In Tallinn

Tallinn Old Town

Tallinn Old Town

Just outside the walls of Tallinn’s medieval Old Town stands a high-rise hotel with a bleak, functional design. When it opened in 1972, it was Estonia’s first skyscraper and the largest hotel in the Baltics. The local joke, that the hotel was “made of micro-concrete, as in concrete and microphones,” was in fact no joke.  The top floor contained a radio center, not discovered until 1994, from which the KGB spied on hotel guests.

Hotel Viru (Photograph by J. Holford)

Hotel Viru (Photograph by J. Holford)

Now, so far as I know, the hotel is a benign, if unattractive, presence. For us, it was the landmark for finding the bus terminal beneath it, but then again, where you stand always depends on where you sit. If you look at the hotel’s website (which prominently displays a photograph of the KGB Museum housed within the hotel), you’ll learn that, “The construction of Hotel Viru set an example for the construction of the hotels Yalta, Võborskaja and others. That is how Hotel Viru became a legend in that era as it was the foothold of the free Western world in Estonia.”

59 Pikk/Pagari 1

59 Pikk/Pagari 1

The complicated history of Hotel Viru applies to many buildings in Tallinn’s Old Town, too. 59 Pikk Street, now luxury apartments with an address of Pagari 1, sports two plaques: one advertising its apartments in Estonian and English; the other, in Estonian only, stating, “This building housed the headquarters of the organ of repression of the Soviet occupational power. Here began the road to suffering for thousands of Estonians.”  Although the building has been beautifully renovated, the cellar windows remain bricked up, a remnant of the KGB’s effort to “mute the sounds from the interrogations and torturing in the basement.”

. . . “enemies of the state” were interrogated and tortured and then afterward executed or sent to the Soviet Gulag camps. A Soviet-era joke says that this was the tallest building in Estonia: even from the basement, you could see Siberia. [quotation source here]

That’s only one example, and it tracks only recent history. Tallinn’s Old Town, after all, has its roots in medieval times.

26 Pikk, House of the Brotherhood of Black Heads (17th C door)

26 Pikk, House of the Brotherhood of Black Heads (17th C door)

The House of the Brotherhood of Black Heads, for instance, dates from the 15th century. As I pondered the intricate carving above the door, I wondered what prompted these unmarried German merchants and ship owners (they weren’t eligible to join the more prestigious Great Guild until they married) to choose the North African St. Mauritius as their patron saint. No one really seems to know.

While I’ve seen the brothers described as hedonists, they did have standards, complete with penalties for their breach.

In Tallinn, for example, if one cursed a brother member, he had to pay a fine of 1 mark; the fine was 2 marks if he hit him on the face or the ear, and 3 marks if he hit him again. . . . Many of the fines had to be paid in wax which was a valuable commodity during the Middle Ages . . . A large fine – five pounds of wax – had to be paid by a brother who “grabbed another member by the hair or flung beer into his face.” [quotation source here]

It’s been said that Hitler invited Brotherhood members to return to Germany in the 1930s. The Soviets dissolved the Brotherhood when they first occupied Estonia in 1940.  And today? A claim has been made that “the front door is one of the most photographed doors in the world.”  I suspect that would be hard to substantiate, but it certainly was a popular tour stop while we were there.

Tour Group outside the House of the Brotherhood of Black Heads

Tour Group outside the House of the Brotherhood of Black Heads

In a gap between tour groups, a woman stood in front of the fabled door. I recall her as smoking, but whether or not, she had her back to it. A shouting match between her and another tourist ensued. While the language wasn’t one I recognized, the import was clear: “Move off, I’m trying to photograph the door.” Needless to say, I, too, took advantage of the door when she did finally move off.

Unbeknownst to us at the time, the building’s main hall today is used as a concert hall. I’m grateful to Anneli, who alerted me to a chamber concert there that I never would have spotted on my own. I’ve also since discovered that, in 2013, the hall was the site of an intriguing micro-opera/cantata premiere, the libretto for which was taken from an article by economist Paul Krugman and Estonian President Toomas Ilvas’s tweets in response. (More on this appears in the listening list below.)

