Cover story Misc

Estonia’s soul singers

{mosimage}For a small country, it has a big voice – many thousands of them. While most nations measure their international prestige in sporting or economic terms, Estonia prides itself on its singing. 



he 25th Song Celebration (Laulupidu), titled “To breathe as one”, was held at Lauluväljak (Tallinn Song Festival Grounds) on 2-5 July and its importance to the Estonian psyche cannot be exaggerated. The last in 2004 attracted a crowd of over 200,000 plus 35,000 choral singers and 2,000 musicians raising their voices  in traditional and modern song. 

Fittingly, a statue of Gustav Ernesaks (1908-1993), 'the Father of the Festival', has looked down over the vast field since 2004 to the huge arched roof  under which the choirs perform. He was the event's head organiser and chief choirmaster for nearly 50 years as well as being a noted composer who put to music Mu isamaa on minu arm (My country is my love) the poem by Estonia’s pre-eminent female poet Lydia Koidula. 

“This song is very important for all Estonians, it’s the symbol of our freedom,” says Margot Holts, Lauluväljak’s Marketing Director. 

2009 marked the festival’s 140th anniversary and it has mushroomed in significance and size from its origins in the city of Tarttu, where a small  museum traces its history. Naturally, during Estonia's Russian and Soviet periods, it acted as a siren for the Estonian soul. So why was it allowed when Estonia was part of the Soviet Union from 1944 to1991? (The current TSFG was even built in 1959 although the then radical design was by Estonian architects Kotli and Sepmann

Blissful Ignorance

{mosimage}"The powers in  Moscow saw it as a cultural event only. They were so far removed that they didn’t realize it was so totemic for us,” explains Mall Oja of Tallinn’s Tourist Bureau.   

During occupation, it was held with red flag flying, while the throng defiantly sang for freedom. Before independence came in 1991, the last Soviet event attended by 300,000 in 1988 was dubbed ‘The singing revolution’. This and the subsequent one in 1992 exhaled pride and joy which was breathed in deeply by the entire nation.

Plucked young, matured carefully

Since 1934, the festival has been combined with the Dance Celebration (at nearby Kalev Stadium) that has now had its 18th edition. Over 50,000 choir and 20,000 dancing applications (from abroad too) were received, which were whittled down – only the best will do.  

Estonian choristry skims off the cream from an early age – mirroring the process of the sports world. Choristers from village to city join a major choir as young as five years old. The gifted are trialled, selected and trained at such elite bodies as the Estonian National Opera Boys’ Choir. 

{mosimage}Under the professional tutelage of ENOBC's Artistic Director Hirvo Surva and others, they are trained in breathing, singing and timing. Estonian choirs have received applause and awards abroad from the Llangollen Choir Competition and Hungary’s Cantemus Choral Festival among others. Singers and dancers this year came from North America, the Nordics, UK, Ukraine, Hungary and Russia. 

A typical participant was Feliks Mägus, Chairman of the Nordic Hotel s group who joined a choir aged 7 and then sang until he graduated, literally, to the Tarttu men's choir Akadeemiline Emajõgi. As he puts it “The Song Festival has always been a place to enjoy singing and to feel that all Estonians are as one nation.”   

But the sound and atmosphere created by 100,000 voices is unforgettable in the ten or so songs that are performed together en masse. “Our programme always includes difficult pieces which require balance and careful rehearsal,” comments Surva. “And we always start with Koit and finish with Mu isamaa on mu arm for the older generation.” 

Held every four years like the Olympics and other great sporting occasions, this mean that those who take part have an indelible experience. Although not everyone who wishes can attend in person, the volume and atmosphere produced by the ensemble when singing together means that their voices carry far beyond the sound limits and into the hearts and souls of absentees too. 

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