30,164 singers attended Estonian Song and Dance Festival Celebration “The touch of Time. The Time of Touch” in 2014. In total, 1064 choirs, dance groups and brass bands were performing. The numbers are even more impressive considering that total population of Estonia is 1.4 million and the number of native Estonians reaches to 900,000 only. What is the phenomenon of mass singing and dancing, the aim of the giant celebration?
Let´s explain some historic facts first.
Despite the Enlightenment in Europe, Baltic German landlords still regarded Estonians as a lower race even in the middle of the 19th century. Having oppressed their peasants for hundreds of years, they applied feudal system and corvée labour in Estonia, also prohibiting any trends of Estonians (and Latvians) to achieve normal human rights, such as dignity or self-esteem. All concern to improve the situation was considered rebel and was punished in humiliating ways. However, serfdom had been abandoned in 1816 and 1819 by Tsar Alexander I, the defeater of Napoléon. In 1861, Tsar Alexander II banned corvée and provided peasants with the right to own real estate. Estonian life advanced rapidly, farms were purchased in line and life standard increased in many ways, also in education. Meanwhile, harsh censorship acted to keep the status quo.
One of the few legally approved ways to gather and share patriotic ideas was choral singing, supported by pastors, being an important part of Lutheran liturgy. So, singing and “playing” (on brass instruments) societies were established: brass band in Väägvere, South Estonia, in 1841. Vanemuine Society, named by ancient pagan Estonian god of poetry, was founded in Tartu and Estonia Society in Tallinn, both in 1865. In 1867, Johann Voldemar Jannsen, President of Vanemuine Society and editor of (that time the only one) Estonian weekly newspaper “The Courier”, proposed an idea to unite Estonians all over the country on giant song festival. It took two years until permission was granted by the authorities. Censor approved the songs six weeks before the festival, secretly expecting that peasants are not able to learn the complicated repertoire in such a brief period. Vice versa, 845 male singers and instrumentalists (women were not allowed to participate on “moral” reasons”) happily and proudly realized the great idea in Tartu in June 1869. Patriotic mind grew to incredible height. German commentators were shocked that Estonians were able to sing not only simple melodies but also Beethoven and Mozart on four voices. On the other hand, Estonians got aim that their native brethren share similar ideas to enhance patriotism, Estonian language and education.
To the end of the Tsarist period, the song festivals were main opportunity to keep Estonian ideals alive even under conditions of hard Russification. Estonian self-confidence evolved. Corner stone of Estonian theatre and concert building was laid during VII Festival in 1910. When authorities (this time Russian) ordered to have speeches in Russian only, people laid the brick in silence but played the banned “March of Castle of Borg” thereafter.
Having gained Independence in 1918, Estonia continued the most important manifestation of national pride. During Soviet occupation (1944—91), the Festival had its own meaning of secret resistance. The main conductor Gustav Ernesaks turned an icon.
Nowadays, the vast Celebration is national party-time, attracting the audience of more than 150,000 spectators in 2014. The 150-year anniversary will festively be held in 2019 under the name “My Love”. The name has been taken from a verse My Fatherland is my love of the famous poem by national icon poetess Lydia Koidula (1843—86), the beautiful daughter of the organiser of the first Song Festival.
Choirs, dancers, gymnasts and brass bands will walk in procession and sing along again on 4—7 July 2019. Welcome to the greatest party in Estonia!