Wisława Szymborska’s poem resonates powerfully in Tallinn: “Reality demands/that we also mention this:/Life goes on.”  It’s essential, when visiting Tallinn, to have mental agility sufficient to hold several opposing thoughts aloft at the same time. While I was determined to remain cognizant of past terrors, as I walked in Tallinn’s Old Town, luminous in the late-slanting summer light, or through its phenomenal art museum, Kumu, and the elegant Kadriorg Park, what I sensed above all was a potent combination of resilience and canny enterprise.

Leib Resto ja Aed (Leib Restaurant) (Photograph by J. Holford)

Leib Resto ja Aed (Leib Restaurant) (Photograph by J. Holford)

The evidence was everywhere: in the meticulous restoration of buildings, in the thoughtful and historically alert presentation of art, and even in the imaginative, elegantly presented (not to mention delicious) food, with special mention here for the magical Leib Resto ja Aed.

I was almost relieved to find bus and tram drivers who were surly—an oh-so-recognizable reminder of “the real.” At the same time, it was fine indeed to be made to feel so welcome and to be helped in every way possible to be at home. I hope that Tallinn is able to maintain the delicate balance required to remain as remarkable as it is now, without being overrun either by predatory foreign powers or visiting foreign throngs.

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Listening List

After the concert at the House of the Brotherhood of Black Heads

After the concert at the House of the Brotherhood of Black Heads

At the concert in The House of the Brotherhood of Black Heads, part of the Alion Baltic Music Festival in Tallinn, the excellent baritone Gustavo Ahualli and vivacious soprano Monique McDonald offered, among others, a fine selection of Verdi arias and duets. McDonald (a native New Yorker, as it turns out), closed her selections with a charming performance of George Gershwin’s Summertime. Pianists Elena Nesterenko and Ana Gligvashvili displayed virtuosic command of works by Chopin, Liszt, and a Liszt transcription of Wagner.

Intermixed among works from the canonic repertoire, the pianist Nicolas Horvath performed pieces by contemporary Estonian composers Jaan Rääts and René Eespere, both unknown to me. Rääts was present, and you can see Horvath shaking hands with him in the concert photograph above. Horvath is on a mission to introduce audiences to contemporary composers and has commissioned dozens of new works. In his website calendar listing, I was delighted to see that, among others, he’s performed pieces by John Luther Adams, Eve Beglarian, Kyle Gann, Terry Riley, and LaMonte Young.

On Spotify:

To hear Horvath’s recording of Liszt’s Christus, click here.

To hear works by René Eespere, click here. (Horvath performed the lovely Concentus at the concert I attended.)

To hear works by Jaan Rääts, click here.

On YouTube:

René Eespere, Respectus

Jaan Rääts, Kontsert kammerorkestrile op 16 (V Allegro)

To hear performances by pianists Nesterenko and Gligvashvili, click here and here.

Bonus Track

The House of the Brotherhood of Black Heads hosted a particularly intriguing world premiere as part of Estonian Music Days in 2013: the premier of Latvian-born composer Eugene Birman‘s Nostra CulpaNostra Culpa (Our Fault) had its genesis in an article written by economist Paul Krugman, to which Estonian President Toomas Ilvas responded with a string of tweets. Birman, an economist as well as composer, took up the challenge and composed what might be called a micro-opera or cantata. Articles about the opera appeared in several publications, including the Washington Post (the article includes Ilves’s tweets) and Mother Jones (the article includes the libretto). You can listen to the opera on SoundCloud here or watch it below. Estonian mezzo Iris Oja, singing the “roles” of Krugman and Ilvas, is stupendous.

Tallinn Old Town, Town Hall Square

Tallinn Old Town, Town Hall Square


Credits: The quotations are from the sources linked in the post. As always, unless otherwise indicated, the photographs on the blog are mine.

