Songs of Freedom: Estonian Choir Song Tradition

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Estonia has the population of 1.3 million people About a quarter of Estonians is involved in the Song and Dance Celebration movement.

Estonia is the Land of Songs. It has given birth to prominent composers and conductors (such as Arvo Pärt, Tõnu Kaljuste, and Veljo Tormis, among others), and we are proud to share their talent with the world.

Before the first Nationwide Song Celebration Estonians used to refer to themselves as the country folk, whereas contemporary Estonians of the 21st century like to call themselves the singing nation, often making an extra reference to the song celebrations.

It is singing together that built us as a nation. It is singing together that helped us carry freedom in our hearts during the 50 years of Soviet occupation.

Throughout centuries, Estonian song celebrations have played an important role in Estonian national identity.

Song Celebrations are so much more than just a cultural phenomenon.

Even historians agree that throughout centuries, Estonian song celebrations have played a crucial role in the involvement of masses, therefore appearing as a powerful stimulant for social processes.

Today, the role of cultural and creative industries around the Song Celebrations is becoming increasingly important for local communities and the whole country.

The ideals of the Song Celebration are still alive and younger generations are discovering new ways to interpret the tradition.

Choral Singing and Politics: Repertoire of Song Celebrations

This article will focus on the role of song celebration tradition in socio-political processes through the history since 1869. Similar traditions were also born in Latvia and Lithuania, Estonia’s neighbors in the south. Singing was in the beginning of 20th century complemented by folk dance.

During Soviet occupation period the tradition played a crucial role in the resistance movement and the consolidation of the nation.

Shortly before the restitution of independence of the Republic of Estonia, the song celebration became a crucial influencer of the course of history. In the memory of our people, Estonia’s top event of the past decades – the regaining of independence – is closely related to the Singing Revolution.


The tradition of Estonia’s song celebrations has continued uninterrupted for over 140 years and all those milestones have become part of our self-identity. Estonian Song Celebration Tradition is a cultural civic movement with long history that stemmed from the movement of fellowships.

The 1860s marked the beginning of a period of National Awakening.

For the first time, Estonian choirs came together in Tartu in 1869.

The Song Celebrations have taken place regardless of the political situation. Estonia was ruled by Russian tsar these times. And it wasn’t easy to get the permission from the Russian tsar to organize this kind of common singing Even more so since there were approximately 800 singers, 51 choirs and brass bands in the country.

Then the organizers decided to dedicate the idea of this celebration to the tsar – celebration of the 50th anniversary of release from bondage. 

However, the idea of song celebrations was not new. There were 1857 Baltic German song festival in Riga. In 1858, the initiator of Estonian song celebrations Johann Voldemar Jannsen underlined the example of Switzerland: “They sang in Zurich with vigor, making the walls shake!”

Gender equality was in place since 1891 when women choirs and mixed choirs first participated in song festivals.

The term “singing nation” expresses well the Estonian identity that has united the nation in its struggle for national independence before 1918 and during the period of the Soviet Occupation (1941-1991). Oddly enough the song celebration tradition never ceased to exist during occupations.

Research into the history of the Song Festival movement through 140 years proves that Song Festivals and their repertoire serve the governing regime in one way or another. The leaders of the Song Festival movement had to steer between the rocks in order to be able to organize the events.

The dominant message of the Song Festivals before and after the Soviet period has been praising the homeland.

It was 1910 when the programme finally consisted only of Estonian original compositions.

Between 1923 and 1938 there were four song celebrations in the first sovereignty period of Estonia at the beginning of the 20th century.

There was a strong emotional reaction to the compulsory praising of foreign authorities, their symbols, and personality cults during the hegemony of the tsars in the 19th century or the Communist Party. During the Soviet occupation song tradition was part of resistance.

The first celebration under the Soviet rule took place in 1947. Back in those days music culture was inseparable from politics. Over the years, song celebrations had to be held – at least officially – to the glory of foreign rulers, choirs had to perform “Soviet repertoire” about be the Lenin or Stalin, or so-called “beloved big homeland”.

But after performing the ‘compulsory’ songs, people always sung what came straight from their heart, beloved Estonian songs.

Any choir was able to exist only in this manner, by including ideologically prescribed compositions in their repertoire.

