View of 26th Estonian Song Celebration from where I stood (lower right in hat and vest) (Photograph by J. Holford)

View of 26th Estonian Song Celebration from where I stood (lower right in hat and vest) (Photograph by J. Holford)

It must be somewhere, the original harmony . . .
—Juhan Liiv

When we first decided on a trip to Helsinki, we didn’t know that Tallinn, Estonia, was so nearby. Nor did we know, when we first arranged our schedule, that our arrival in Tallinn coincided with the last day of the 26th Estonian Song Celebration, a storied national event held once every five years. I was able to get two tickets, on the grass. Whether we could actually attend was open to doubt, but at least we’d have a chance.

My trajectory toward Estonia started in early 2012. A chance meeting with his mother, Merike, led me to Estonian-American composer Lembit Beecher and his brilliant documentary oratorio, And Then I Remember. This sensitive, beautiful work, with Beecher’s maternal grandmother recounting her memories of wartime Estonia at its heart, gave me my first window into a world about which I knew far too little.

Almost two years passed before I saw Merike again, at Estonian House in New York City, this time to hear Beecher’s subtly elegant string quartet, These Memories May Be True.  The string quartet’s last movement is based on a 19th century Estonian folk song, Meil aiaäärne tänavas (Our Childhood Village Lane). Merike told me, “Everyone in Estonia knows this song.” Her comment has stayed with me since—I can’t imagine any equivalent to it in the United States. Does anyone even sing Swanee River anymore?

A Song Celebration IMG_2400Buses going to the Song Celebration grounds were packed—and steamy. Trying to buy bus tickets was a fraught business. The person at the kiosk charged with selling them told us to get tickets on the bus. When we proffered our fares, the conductor, with a “you’ve-got-to-be-kidding” shake of his head, waved us in for free. We joined the throng, straphanging like the seasoned New Yorkers we are, and off we went. This, at least, felt familiar.

I’ve read that the Song Celebration included upwards of 25,000 singers and musicians and over 100,000 in the audience on the grounds. I believe it, and it seemed as if every single one of them was in attendance by the time we arrived (about an hour after the marathon final concert’s start). The vast field where most audience members sat was completely full.

Photograph by J. Holford

Photograph by J. Holford

We climbed higher and ever higher, yet we didn’t find an open space until we were at the very top of the field, where there was also welcome shade. Here, though, the singing, even of the huge combined choirs, became background music for picnicking families.

Though the picnickers certainly held their own charm, that was for another time, so I walked back down the field to stand and listen properly. So pointedly unlike the people on every side of me, I didn’t recognize any of the songs. Each announcement, in Estonian, was greeted with rousing cheers and applause. It all seemed to me precisely right. What I heard and saw was part of a profound, deeply felt, and very specific, musical tradition. I felt lucky to have had the chance to bear witness, however little I was able to grasp. As our friend A. said later, “Just listen with your heart.” A Song Celebration IMG_2429_edited-1Back at the hotel, we continued to watch the Song Celebration on television. Telling details emerged out of the mass: conductors pinging tuning forks to cue huge a cappella choirs, flutists holding their instruments aloft in a post-song cheer, intricate embroidery on hats and shirts, heads adorned with rings of flowers, and bouquets thrown among the performers to roars of delight.

Perhaps the most touching detail came the day after, as we entered Tallinn’s medieval Church of the Holy Spirit with the thought to view its fine carved wood interior. Singing floated back to us as we stepped inside the church. We walked forward to see a lone woman sitting before the altar as she sang a lovely song; a man, standing to one side, accompanied her with gentle harmony. They weren’t among the Song Celebration performers—though they surely could have been, given the beauty of their voices. They were from somewhere in Germany, and they’d come to Tallinn for the Song Celebration. They’d come just to be there, to listen with their hearts.

In the United States, we have, to our detriment, no shared tradition of such reverence for the arts. The Estonian Song Celebration exemplifies what we lack: a deep appreciation for our composers, conductors, musicians—and poets. Imagine this: at the end of the concert, the artists stood festooned with celebratory wreaths, and, if I’m not mistaken, the current artistic director of the Song Celebration, Hirvo Surva, was repeatedly tossed into the air. As if the Song Celebration were a soccer match—or baseball.

But it’s not. It’s Muusika.

Adamson-Eric, Song Festival (1947-61)

Adamson-Eric, Song Festival (1947-61)


Postscript: For a brief, informative history of the Song Celebration, click here. A significant recent period relating to the Song Celebration’s history has been documented in the film The Singing Revolution.

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Listening List

On YouTube: The July 6 Song Celebration concert may be found here. (Embedding is disabled, so it can’t be included directly in the post.) A complete English-language schedule of the Song Celebration may be found here.

Some favorite moments from the Song Celebration on July 6, 2014, may be found at the YouTube link above at the times indicated below.

YOUNG CHILDREN’S CHOIR (198 choirs, 7,428 singers)

52:30 Lauldes (Singing) (Pärt Uusberg (1986)/Andres Ehin (1940-2011), Ly Seppel (1943); Conductor, Annelii Traks; New Song)

I love this. The conductor (Annelii Traks) has to be, among other things, a teacher who takes absolute delight in her work. At the end of the piece, to calls from the choirs for “autor,” Uusberg and Seppel joined Traks at the podium, where Traks and Uusberg tossed flowers to the children amid squeals of delight.

57:44 Lambud on Kandunud (Lambs Are Gone) (Riine Pajusaar (1971); Symphony orchestra accompaniment, Rasmus Puur; Conductor Anne Kann; New arrangement for the Song Celebration)

Another delight, this time with orchestral accompaniment.

