Song and Dance Festival ignites deep sense of Estonian identity

XXVII Song Festival in Tallinn. July 2019.
XXVII Song Festival in Tallinn. July 2019. Source: Kõivik

The Estonian Song Festival has been around since the time of the national awakening, and even managed to survive the Soviet era. According to experts, what makes the Song Festival tradition so enduring is the sense of unity people take away from it. However, local authorities also need to take the lead to ensure the song and dance festival tradition continues for decades to come.

The Estonian Song Festival tradition dates back to the second half of the 19th century. Perhaps every Estonian who has attended a song or dance festival since then has felt a similar sense of pride in being Estonian.

Marge Allandi, a doctoral student in the department of cultural studies at Tallinn University, told Raadio 2 show "Piltlikult öeldes," that Estonians adopted the song festival tradition from the Baltic Germans, whose celebrations Johann Voldemar Jannsen (one of the leaders of Estonia's national awakening – ed.) had attended and become fascinated by. The first Estonian Song Festival was held in 1869, and because the emotions afterwards were so strong, it was decided that the celebrations would continue in future years. 

According to Allandi, the powerful feeling that accompanies Song and Dance Festivals is hard to explain to others. "Other nations can't say that such a large proportion of their people are able to come together. It's just not possible, but it is for a small nation. I think that if you have to explain to someone what the feeling is at a Song Festival, it's that sense of unity, of belonging to something," she said.

According Allandi, everyone has the need to belong somewhere, and the festival gives people that feeling.

"When political leaders say that we have to stick together, I don't think that those speeches really speak to people these days. But rituals like this, emotional activities like song festivals, are much more evocative and count for more," Allandi said.

The first Song Festival

The first Song Festival, held in 1869, was dedicated to the 50th anniversary of the abolition of serfdom in Livonia. The party was originally planned to be held in March, but it was soon realized that this would not be possible. "Traffic conditions at the time were quite bad and the roads were impassable. It was therefore decided to have the festival in the summer. And that's the way it has stayed, so we can't imagine it happening in fall or winter," said Marge Allandi.

Allandi says, that the Song Festival is both a symbol and a representation of who Estonians are. "Estonians used to sing about themselves as a nation, and this was also the case during the Singing Revolution. In a way, these things have merged, first singing as a nation and then singing for freedom. I think that freedom and unity are the greatest symbols of the Song Festival," she added.

There are a number of important symbols on display during the Song Festival, including national folk costumes. According to Allandi,  even though nowadays there are not as many occasions when it is considered appropriate to wear folk costumes, people still own them. "Folk costumes are also what show our differences, "she said.

One further symbol of is the Song Festival flame. "The lighting of the fire at the beginning of the Song Festival demonstrates how everything is going to be rekindled. There's a moment of illumination, and out of that light comes our celebration," Allandi explained.

The Song Festival itself has also become an important symbol in Estonian cultural memory. "There is even the question of what things are allowed to be done at the Song Festival Grounds. Is it permitted to organize a demolition derby there? There have been disputes about this. The Song Festival Grounds can be called a sacred place, even though we use this sacred place relatively rarely," Allandi said.

In later years, one of the symbols of the Song Festival became the singing arch (laulukaar), which was built in 1960. The stage was designed to hold 15,000 singers. The stage was designed by architects Alar Kotli and Henno Sepmann. It was constructed by Endel Paalmann and the acoustics were designed by Helmut Oruvee.

The singing arch (Laulukaar) at the Song Festival Grounds (Lauluväljak) in Tallinn. Source: Vladislava Snurnikova/ERR

According to Jüri Lavrentjev, professor of practice at Tallinn University of Technology (TalTech), the singing arch (laulukaar) at the Song Festival Grounds (Lauluväljak) has become something of beauty and performs several functions. "Of course, the main function of the singing arch is to reflect the singers' voices back toward the square, but it also protects them against the sea wind and the rain," he said.

Lavrentjev added however, that the singing arch in Tallinn could do a better job at reflecting the sound. "Some other people have suggested, that the arch does not fulfil its reflective function so well, but it really is a compromise between beauty and functionality," he said.

According to Lavrentjev, the arch is both aesthetically pleasing and a technically impressive achievement.  

In his view, the main problem, however, is that the arch is far away from the singers. This means that people sitting in the arena can hear the sound coming directly from the singers. However, some of the sound should first be reflected back from the arch, making it stronger overall.

At the same time, the reflected sound should not take too long to reach listeners, as this would cause echoes, in turn interfering with the overall experience. Nevertheless, Lavrentjev points out, the singing arch does reflect sound, only not quite as well as perhaps it could.