During Soviet occupation and regardless of the communist rhetoric, there was no doubt in people’s mind that singing together was something essentially Estonian. Calling the festival “national in form and socialist in content” made it acceptable to the authorities. Singers in national costumes performed a repertoire approved by the communist party, apparently glorifying “the fraternal family of the Soviet peoples” and “great communist leaders and teachers”.

On the surface, communist propaganda seemed to be the winner – red banners and communist slogans were showing everywhere. However, the Estonians managed to score points even here – sometimes people could conceal our national colors or ridicule the Soviet propaganda on the song celebration placards.

In the selection of repertoire, on the other hand, the leaders of the song celebration tradition were victorious and able to minimize the losses. Formally, the song celebrations were subjected to Soviet ideology, producing, however, the so-called radish-effect: red on the surface, white inside. Concealed messages were more powerful than the open ones.

This encouraged double-thinking and people wholeheartedly welcomed hidden messages. Passive resistance was also found in messages concealed in visual arts, be it in the well-hidden blue-black-white color combinations (equally resented and feared by the Soviet authorities) or the use of dissonance and grotesque in the compositions formally praising the Soviet regime.

National music culture was suppressed in the most violent way in the 1950s. The programme of the All-Estonian Song Festival that took place in 1950 included the most works with an ideological and political leaning, created especially for the event. These works were externally forceful, praising bolshevism and Party leader while being musically weak.

Moreover, at that time, many talented musicians were in prison,. The 1950 Song Festival became a tragic parody of the earlier events.

The time had forced people into an extreme situation. Behavior had to be corrected and words checked at every turn. Moscow’s wishes had to be fulfilled and often even the most obedient following of orders did not save one from political persecution. But the Song Festivals took place and even if the songs were not full of joy the Festival probably still brought some hope and reparation to the wounded soul of the people in between the deportations and the arrests.

During the soviet time the song My Fatherland is my Love (1944) became a sort of heart anthem, where each word had acquired a special meaning.

From the aspect of intellectual resistance, the three most powerful examples of song celebrations date back to 1947, 1969, and 1980, when more than half of the programme was made up of original Estonian compositions despite of some communist orientation.

It was a time of harsh dilemma for creative intellectuals under foreign power. They were faced with a question: how can we judge intellectuals who wrote the so-called red music?

The survival instinct, which took hold of many creative figures, was a counter-reaction to direct and unmediated intellectual repressions that found expression in all cultural fields: in folk art as well as fine arts.

The relations between the Estonian song celebrations and the Soviet power were difficult and contradictory. The leaders of the song celebration movement had to make compromises in order to sustain the tradition, and pay the so-called “state-tax”, consisting of the involvement of the mandatory elements of communist propaganda in the programme and in the emblems of the events.

The analysis of the repertoire of the song celebrations clearly shows the tradition as a form of concealed resistance movement and confirms that it was possible to fight Soviet propaganda and the cultural policy serving it. Intellectual dominance and professionalism played a substantial role.

Song celebrations encouraged people to stand up and consolidated cultural identity despite of the foreign oppression. They served as a prelude to our Singing Revolution and restitution of independence.

The “Singing Revolution” began in 1988, based on the Song Celebration tradition, when hundreds of thousands of people gathered in the Song Festival Grounds to make political demands and sing patriotic songs.

Without this century-long tradition there would have been no singing revolution that helped Estonia regain its independence. Huge masses of people, who expressed their will by singing, confused even the most dedicated military men.

Yet, knowing the revolution theory is not enough to understand this phenomenon.

It is essential to have a deeper understanding of singing, the song celebrations movement, and the Estonian choral tradition in general.

A choir, made up of thousands of amateur singers, is a powerful instrument, and only the singers’ dedication and hard work make it possible to improvize under the conductor’s baton.

Later, during new independant time since 1991 a certain crisis and a need for new ideas have been noted during periods of independence because this is when we have no enemy to unite the nation in resistance.

The Estonians often found themselves in a situation where they had to be either for or against something.

Now that we no longer need to be against something, the resistant mood of the song celebrations has disappeared.

The future of the song celebrations is seen differently: some would like to turn them into choir festivals, others want them to become performances of a variety of compositions. 

Today, the Estonian, Latvian, and Lithuanian nationwide festivals, officially called Song and Dance Celebrations, have been included in the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

Laine Randjarv
Academy of Liberalism