO protection or the status of an "endangered species", but by the tensions of our contemporary world, the pain of adaptation, and perhaps the inevitably re-emerging image of a forbidden land? This explanation is not very diplomatic, but realistic enough, considering the Estonians' historical experience and national "reflexes".


Evi Arujärv (1953), music critic. Received the Theatre Association's annual critic's award in 2002.

ESTONIAN CULTURE 1/2004 (3) · ISSN 1406-8478