6 thoughts on “In Tallinn

  1. David N

    When I joined the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra and its then music director, subsequently ‘Estonian of the century’, Neeme Jarvi in 1990 (or was it 1991?), we were all put up in the Hotel Viru. Babushkas on every floor, very nosy, and one night there was some almighty hammering on my door. I put the bolt on and let it pass. The day before our arrival a group of Swedish diplomats had been badly beaten up on the way back to the hotel. And a very pretty blond Estonian youth called Anders attached himself to us, said he was a ‘humble plumber’ but if I were in St Petersburg he could come to meet me there (not easy for ordinary Estonians in those days). I chiefly remember his astonishment that Dame Edna Everage was really a man. He may have been genuine, certainly had a hunger for English grammars and dictionaries. Will never know…

    But Tallinn was beautiful then and was opening up in terms of artists (some pretty bad stuff in your selection, it has to be said). Clearly it’s a happier place now, though periodically threatened by big bully Russia (remember when the Estonian internet crashed after the removal of a Soviet statue?)

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      David: Well, that’s a treasure of a story! Now, as for the music, you know, in this case, as much as anything, it’s Horvath’s project and his infectious enthusiasm and dedication to it that I wanted most of all to applaud. Here’s a charming exchange between Horvath (who is French) and another person that resulted when he saw and shared this post (on Facebook):

      VA: Very positive blog! It’s wonderful when new music is mixed among other things in a travel article. It normalises it; makes it less scary. Good picture, too!

      Nicolas Horvath: yes this is exactly what i was thinking
      new music should not be scary as it is our music from our time, this is the ones that reflect us the best (even if time to time there are reflections that we would not like to see, like me most of the mornings front of my mirror)

  2. shoreacres

    I’m coming back to leave a more substantial comment, but I wanted you to know that, somehow, I kept getting a message that this page was no longer available. Now that I’ve refound it, I’m happy, because a couple of things had caught my attention. Now, we’ll see if this really posts and I’m not in some WordPress twilight zone.

  3. shoreacres

    I laughed out loud when I got to “libretto” and “Paul Krugman” in the same sentence! Then, I followed your links, read the twitter spat, and fell in immediate love with any president of any country who can tweet: “Chill. Just because my country’s policy runs against the Received Wisdom & I object doesn’t mean y’all gotta follow me.”

    I confess that the concept and the backstory was more appealing than the performance of “Nostra Culpa.” I can’t imagine how I missed the whole thing, but there’s gold in them thar hills, for sure, and I’m glad the composer (degrees in economics and music? how did that happen?) went about getting it done. I especially liked, “The Krugman-Ilves spat had left a lasting impression on Estonian pop culture.” All we have are the Kardashians and an assortment of celebs whose names I can’t remember.

    What I really appreciated was the link to “Reality Demands.” These lines particularly caught me:

    Not without its charms is this terrible world,
    not without its mornings
    worth our waking.

    Given the current state of the world (not worse than in the past, perhaps, but certainly no better), that’s quite an affirmation.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      shoreacres: Ah, so glad, glad, glad, you were able to get back here with this comment! I, too, wondered how on earth did I miss this spat, which was all over the press at the time, as I have since discovered. If you didn’t spot it already, while Ilves was born in Stockholm, he graduated from Columbia University and got a master’s in Psychology from the UPenn. I have to say, I’m more on the side of Krugman when it comes to the economic realities, but Krugman didn’t explain himself well in this case, and Ilves knew exactly how to talk back. I can only tip my hat. Beyond that, ah, yes, Szymborska’s Reality Demands is an extraordinary poem, and the lines you’ve chosen are remarkable, particularly given what SHE lived through herself. If you didn’t happen to see this, I had noted that I became aware of her, through this poem, from Friko, who, like Szymborska, understands all too well from lived experience what reality demands.

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