Party postponed

Originally scheduled for 2022, the XIII Youth Song and Dance Celebration was postponed by a year due to the coronavirus pandemic. The festival, "Holy is the Land" (Püha on maa) will therefore now take place in summer 2023. The general Estonian Song and Dance Festival had also originally been set for 2024, but will now be held in the summer of 2025.

Margus Toomla, head of the Song and Dance Festival Foundation, said that all things considered, postponing the events was the right decision in hindsight. "If we can still remember, it was not so long ago when you were only allowed to have two plus two people in a room. No songs or dances could be rehearsed in that way," he said.  So, in order to learn the repertoires, it was inevitable that there would be an extension of the rehearsal period.

The coronavirus pandemic has also had an impact on the number of festival participants. "Particularly on the dance side, we see that the numbers dropped unexpectedly due to the coronavirus, however, practically everyone who wanted to come, made it to the festival," he said.

However, Toomla says the quality of the dancing on display at the festival has not been adversely affected, and those who are taking part will not only dance well, but put their hearts into it too

The Dance Festival- Source: Anna Aurelia Minev/ERR

Margus Toomla was elected as head of the Song and Dance Festival Foundation in the fall of 2020. At that time, Merilin Piipuu, chair of the foundation's board of trustees, said at that a number of challenging tasks lay ahead. Finding ways to make the professions of conductor and dance director appealing to young people for instance. If this is not addressed, the Song and Dance Festival tradition may one day disappear altogether in some smaller regions, because there is no one there to help guide future generations of singers and dancers.

In Toomla's view, there is no quick fix. While there are plenty of young conductors and dance leaders for the Song and Dance Festival, there are far fewer in rural areas, he said. "There are certainly fewer in rural areas, and the average age of teachers is higher there. That is a concern. The song and dance movement relies heavily on our teachers. If we don't have the teachers, then we won't have singers and dancers," he said.

Toomla has repeatedly urged municipalities to consider the hiring of dance and choir leaders as part of their development plans. "We would also like to see dance lessons or choir rehearsals, not just being held during regular working hours or in the evenings after lessons, but that opportunities are found to include them in the curriculum," he said.

If municipalities don't think about this issue, at some point there may be no collectives left to take part in the Song and Dance Festivals. Toomla stressed that continuing the tradition has to start with the children. So, by bringing children to the Song and Dance Festival as part of a choir or dance group, the tradition can also be kept alive.

A young Estonian at the Song Festival. Autor/allikas: Aurelia Minev /ERR; Siim Lõvi /ERR

In parallel to this year's Youth Festival, preparations have alreeady begun for the next general Song and Dance Festival, which takes place in 2025. Registration to participate in the big event is set to open in September. "There's nothing we can do is get the adult groups together again. I know that the pandemic has dismantled and wiped out so many of them. Now we need to bring these groups back together quickly, get out our dancing shoes and music stands again in September and set our sights on the 2025 festival, because that's how we'll make the community grow," said Toomla.

The meaning of the ending

The meaning of the Song and Dance Festival is probably different for each and every person, whose experience of the festivities is unique. Every nation has a point of reference in its history, which it returns to from time to time, and is often the key to understanding it today.

Traditionally, the Song Festival comes to an end and the Song Festival flame is put out, to the tune of "Mu isamaa on minu arm" ("My Fatherland is My Love") by composer and conductor Gustav Ernesaks. The same song was also sung at the very first festival, though in a different key.

According to Marge Allandi, a PhD student at Tallinn University's Department of Cultural Studies, the first and last songs performed during the festival have particularly deep meanings. "Song festival concerts are quite long, and while they're going on, the sun can make you feel a little sluggish. It is often the last songs that people come to the party for. This was especially the case in Soviet times, to listen to their own beloved songs at the end," she said.

"Mu isamaa on minu arm" ("My Fatherland is My Love") was the truest song for Estonians during the Soviet era. According to Allandi, the song was a symbol of resistance at the time and has remained important to people to this day. Allandi explained, that although the Song Festival rituals have remained mostly the same over time, there have been some changes, particularly when it comes to the final few songs.

"Whereas 'Mu isamaa on minu arm' used to be the main song that was really, really keenly awaited, it has now been replaced by a very strong competitor: 'Ta lendab mesipuu poole,' which was first performed at the Youth Song Festival in 1994 and has been moving towards the finale. It is especially popular with young people. 'Mu isamaa on minu arm' remains a favorite with the older generation," however, said Allandi.


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Editor: Michael Cole

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