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 Anneli 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.

21 thoughts on “Muusika

  1. Mark Kerstetter

    “It must be somewhere” and you will find it, I have nor doubt! What a beautiful poem, and Uusberg’s music is even more beautiful. Unbelievable, that you were there. And that crowd! Amazing pictures.

    My first blog was on Live Journal (lots of Russians) and for a time I was friendly with a blogger from Estonia. I had to google it, had never heard of it (much to my shame). She was a translator by profession, a melancholy person. I had the impression Estonia was always cold, gray and lonely. But your photos tell a different story. And it would seem that Mr. Pärt is not such an anomaly, and part of a rich culture of choral music that’s well worth exploring.

    1. Jane and Lance Hattatt

      Hello Susan,

      What a truly amazing occasion this looks to have been and how wonderful for you to have managed to be part of it all. Just to have been present we can imagine to have been Incredibly moving.

      Increasingly we believe that the cultural heritage both past and present of Eastern Europe is incredibly rich. It embraces all the Arts and permeates every age group. That is so wonderful, we feel, and rather different from the British experience certainly these days.

      We have yet to visit Tallinn or, indeed, its close neighbour, Riga, but we very much wish to do so. Your post piques our interest still further.

    2. Susan Scheid Post author

      Mark: Isn’t that a wonderful poem? I’m so glad I was able to find an English translation, so I could know–and share–what was being sung. (Have yet to find it in the original Estonian!) Uusberg’s “Singing,” earlier in the program (I note the time stamp for finding it in the video), was also lovely. He has a real gift, judging from these two pieces, anyway, for choral work that really “sings” in a lovely, yet individual, voice. Your own “connection” to Estonia is interesting, too. Once you start to explore, as I suspect is true of so many things, the terrain gets richer and richer. So glad we were able to witness their festival of festivals first hand.

  2. Steve Schwartzman

    I can’t remember if I ever mentioned this to you, but a decade ago I was teaching in a private school in Austin. For some reason that I no longer recall, I mentioned Stephen Foster in a precalculus class and was astonished to find that not one student knew who he was. Later in the day, in my AP Calculus BC class, which had some very smart and literate kids in it, I recounted the incident from earlier, and was astonished squared (if I can inject some algebra) that even in that best of all classes not a single kid had heard of Stephen Foster. I told the class that the political equivalent would be if none of them had ever heard of Thomas Jefferson.

    The reason that Estonia sits across the Gulf of Finland from Finland is that if you go back far enough, the two peoples were one. The Estonian language is related to the Finnish language.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Steve: So there you have it, vis-a-vis Foster. Though perhaps it’s worth noting, as a counterpoint to my comment on this in the post, that Estonia keeps refreshing its song tradition–this year, the festival not only featured songs from each of the 25 past festivals (and a moment of silence as “wordless commemoration” of the period of occupations), but also several brand new and newly arranged songs. I was very struck to learn before our travels that the Finnish and Estonian languages are allied. (Needless to say, my former assumption, about Finnish being allied to the languages of its Scandinavian neighbors, was completely wrong.)

      1. Steve Schwartzman

        I think because Finland is often lumped into Scandinavia geographically, many Americans assume, as you did, that the Finnish language is akin to Norwegian, Danish, and Swedish. Finnish has borrowed some vocabulary from Swedish (like Joulu from Jul for ‘Christmas’ [compare English Yule]), but the two languages are quite different.

  3. David N

    Now THIS is something I envy you: how proud Lembit, for one, must be of you. It’s been my so far unfulfilled dream to attend one of these epics, specifically ever since I shared a flight from Helsinki to Savonlinna with a delightful retired teacher from Hobart who’d been to one in Latvia. The nearest I got was a fabulous day off for the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra musicians on their tour with my hero, Neeme Jarvi, to Tallinn. We were driven to a national park and treated to very moving folk rites by Estonians of all ages in national costume – a notch above the usual touristic experience, because the musicians exchanged notes and tried out each other’s instruments.

    The recent choralfest in Riga has perhaps rather obscured the very specific national treasures common to each of the Baltic states. Wonderful pics, too (who is J Holford, I wonder?)

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      David: I love your story of Gothenburg! PS re Neeme Jarvi, I don’t know if you saw this buried at the bottom of the post, but I am pretty sure I spotted him among the wreathed celebrants at the close of the video I posted (I have the time-stamp noted). He conducted both days of the festival, I think, though we were too late arriving to hear him, sad to say. As for Latvia/Riga, do you know, I met a woman at the Kremerata Baltica concert who was going to be conducting master classes there? We considered going, actually, but the pull toward Finland and Estonia won out. It’s a fascinating part of the world, isn’t it? (J. Holford is of course the Edu-Mate. I have and will borrow liberally from the photographs she took on this trip!)

      1. David N

        Playfulness clearly doesn’t work on the internet. Of course I knew who J Holford was!

