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Eurofile music: The Choral Nation of Estonia

"To Breathe as One" festival in Tallinn reunits tens of thousands of Estonians that sing in huge choirs over the weekend as the Baltic nations host traditional song and dance festivals. (Photo: RAIGO PAJULA/AFP/Getty Images) - Credit: AFP/Getty Images

In the past, Estoniabs have literally sung for their freedom. And their capital city remains the crucible of this national pastime. SOPHIA DEBOICK reports.

Estonia presents a forbidding face to the world. The most northerly of the Baltic states, it is a country half covered by forests, fringed with windswept islands and islets. There is snow on the ground for four months of the year. The capital, Tallinn, is a knot of medieval turrets and fortifications, more Brothers Grimm-sinister than Disney-cute, studded with austere Communist-era architecture.

But this image conceals a forward-thinking, technologically advanced nation with thriving cultural industries, a passion for arts education and a tradition of liberal values (the first Estonian constitution of 1920 was one of the most advanced in the world).

Estonia’s history is a familiar one in the East – centuries of dominance by foreign empires (the Germans, Swedes and Russians), a 19th century patriotic cultural renaissance, and post-First World War independence followed by Soviet domination for half a century. It’s a history that has made for a strong sense of self, as successive oppressors have tried to snuff out the native culture and language, and for this tiny country of just 1.3 million people music has been vital to the preservation of Estonian identity during repeated struggles for self-determination.

Singing and song was at the heart of Estonia’s 19th century ‘national awakening’, with the first national Song Celebration (Laulupidu), held in Tartu in 1869, a key moment. It is an event still held every five years when, in a riot of national costume, 100,000 spectators and as many as 40,000 performers take part in a festival of choral singing.

Launched by publisher Johann Voldemar Jannsen, the exclusively Estonian-language programme of that first Laulupidu defied Russification, and Jannsen’s poem, set to music by composer Fredrik Pacius, Mu isamaa, mu õnn ja rõõm (My Fatherland, My Happiness and Joy), was presented for the first time.

It would later become the anthem of independent Estonia between the wars. Two poems by Jannsen’s daughter, poet, playwright and national hero, the remarkable Lydia Koidula, were also presented – Sind surmani (Till Death) and Mu isamaa on minu arm (My Country is My Love) – their settings by founding father of Estonian choral music, Aleksander Kunileid, and these would also become canonical national songs. By the time the Song Celebration moved to Tallinn in 1880, choral singing was fast becoming the principal bastion of Estonian language and culture.

The Song Celebration remained culturally vital into the 20th century. Mihkel Lüdig, founder of the Tallinn Conservatoire, was director of the 1910 festival, where he debuted his composition Koit (Dawn), which would become the traditional opening of the event. The establishment of a permanent home for Laulupidu, the Song Festival Grounds, in a natural amphitheatre in the Pirita seaside suburb of Tallinn came in 1928.

War would bring Gustav Ernesaks, the alumnus of both a Tallinn teenage jazz band and the city’s Conservatoire, to prominence in the history of the festival. He conducted there for the first time in 1938, but by 1944 he had been mobilised in Russia, where he wrote new music for Koidula’s Mu isamaa on minu arm.

Debuting at the 1947 Celebration, apparently over the heads of the Soviet censors, it went on to become the unofficial anthem of Soviet-occupied Estonia, as well as the traditional closing of every Laulupidu.

In a contradiction typical of the Soviet Bloc, Ernesaks also wrote the Anthem of the Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic and won many Soviet arts prizes, but took the conductor’s podium without hesitation when the choirs began to spontaneously sing his by then banned Mu isamaa on minu arm at the 1960 Laulupidu. It was the first of a string of openly defiant acts at the Song Grounds.

The Song Festival Grounds were the centre of the ‘Singing Revolution’ of the summer of 1988. Music had already become a means of protest in the preceding months as another Tallinn Conservatoire graduate, composer Alo Mattiisen, released his Ei ole üksi ükski maa (No Land Is Alone), a We Are the World-style affair featuring a host of popular Estonian singers, and his Viis isamaalist laulu (Five Patriotic Songs), based on patriotic choral works, debuted at the Tartu Pop Music Days festival in May 1988.

