Brief historical overview of Estonian Song Celebrations

The nationwide Song Celebration tradition began with the first Song Celebration in Tartu, June 18- 20, 1869. This was mostly due to the growing hobby of singing and wind-instrument playing in the first half of the 18th century (in Kanepi, Põlva, Laiuse, Torma, Põltsamaa and in other places of Estonia). Common singing days were held- choirs gathered to sing in Anseküla (1863), in Jõhvi (1865), in Uulu (1867) etc. In the 19th century, Estonia was a province of a Russian Empire where German upper class landlords ruled the Estonian lower class- the peasants.

Women from Saaremaa went to Song Celebration in a train wagon. Their journey lasted 1.5 days but they were all very happy.

1860 marks the beginning of the period of the National Awakening. A singing society led by Johann Voldemar Jannsen started and carried through the nationwide idea of Song Celebration. 51 male choirs and brass bands with 845 singers/musicians gathered in Tartu. Only two songs of Estonian origin were in the festival program at that time, “Mu isamaa on minu arm” and “Sind surmani”, music written by Aleksander Kunileid, lyrics by Lydia Koidula- but the greater meaning they obtained. The first Song Celebration was both a musical and political event, where the foundations to the further national awakening program were laid out. So it could be said that the Estonians’ sense of belonging and dreaming of a better future are closely connected from the beginning with the All- Estonian Song Celebrations. The term “the singing nation” expresses well the Estonians’ identity that has united the nation in their struggle for their national independence till 1918 and during the period of the Soviet Occupation (1941- 1991).

Aleksander Kunileid [22. XI 1845-27. VII 1875] - the man who wrote music for "Mu isamaa on minu arm" and "Sind Surmani". He was one of the founders of Estonian national choir music and singing.  Gustav Ernesaks - Estonian composer and a choir conductor. He played an integral role in the Singing Revolution and was one of the father figures of the Estonian Song Festival tradition.

During 1879- 1910 six Song Celebrations were held that played an important part in the nation’s cultural and economical awakening and growth. In the independent Estonian Republic the Song Celebrations were held in every five years (1923- 1938). After World War II, the Song Celebration tradition began again in 1947. Since 1950 General Song Celebration were held in every five years again. 1969 was an exception though when 100th anniversary of the Song Celebration was celebrated. The last XXIII Song Celebration was held in Tallinn, July 3-4, 1999.

The foreign authorities have tried to use the Song Celebrations in their own interests. During the reign of the Russian czar the Estonians were forced to hold Song Celebrations in order to thank the czar, and the Soviet regime always tied the Song Celebration to the “red holidays”. Foreign songs had to be sung in order to preserve the chance to sing Estonian songs. A good example is “Mu isamaa on minu arm”, music by Gustav Ernesaks, lyrics by Lydia Koidula, that during the occupation years became an unofficial anthem for the Estonians, and which, performed by joined choirs to the standing audience, ended every Song Celebration. The singers, musicians, conductors and composers with Gustav Ernesaks at the head, became, in a way, the “representatives” of the nation embodying Estonia’s best attempts.

In 1988, with the Song Celebration as a role model, began the so called “singing revolution” when hundreds of thousands of people gathered in the Tallinn Song Celebration Grounds to make political demands and sing patriarchal songs. Concerning the Song Celebrations there are two beliefs in the Estonian conscience. The first one says that in 1869 a nameless country folk sang themselves to a European nation and the other, the latter, confirms that Estonians sang themselves their independence. The I, II, IV and V Song Celebrations took place in Tartu, the rest in Tallinn. The present Song Celebration Grounds beheld the first festival (IX Song Celebration) in 1928, on a specially erected stage. The present stage was built in 1960, when the XV Song Celebration took place. The biggest joined choir that has ever sang on that stage was 24.500 people (during the Song Celebration Anniversary in 1969). The joined choir usually comprises of 18.000 people, the whole Song Celebration team of 25.000- 30.000 people.

As the tradition of the Song Celebration has developed, the types of different choirs have become more numerous and the number of participants- singers/musicians has grown as well. There are always more performers than actually fits the stage. Only the best choirs get the chance to perform at a Song Celebration.



1 Response to “Brief historical overview of Estonian Song Celebrations”

  1. 1 theunlikelystudent January 27, 2017 at 7:27 PM

    Now. More than even such a “Singing Revolution” is needed globally, to breathe as one, as the call goes.
    I am an American blogger. I am dedicated to strengthening ties of solidarity against the populist, and anti-true-American values, of Trump and his henchmen. Thank you for the inspiring story of how your country sang its way to “re-independence.” I am of the 1960’s “protest songs” era in the USA, when impromptu concerts, fests, and small gatherings accompanied the freedom movements and anti-war protests which brought down the engagement in the Vietnam war and eventually the downfall of the Nixon administration. All that said, we now face the continuing struggle, which is global now, for equality, justice and protecting the basic human rights of all. It begins in our own countries, but, if we sing the same song (literally and in political actions – such as the global solidarity behind the Woman’s March on Washington, we can again see hope for the oppressed and a global spirit of hope for generations to come. Again, thank you Estonia, for your bravery, for your singing and dancing traditions that were also keys to freedom from Soviet oppression.
    Feel free to follow and comment to my blogs at
    Dale Dieleman

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