        Now to bore you with my experience of the Hotel Viru…

  4. Brigitta “Britta” Huegel

    Dear Sue,
    so you plunged deep into the Estonian way of celebrating music – good that you managed to find a place to listen! And with a little shade – even in Berlin we are under the heatwave you experienced there. To enter a full bus in such temperature is an adventure on its own (enlarges the comfort zone quite a bit, by minimizing :) – but it was nice of the conductor to let you drive without a ticket. Enjoy your holidays!

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Britta: Indeed we did! The temperature was actually quite comfortable (aside from the bus). I think you had it worse in Berlin, from what you’ve reported out. But I try not to stand in the sun for long periods, so it was good to have the choice. The bus was most definitely part of the adventure. The buses were all packed, and we had to let three go by before we could even get on one. The conductor was probably acting more out necessity than anything else, but we’re grateful, as the kiosk let us down (they’re supposed to handle bus tickets and simply wouldn’t do it).

  5. friko

    I swear I left a comment before.
    And I was looking for the new post ‘In Tallinn’.

    Summat’s gorn wrong ‘ere.

    I can only repeat: you ain’t no tourists. To be in the midst of a large crowd of music lovers, in splendid weather, blending in, absorbing the sights, sounds, smells and spirit of the ‘natives’, and loving it, that’s travel! The sort that broadens the mind.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Friko: You weren’t wrong about the coming post–I’d prematurely published it, and it will go up soon. As for the travelers appellation, yes, I do hope we traveled in that spirit throughout. In the case of the Song Festival, our attendance gave us the initial, powerful glimpse, though we had little idea what was being presented at the time. That understanding grew from watching and re-watching the recording of the performance and reading the program schedule. I loved it when I realized I DID recognize some of the songs we’d heard, like Uusberg’s “Singing.”

  6. wanderer

    It’s been said already but yes, that’s the serendipitous discovery and excitement, especially when it is a peek into the indigenous which is otherwise reserved, that makes much of the travelling angst well worthwhile.

  7. Curt Barnes

    Thanks so much for all this, Susan. If any “luck” was involved in your attending Muusika, you certainly shared it with your readers! I’ll be coming back a few times to make use of all the notes (and a belated welcome home!).

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Curt: One interesting composer “find” for me was Erkki-Sven Tüür. Taandujad, the piece presented in the festival, while (to my ears) beautiful (and with a compelling back-story and text), is probably not characteristic of his work (it’s at 4:53:06 in the video). If you have time for any of this, there are a number of his works on Spotify, including two from the Architectonics series for chamber ensemble that you may (but are not required to!) find interesting. (Some of the series are also on YouTube. Here’s VI, with a brief, useful description of what he’s striving for in the composition:

  8. angela

    Well this is just an amazing thing to behold! I cannot imagine the beauty to ears and eyes this must be to experience in person – listening to your soundcloud link took me from frazzled state to a complete state of serenity. Bless the people of Estonia for still recognizing the power of the arts. Thank you for taking us along on your fun journey, Sue!

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      angela: How nice to “see” you, as always. I am so pleased Muusika worked its magic on you, as it has on me! If you have time and inclination, another Uusberg piece, Singing, brand new for the festival, is sung by the young children’s choir at 52:30 in the video. It’s adorable, and the conductor is a delight to watch. To shouts of “autor,” Uusberg and Seppel (the poet, I’ve just realized) comes to the podium after, to everyone’s delight. I’d love to find the text for Singing, but haven’t been able to.

      And indeed, yes, let’s bless the people of Estonia for recognizing–and demonstrating–the power of the arts!

  9. shoreacres

    As always, I’m last in line — always late in responding to your posts, because they’re so worthy of real attention.

    I enjoyed this immensely, as you can imagine. I’m glad you left the shade and the picnickers behind for a bit to immerse yourself a bit more deeply in the experience. The familiarity with the music you speak of reminds me a bit of concert-going here, when a musician begins a fan favorite and it takes only a few notes for it to be recognized and responded to.

    But on a different level, I had a thought when I read, “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.”

    On a very much smaller scale, I think the American traditions of shape-note singing, and the tradition of “singing and dinner on the grounds” captures some of the same dynamics of the Tallinn festival: deep familiarity with the music, emotional attachment to the tradition, a hunger for participation, a commitment to ensuring the continuation of the tradition. Sacred Harp singing is rooted in your part of the country, actually. It began to move south and west in the mid-1800s.

    Take a listen to the first audio clip on this page. I don’t know what you’ll think, but there’s a quality to it that seems to me very much akin to some of the Tallinn singing. I see there’s a singing in Houston in December of this year. I may put that on the schedule.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      shoreacres: Yes, no question, there are many examples of small-scale musical traditions throughout the US that capture the dynamics you articulate so well. (The Bean Blossom Bluegrass Festival is another that comes immediately to mind.) My response was to what might be a slightly different aspect: I just loved hearing those cries of “autor, autor” for yer actual, living and among us still, poets and composers. And what a sight it would be to see, say, John Adams (either one or both) or Marin Alsop bedecked in celebratory wreaths and tossed into the air by members of a huge, enthusiastic crowd.

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