All eyes are fixed on the conductor, perched high on what looks like an airline staircase within a gigantic soundshell, as his swinging baton brings the choir of 30,000 voices to a magnificent swell. This is Laulupidu, Estonia’s grand festival of song that represents the great coming together of Estonians from all over the world.
Beyond the mighty choir, is an audience of 153,000 people gathered at the Song Festival Grounds in the capital city, Tallinn, on July 5 and 6 to breathe fresh life into proud nationalistic songs that are precious to this ancient, resilient culture.
The Estonian language, folk songs and colourful folk costumes – called rahvariided, which are significantly different from every village and region within the small Baltic country of 1.3 million inhabitants – are the meagre threads that have sustained Estonian identity through more than 1600 years of oppressive rulers. They have been overrun and ruled by Germans (three times), Danes, Swedes, motley Viking hoards and, most bitterly, Russians, most recently from 1945 until the collapse of the USSR in 1991. Currently, Estonia is enjoying its longest ever period of independent rule (23 years) and they celebrate this most joyously in song.
Laulupidu, included in UNESCO’s List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2003, is a defining event, held every five years, that clearly symbolises Estonia’s struggles towards freedom. When the national anthem is sung – Mu Isamaa (My Father’s Land), a song banned under Russian rule – tears flow freely. Hands are gripped by strangers in the tightly packed festival audience and thrust to the sky. It is a mighty communion of people who truly do sing with one voice, tapping into a wellspring of emotion that is overwhelming.
The history of Laulupidu is steeped in emotion. It was maintained throughout the Russian occupation, but Russian authorities insisted that no Estonian songs could be included, only Russian songs. Estonians call this “the dark age”. Still, when the official program concluded and Russian officials left the stadium, the assembled choir remained on stage and defiantly sang their banned national anthem. Russian authorities retaliated by sending conductors to gulags as punishment for this disobedience, but it only made Estonians seethe with greater loathing.
When Mikhail Gorbachev’s declaration of glasnost signaled cracks within the USSR, Estonians sang protest songs during a pop concert in Tallinn’s Old Town in June 1988. Russian authorities abruptly ended the concert and dispersed the crowd, but they marched en masse to the vacant Song Festival Grounds, took to the stage and defiantly began singing banned nationalistic songs. Word spread and numbers swelled, leaving the Russians uncertain of how they could prevent a 20,000 mob from singing, and the singing continued through the night. Crowds returned the following night to renew the rebel chorus, and continued for five consecutive nights. It signaled the start of the Singing Revolution, a series of spontaneous protest gatherings based around singing that became a defiant symbol of Estonians willing to not have their nationality suppressed any longer. Without a shot being fired, it steered a path towards their independence in 1991.
Little wonder that Laulupidu – reviving those same songs of freedom and nationalistic pride – is so emotionally charged throughout its two-day program.
Some are cherished old folk songs; some are new compositions, none more poignant than Koit (it means the first glimpse of light before the new dawn), which many young Estonians would like as a new national anthem. This seems unlikely, as it discounts the deeper meaning attached to Mu Isamaa that sustained the community through the decades of oppression, and served as the essential lifeline to their heritage.
With Russia’s recent annexation of Crimea from Ukraine, these songs were delivered with especially fervent passion as a sea of Estonian flags waved across the Song Festival Grounds.
The union of such huge numbers at Laulupidu stands as a mighty artistic and logistical achievement, yet artistic director Hirvo Surva – a conductor and professor at the Estonian Academy of Music and Theatre – says humbly that his aim is simply to keep the tradition alive. It requires enormous effort, as Surva conducted 400 rehearsals throughout Estonia between January and June this year. All interested choirs have to submit recordings before being accepted, and while 1046 choirs were included, almost 10,000 singers did not pass the audition. Some startling inclusions came from unlikely corners of the world – a Taiwanese children’s choir, a San Franciscan Youth Choir – because Laulupidu now stands as one of the mightiest events in choral singing. A strong contingent of Australian Estonians was represented among the 1450 foreign participants.
Their involvement was part of the largest Laulupiudu yet staged, although organisers are tipping that the next event, in 2019 – the 27th Laulupidu since 1869 – will attract even more voices. This will be astounding, because the Laulupidu choir is already the mightiest, most magnificent musical instrument that has ever been forged. It conjures a sound that has brought down oppressors and outlasted tyrannical empires. It is an emotional, musical and cultural force to be marvelled at – once heard, never forgotten.
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