But in June people began to flock to the Song Festival Grounds to protest peacefully and sing together, and it became the defining moment of Estonia’s bloodless revolution.

Communal singing would also be a key feature of the moving spectacle of the Baltic Way, the human chain from Tallinn to Vilnius staged in August 1989.

It was highly symbolic when the 1990 Song Celebration ended with Jannsen and Pacius’ banned national anthem. While independence followed the next year, the Song Celebration, which marked its 150th anniversary in 2019, remains depressingly relevant as Estonia once more faces Russian intimidation.

Estonian rock has a long pedigree and some of the best has come out of Tallinn. Its elder statesmen emerged in the 1970s and 1980s, from Urmas Alender, charismatic frontman of prog band Ruja and punk group Propeller – who died in the 1994 disaster when the ferry, Estonia, sank in the Baltic Sea – to Tõnis Mägi of essential Estonian rockers Ultima Thule.

Founded in 1986, anarchist punks J.M.K.E. have proved to have longevity, despite winning their initial fame through a television song contest with the highly topical Tere perestroika (Hello perestroika) and facing censure under the Soviet system. In 2000 their comeback album Õhtumaa viimased tunnid (The Last Hours of the Evening) was recorded at Tallinn City Hall, the brutalist edifice built for the sailing events of the 1980 Moscow Olympics.

In the 1990s Smilers, the Estonian Aerosmith, and the heavily Guns N’ Roses-inspired Terminaator ruled, their frontmen alumni of the same Tallinn secondary school. Former 1980s punks Vennaskond had a string of No.1s, becoming one of the most important bands in Estonian rock.

More recent additions to the landscape are the Crowded House-meets-Coldplay outfit Ewert and The Two Dragons – whose guitarist Erki Pärnoja, an alumni of the Georg Otsa Music School in Tallinn, produces rather more interestingly sparse solo work – as well as industrial metal from No-Big-Silence, and experimental industrial sounds from Forgotten Sunrise.

But Estonia loves its pop too, as the success of its foremost pop princess, the Lady Gaga-esque Kerli, from eastern Estonia, has proven. Eurovision and TV talent shows like Estonian Idol have provided a rich seam of pop talent, much of it hailing from Tallinn, such as female trio Vanilla Ninja, who represented Switzerland at Eurovision in 2005 and racked up five Estonian No.1s, as well as hits in Germany and Poland. But the Estonian pop landscape is a sophisticated one, and former Vanilla Ninja member Lenna Kuurmaa has enjoyed solo success across four increasingly ambitious albums.

Among her collaborators has been mõminaräppar (‘mumble rapper’) nublu, a mysterious figure from Kelia, 15 miles outside Tallinn, who self-started his career via SoundCloud in 2017 and broke records in November 2018 by occupying every chart position from one to six on the Estonian Top 10.

Less commercially successful but garnering plenty of attention is trap artist Tommy Cash, who grew up in isolated Kopli, a former Soviet army base in Tallinn’s far north. Leave Me Alone, from 2014, referenced this downtrodden locale (“Stuck in this dump when I should be in Miami”), and Cash has since used Aphex Twin-style surrealism and revulsion in his music videos to build notoriety internationally.

But it is in Tallinn’s folk and classical music that the most startling creativity is found. Tallinn-based trio Trad.Attack! meld archive recordings of Estonian folk singing and a range of contemporary styles to create pieces without rules that are both atmospheric and high energy, while Metsatöll (‘Werewolf’) powerfully blend metal and traditional folk.

The much-celebrated Arvo Pärt, yet another product of the Tallinn Conservatoire, is the most performed contemporary composer in the world, his ethereal, minimalist brilliance inspired by sacred music and the product of a compositional technique, tintinnabuli, entirely of his own creation. This spirit of creativity without boundaries is embodied in the annual Tallinn Music Week, launched in 2009, which hosts the edgiest of artists, the most ‘out there’ of ideas and puts technology high on the agenda (unsurprising since Estonia was a famously early adopter of the internet and is one of the most fully online countries in Europe).

In Estonian music the simultaneous embrace of tradition and fearless pushing of boundaries that defines the Estonian national character is writ large indeed.

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