The Singing Nation
Years ago, Annette Krech’s mother told her a story. In Estonia, a tiny country in Northern Europe, people sang to attain their freedom. She told her how in the late 1980s, hundreds of thousands of Estonians took to the streets to spontaneously sing forbidden hymns, stirring a peaceful “Singing Revolution,” that helped end fifty years of Soviet occupation in their country.
A child of the Second World War forced to flee when the Soviet army invaded her home in East Prussia, she told her daughter how up until today, Estonians gather to sing in their capital Tallinn every five years. In early July 2019, Krech flew from Germany to join 150,000 Estonians to mark the 150th anniversary of a singing event that had shaped the country’s history.
Every five years since 1869, Estonians come together around a unique singing and dancing event called Laulupidu. The festival draws crowds bigger than soccer matches, because over the years it has helped safeguard what Estonians treasure the most—their identity, culture and language, which successive waves of occupation tried, but failed to extinguish.
Standing shoulder to shoulder on an open oyster-shaped stage bigger than a football field, 35,000 voices rose to sing Flying Towards the Beehive,an old and beloved Estonian song. Around Krech, the crowd began to sway along with the singers, people held hands, and the blue and black colors of the Estonian flag unfurled.
Feeling the unifying power of songs, she knew her mother had been right. “There are alternatives to hatred and violence,” she said. But as the 66-year-old teacher attempted to describe her emotions she explained, “I can’t put it into words, it is magic. Here there are tens of thousands of people, all singing for the same reason, for happiness, for joy.”
Born out of resistance to Russian cultural domination in the 19th century, singing helped Estonia win its independence twice—first in 1918 from the Russian empire and then again in 1991 from the Soviet Union. “In Estonia, Laulupidu expresses positive nationalism and it unites,” said Estonian President Kersti Kaljulaid, who also sang at Laulupidu this year. “It is something we cannot translate because we feel it. “There are 30,000 people singing, close to 100,000 watching and we are 1.3 million, and that gives an understanding of what it means to us,” she said.
From all of the country’s corners
The Laulupidu festival is a joyful demonstration of national pride and unity. This year, it kicked off with 1,020 choir groups and 700 dance groups parading for five kilometers from Tallinn’s old town to the festival grounds. Dressed in vivid embroidered costumes of their villages for this seven hour journey, they were cheered on as though they were national celebrities in the opening parade of the Olympic Games.
The crowd gathered from every corner of the country, such as the economically disadvantaged town of Sillamäe near the Russian border, to Tartu’s thriving university hub. Participants rehearse for years to be accepted to the competitive choral event. Though more than half of the participants were born after the Singing Revolution, they still relate to the lyrics’ meaning. “We’re small but we feel big,” said 16-year-old Taavi Koppel from a small town called Otepää.
Musicians as national heroes
In many countries, the limelight is reserved for soccer players and pop stars. In Estonia, the heroes are its composers, conductors, and lyricists who have helped the country to peacefully preserve its language, culture, and independence.
Those artists have shaped not only Estonia’s musical landscape but also the country’s history. When Flying Towards the Beehive was performed the crowd rose, erupting in a roaring applause. Conductor Vaike Uibopuu who was Laulupidu’s first female artistic director in 1985, remembers how tough it was to get Estonian songs to pass Soviet censorship.
But it was Pärt Uusberg, at 33 a rising star of Estonia’s composing scene, who was entrusted with writing, and directing, the finale for Laulupidu’s Sunday concert. Uusberg said this was both the chance of a lifetime and a tremendous responsibility. In Winds of Eternity, he intertwined lyrics from poets Kristjan Jaak Peterson and Juhan Liiv—two icons of the Estonian national awakening movement, with ancient Estonian folk tunes.
As the descending sun blazed over the Baltic Sea, Uusberg’s The Winds of Eternity’s melodious sounds mesmerized the crowd. “That many people starting the song off and stopping at the same time is miraculous,” said American singer Susan Cancio-Bello, from New Hampshire. Her choir was one of 25 foreign choirs participating in the event. Most came to Laulupidu as a result of personal friendships with Estonian musicians.
My fatherland is my love
The emotional highlight came in the final hour of Laulupidu, when tens of thousands of voices rose to Gustav Ernesaks’ Mu isamaa on minu arm (My Fatherland is My Love), inspired by the first poem said to be written in Estonian. Accompanied by the music of the country’s first national choral gathering, it stirred a yearning for freedom that led to Estonia’s independence in 1918.
Its conductor Olev Oja had led crowds, to sing the beloved anthem in defiance of Soviet authorities in the 1960’s. Now Estonia is free, but as the crowd began to sway and sing My Fatherland is My Love under his baton, Oja knew the power of singing in Estonia remained intact.
As darkness began to emerge, tens of thousands of mobile phones lit up, and the stars in the night sky gleamed, making the entire festival look like an illuminated sea. Pärt Uusberg, the young composer whose Winds of Eternity had electrified the crowd moments earlier, described Laulupidu as a holy moment that glorifies music and life. “We feel united not only as a nation, but also in the existential sense at Laulupidu,” he said. Uusberg wasn’t wrong.