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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
René Eespere, Respectus
Jaan Rääts, Kontsert kammerorkestrile op 16 (V Allegro)
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 Culpa. Nostra 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
Credits: The quotations are from the sources linked in the post. As always, unless otherwise indicated, the photographs on the blog are mine.