Revolutions come in many forms: political, social and cultural, but rarely have they been musical – until Estonia raised its voice in song and demanded freedom. The Singing Revolution swept through the nation and neighbouring Latvia and Lithuania in the late 1980s, when the Soviet Union discovered its new liberalisation policies were not enough to keep the Baltic States happy. They wanted independence, and won it in harmonious unity.
As head of the Estonian Choral Conductors’ Association, 33-year-old Ingrid Mänd (née Roose) is acutely aware of the importance of singing to the nation. She travels the country speaking to conductors and to school heads, and is worried that Estonia might be allowing some of its cultural traditions to slip away in the face of modern-day demands.
“The world is changing and young people have so many other things to do today. It is more difficult to keep our traditions, yet we start using our voice in kindergarten, and most schools have choirs at all stages. You could say that everybody sings. It has been a good system that keeps people close to music.” Yet now she feels she needs to remind head teachers and politicians that culture plays a big part in difficult times. “And right now we have difficult times. It is culture that comforts us. We forget that we need it.”
Like the rest of the world, singing in Estonia was hit badly by the pandemic, yet in a sign of vigorous recovery, next June nearly 9,000 singers and brass players will gather in Tartu, European Capital of Culture, for a traditional song and dance celebration, one that Mänd considers to be crucial if the nation’s essential morale-booster and expression of solidarity is not to slide into decline.
“More and more we are consumed with individualism; everyone seems to want to be alone, working in their home offices, not necessarily co-working. Singing brings people together to share big emotions. Song celebrations in Estonia are crucial events that protect our language and culture. We are a small country belonging to NATO, but with only 1.2 million people we don’t have enough resources. We are super-small next to Russia. We need to have choral music; it is one of the biggest strengths we have.”
Mänd will play an important role at the song festival at Tartu, conducting 80 members of the Chœur de l’Orchestre de Paris in a work by major Estonian composer Veljo Tormis, entitled Forgotten Peoples, a work which sets several languages that have disappeared from Siberia, Finland, Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia and Hungary. Tormis travelled around these countries in the late 1970s, recording dying languages and folk tunes, before fashioning a monumental, unaccompanied six-section work.
It’s mesmeric, meditative music, with shifting harmonies that are particularly challenging for the singers. Its repeated patterns have an urgency and purpose that was quickly appreciated by the audience at the Paris Philharmonie, when Mänd and the choir first performed it in March this year. “French is a living language and at first it was difficult for the both the audience and the singers to appreciate that a language could simply disappear. In rehearsal, the singers worked really hard at the pronunciation and spent many hours learning the words, and I really admire them for that.”
The choir will repeat those three sections again at the Tartu festival, 14th–15th June, against a video projection showing traditional clothes, jewellery, dances and ceremonies. “These are working songs, washing songs, wedding songs, funeral songs. They sang them to keep the mood up; the weather was often bad and the work heavy.” She says small groups from those forgotten areas still come together, trying to keep their languages and traditions alive, even in Paris. “Some attended the concert and one old lady came dressed in her national costume. It was rather moving.”
Mänd says most people who sing in Estonia know Tormis’s music well. The fascination will be to hear French people sing in those languages. “The audience will know much more than they will!”
The Tartu Song and Dance Festival runs from 16th–22nd June 2024 and begins with the Dance Celebration entitled “At the Roots” (Juure juures), which involves more than 2,400 dancers, aged three to 70. Two seminars are held in advance, where teachers learn the steps to pass on to their own groups of dancers. Kristel Maruste, artistic director of the Dance Celebration says: “In the middle of spring, we hold an examination where all the groups demonstrate their performances, while also ensuring they wear the appropriate Estonian national clothing. We feature a mix of traditional and contemporary elements. While nearly half of the dances have been part of our tradition for more than 50 years, the other half are new creations that maintain a strong connection to our cultural roots.”
The song celebration “Happiness and joy” (Õnn ja rõõm), is likewise open to all age groups. Singers in six types of choirs will participate, alongside several brass bands. “Such a tradition has its origins in our first song festivals, which took place in 1869, also in Tartu,” says Küllike Joosing, artistic director of Song Celebration, who explains that choirs work on the repertoire throughout the year. “In the spring we meet in larger groups in preliminary rehearsals. It is assumed that our music teachers and conductors have done a good job in their collectives by the time of preliminary rehearsals.” The repertoire is made up of traditional a cappella choral music and larger items accompanied by the Vanemuine Theatre Orchestra of Tartu.
Ingrid Mänd’s campaign to keep singing alive and relevant in Estonia is already bearing fruit. The government has formed a choir, following the example of office choirs springing up in banks and other settings. One thing though is certain: there is political goodwill towards singing. “The president and prime minister are always at the song celebrations,” says Mänd. “It’s important for them.” Now, perhaps, more than ever.
Ingrid Mänd (Roose) conducts Veljo Tormis’ Forgotten Peoples 14th–15th June 2024. Tartu Song and Dance Festival runs from 16th–22nd June 2024.
This article was sponsored by the Estonian Business and Innovation Agency.
Photo © Mait Jüriado