Estonia's history of song and political resistance

6 Mar

Over 70% of the country's musical every take place in the capital, with festivals and concerts that range from hand bell music and bagpipe melodies to modern jazz and heavy metal. Tallinn also boasts stunning music venues like the Song Festival Grounds, seen here during the 2019 Estonian Song Festival. In 2021, Tallinn was named a UNESCO City of Music.

Estonia's unofficial national anthem, "Land of My Fathers, Land that I Love," sung by hundreds of thousands of people during the 1988 'Singing Revolution' in defiance of Soviet rule, is a cultural asset every Estonian values to this day.

Estonians have long used choral singing to celebrate and preserve their language and traditions under centuries of Danish, Swedish, German and Soviet occupation. It remains is a unifying force nowadays – not the least in integrating the large Russian-speaking minority that remained in Estonia after the end of Soviet rule and now makes up around a quarter of all 1.3 million people in Estonia.

Recently, Estonia's long-standing tradition of music gained recognition by UNESCO when its capital, Tallinn, was one of a dozen new cities selected to join the ranks of Auckland, Hanover, Kansas City, Varanasi and 47 other cities that make up the UNESCO Cities of Music Network.

The Cities of Music Network is part of the larger UNESCO Creative Cities Network (UCCN), which encompasses seven themes: crafts and folk arts, design, gastronomy, film, media arts, literature, and music.

From runic singing to jazz

Estonian folk music traditions can be traced back to the Middle Ages when Tallinn was a Hanseatic city through which musical influences from Germany and other parts of the world flowed. As early as 1680, the first opera, the German-language "Die beständige Argenia" was composed and staged in Estonia. The commonplace runic singing at the time remained widespread among Estonians until the 18th century.

In the early 18th century, Russia, under Peter the Great, conquered the Baltic  region, including Estonia. A period of many changes in the country's society followed, resulting, among others, in a growing national consciousness.    

While an Estonian identity was taking shape, theater and choir groups sprung up everywhere and the first song festival took place in 1869. Many songs composed around that time, such as the aforementioned "Land of My Fathers, Land that I Love," are still regularly on the program of today's festivals.

The second half of the 10th century also witnessed intense Russification, including introducing Russian as the primary language for schools, cultural institutions and the media. Estonia finally gained independence in 1918 and during its 21-year independence in the interwar period, jazz and other musical genres flourished in the country. Many new clubs and music venues opened and 1928 saw the premiere of the first Estonian-language opera.

Angst in the 'Soviet West'

After World War II, the majority of Tallinn's cultural ties with the West were severed and many members of the cultural elite escaped Soviet rule. Starting in the late 1970s, the small Estonian society grew increasingly concerned about another period of Russification, which led to many traditional songs being banned. "Losing our language and identity through occupation and assimilation is part of our existential angst," Toomas Hendrik Ilves, Estonia's President from 2006 to 2016, told DW. "This is why joint singing and choral music are of outstanding importance in Estonia."

Despite reprisals and a lack of artistic freedom, Tallinn was the only place behind the Iron Curtain where one could watch Finnish television and listen to radio from abroad. As a matter of fact, Tallinn was referred to as the 'Soviet West' ("sovestki zapad") in the 1970s and 1980s. People from all over the Soviet Union came to Tallinn to experience a western atmosphere and way of life as much as was possible in the communist country.

Former Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves adresses the crowd during the 26th Estonian Song Festival at the Tallinn Song Festival Grounds on July 5, 2014. Through allegorical expressions and hidden messages, such as turning the "Badger House" poem, an allegory about the occupation of Estonia, into a popular song in 1987, singing remained a potent symbol of nationhood for Estonians and preserved a level of togetherness throughout Soviet rule. Many singing events also took place in secret for fear of Soviet censors.

During this time, Tallinn also developed one of the most progressive rock scenes in the Soviet Union and Estonian rock became an important part of Estonia's cultural identity. Together with choral music, it played an important role as a genre in the famed Singing Revolution.

Estland Song Festival

The 27th song festival, entitled 'My Fatherland is My Love', took place on the Tallinn Song Festival Grounds in 2019. Around 35,000 singers participated in the celebration. Spurred by Glasnost and Perestroika, the Singing Revolution from 1987 to 1991 culminated in Estonia regaining its independence after half a century of occupation.

"Music played the most important role in bringing people together," Lennart Sundja, head of culture at Tallinn's Culture and Sports department, told DW. Sundja was a teenager when he attended one of the spontaneous mass singing demonstrations on the Song Festival Grounds in Tallinn in June 1988. That summer alone, 300,000 defiant Estonians peacefully demonstrated unity and their will to independence from the Soviet Union.

"This feeling of being surrounded by over 100,000 people and hearing those forbidden songs again for the first time – it was fantastic," Sundja said. Among the banned music sung back to life was the 1923 song, "Estonian Flag." But people also chanted new songs inspired by the zeitgeist, such as the 'Five Patriotic Songs' written in 1988 by Estonian musician and composer Alo Mattiisen, including "I am Estonian and I will remain Estonian."

In the Estonian capital, Tallinn, on August 23, 1989 — the 50th anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact between Germany and the Soviet Union that ultimately saw the Baltic states fall under the auspices of the USSR — almost 2 million people formed a human chain. It stretched across the Soviet Republics of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Nations annexed by the USSR were now demanding freedom.

Estonia's unifying force

Today, Maarja Nuut is perhaps the best example of an artist embodying the diversity and scope of Estonian music. The 35-year-old singer, violinist, electronic artist and composer is a trained classical musician with a background in folk music.

She's also been one of Estonia's most successful musical exports over the past decade. "The strength of Estonian music culture is its diversity and its many subcultures and communities that all do their stuff with great passion," Nuut told DW. "As a young country, we're still kind of searching for our identity, which can lead to unexpected and mind-expanding results."

But the ongoing pandemic has taken its toll. "The music community still feels tired and lost because of the pandemic," Nuut told DW. "We haven’t had enough support from the government. Many artists, especially small venues, are still struggling."

She hopes the €300,000 ($338,770) the city of Tallinn said it will spend annually on various City of Music initiatives — including improving accessibility to music and conditions for classical music as well as artist exchanges between Cities of Music — will provide a much-needed boost for Estonian artists after two years of the pandemic.

Author Benjamin Bathke    

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