CHILDREN’S CHOIR (161 choirs, 5,390 singers)

1:30:55 Meie Kiisul Kriimud Silmad (Three Tunes from the Grandparents’ Chest of Tunes: “„Pussycat On a Tree Stump“, „Rock and Paddle, Ye Ship“, „Crow, That Meek and Humble Bird“) (Veljo Tormis (1930), Folklore, Karl Eduard Sööt, Martin Körber; Violin soloist Maarja Nuut; Conductor Elo Üleoja)

As occurred throughout the concert, the “autor,” in this case the venerable composer Veljo Tormis, came to the podium at the end of the song (at about 1:37:50).

1:47:47 Kus Meid Ammu Oodatakse (Where We Are Long Awaited) (Tõnis Kõrvits (1944)/Folklore; Dance arrangement Toomas Voll; Conductor Toomas Voll; New Song)

The “dance arrangement” here (by Conductor Voll) added yet another layer of charm to the general proceedings, and you’ll see that the piece got a reprise, too.

MIXED CHOIR (328 choirs, 10,551 singers)

4:48:10 Pulmaliste Saabumine. Vadja Pulmalaulud II Osa (The Arrival of Wedding Guests, From the cycle Votic Wedding Songs (Veljo Tormis (1930)/Folklore, arranged by Tõnu Seilenthal and Elna Adler; Conductor Triin Koch)

Veljo Tormis again came to the podium to rousing cheers and applause.

4:53:06 Taandujad (The Retreaters) (Erkki-Sven Tüür (1959)/Peep Ilmet (1948); Conductor Heli Jürgenson; New Song)

I thought Conductor Heli Jürgenson’s response to the performance of this piece particularly moving. You will see the composer, Erkki-Sven Tüür, and poet, Peep Ilmet, come to the podium at the end of the song. On looking into the piece further, I discovered that it sets the text of a stunning poem the title of which is translated variously as The Retreaters or In Retreat, by Peep Ilmet. The poem begins:

We retreat and retreat for thousands of winters
The end to retreating comes only in dreams.
We never reduced our forests to splinters
We left water clean in the lakes and in streams.

The full poem in English translation may be found here. There was some controversy about whether the song should be included in the Song Celebration. (“A diplomat, Margus Laidre, wrote an opinion in Postimees . . . in which he said Estonia should not be gloomy and fatalistic in light of geopolitical threats.”) Fortunately for us, Laidre’s view did not prevail.

For music by Erkki-Sven Tüür on Spotify, click here.

4:59:13 Muusika (Music) (Pärt Uusberg (1986)/Juhan Liiv (1864-1913); Conductor Kaspar Mänd)

A beautiful paean to music, setting the text of the poem Muusika by Juhan Liiv. The poem begins, “It must be somewhere, the original harmony,/somewhere in great nature, hidden.” The full text of the poem in English translation may be found here. (In an affecting gesture, Pärt Uusberg, the composer, came to the podium and reprised the piece as conductor—unfortunately the video skips toward the close, but if you watch on, you’ll see the clearly beloved conductor Ants Üleoja, and a short clip of Arvo Pärt at 5:15.)

A performance of Muusika on Soundcloud:

The two songs that closed the Song Celebration may also be found at the YouTube link above at the times indicated below.

JOINT CHOIR (659 choirs, 21,250 singers)

5:42:42 Mu isamaa on minu arm (My Native Land, My Dearest Love) (Gustav Ernesaks (1908-1993)/Lydia Koidula (1843-1886); Conductor Hirvo Surva)

[In 1960, b]efore the concert, “Mu isamaa on minu arm” was removed from the programme. However, choirs started to sing it spontaneously and, after a moment’s hesitation, [Gustav] Ernesaks climbed up to the conductor’s stand and started to conduct. Since then, the song has been the most anticipated and the “compulsory” finale of the celebration. (1960 entry in the Song Celebration timeline here.)

Just before the performance, Conductor Eri Klas passed Song Celebration Artistic Director Hirvo Surva the conductor’s baton “once owned by Father of Estonian Choir Music Gustav Ernesaks—given to him by [Ernesaks] at [Klas’s] 70th birthday.

5:48:45 Koduma (Homeland) (Based on a composition by Frédéric Berat, Raimund Kull/Mihkel Veske; Conductor Jüri-Ruut Kangur)

At about 5:51:00 in the video, you’ll see conductors, composers, and poets sporting celebratory wreaths; at 5:53:00, you’ll see the President of Estonia and family members. (Conductor Neeme Järvi is, I think, visible at about 5:53:43.) Finally, at about 5:54:00, if I’m not mistaken, Hirvo Surva, the current artistic director of the Song Celebration, is repeatedly tossed into the air.


Credits: The quotations are from the sources linked in the post. The credits for the songs on the listening list were taken from the Song Celebration schedule and the Estonian song titles from the YouTube video of the concert. As always, unless otherwise indicated, the photographs on the blog are mine.

In Helsinki

Monument to Alexander II, Senate Square

Monument to Alexander II, Senate Square

A young woman strode forward, her cello strapped to her back, to join a gangly young man with a red thatch of hair. The gate personnel announced we would soon begin boarding for the flight to HelSINKi, and the young woman shook her head in contempt. She was Finnish, he was Latvian, and she spoke in English. “These Americans. They don’t even know how to say HELsinki.” The young man nodded with a world-weary air. Continue reading

Short Takes: Wethersfield Garden in Early June, with Debussy

15 IMG_1230_edited-1In all the years we’ve lived in the Hudson Valley, we’ve never managed to visit the much-recommended Wethersfield Garden. Its season is short, as are its visitors’ hours, and we seem to think of visiting only at times when it’s closed. Finally, the idea to go and the visitors’ hours matched, so off we went. It’s an elegant formal garden with expansive views. Continue reading