The role of songs in retaining Estonian national identity
“What country is this? There are no mountains, just endless forests and swamps. But the people here are full of magic power, and their songs are mysterious…” (Volkonski)
Estonian people have inhabited the same land for about 11,000 years. Ancient Estonians were nature-worshipping people and there are remnants of this today.
Christianity plays a lesser role in our cultural performances. Instead of crossing our hearts, we spit three times over our left shoulder; and you should not be in the sauna at midnight, because then the Old Devil might come and take you to be his wife. Estonians are stereotypically seen as serious people – they will not take their time to look up and smile at you on the street, they don’t speak of trivial things, nor ask you how you are without meaning it. An Estonian’s favourite food is another Estonian. But not during ‘The Song Festival’ or Independence Day. Our land and our language unite us despite the rough road we have travelled.
Approximately two millennia ago a type of Estonian folk music called regilaul came to being. These songs were passed on from mouth-to-mouth, generation-to-generation; they are the only source of insight we have into the lives of ancient Estonians. Before the crusaders arrived in Estonia in 1208 A.D., Estonians were similar to Vikings. After the crusades, Estonia was dragged from occupation to occupation (Germans, Danes, Poles, Swedes, Russians…).
“When the stranger rests, the local works. What country is this? Are the people here destined to be slaves?” (Volkonski)
Throughout the occupations Estonians remained of lower classes, calling themselves the ‘country folk’. Our language remained, but was considered the tongue of peasants, and songs continued to accompany daily routines. The invasions inevitably influenced national music culture, bringing along Gregorian chant and Lutheran choral.
But after being considered lower class throughout the centuries, Estonian culture finally began to flourish in the mid-19th century – what we call the Estonian National Awakening. This was the beginning of cultural and literal advancements, such as the introduction of Estonian national studies, journalism, and song and drama societies, which led to a grand choral movement. Although singing has always been part of Estonian society, the first all-Estonian Song Festival took place in 1869, and these festivals went on to become a source of unity and patriotism – writing an elegy for a utopian nation.
Before this period, Estonia had never existed as a nation in a contemporary sense, despite being a geographical location, culture and language. Poems such as Lydia Koidula’s “My Fatherland is My Love” were written without the experience of the nation as a political whole. But there was an underlying love of the native homeland like a deep-rooted tree.
So against all odds, after the War of Independence against Russia (imagine, a mouse against an elephant), the Republic of Estonia was proclaimed on 24th February, 1918 – almost a hundred years ago. Both the culture and economy prospered during the years of independence. The Song Festivals took place regularly, but the people were no longer singing about a utopian dream. Their sense of a national identity was now a solid reality, which music continued to nourish. But the joyful new status only lasted until the invasion of Soviet Union in 1939, as a result of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact between Stalin and Hitler.
“One Day, No Matter What, We Will Win” (Heinz Valk, 1988)
The Russification that followed was a genocide that sought to wipe out Estonian national identity, language and culture. Anyone associated with Estonian parties, military and culture was either: sent to slave camps in Siberia in animal trailers; murdered; or escaped. Estonia lost a fourth of its population.
The Song Festivals were not left untouched. Estonian Song Festivals were strongly established by this time and their dismissal would have resulted in catastrophic uproar, so the Soviet authorities forced foreign songs into the repertoire, such as the State Anthem of the Estonian SSR and the National Anthem of the Soviet Union. Simply put, they re-invented a national tradition to spread Soviet ideologies – theoretically a clever political move. During the 100th anniversary of the festival, in 1969, the Union unsuccessfully forbade Estonian songs. The people began singing without a lead and attempts to quiet the crowd failed, until finally, embarrassed, the Soviets had no choice but to invite the conductor on stage.
‘The Singing Revolution’ was the name given to the re-establishment process of Estonian independence that took place in 1980s. It was a strategically non-violent movement offering a democratic alternative. We fought with laughter and singing, not with blood and hate. People gathered in town squares and the song festival grounds to collectively sing for our lost fatherland, and hold speeches to encourage hope. Singing was a performance where thousands of people communicated the exact same message at the same time; it highlighted shared courage and faith. Many poems from the Awakening times of the mid-19th century (like “My Fatherland is My Love”) were converted into songs, reviving the sense of freedom. Besides singing, Estonians, along with Latvians and Lithuanians, formed the Baltic Chain of Freedom, a human chain of thousands of people holding hands throughout these three countries. Culture became an affront to power, facilitating change.
Over time, Estonians have turned music into a symbol of national identity and ideology. Concerts are a chance for us to gather together, breathe as one, and thank our country for being our home. Estonian politics is focused on actively preserving the culture, which is, in fact, one of the highest priorities of the Republic. Our songs speak of our land, our people and our nation, and not of political or religious values. They speak of our pain and our love for a homeland that, in the end, overpowers all conquerors.
“There is at least one Estonian in every port.” (Hemingway)
I attended an event for Estonian Independence Day in London to eat rye bread with sprat and boiled egg (an odd sounding national dish, but utterly delicious!). It is exciting to be in a room filled with Estonians, displaced, and out of character – dancing, singing, laughing. But wherever my physical location, I will carry the melodies of Estonian national identity in my heart. We are forever tied to Estonian history – it defines us.
If the Singing Revolution has caught your interest, then I suggest a brilliant documentary called The Singing Revolution (2006) by James, and Maureen Tusty.
Image from: http://www.parnumuuseum.ee/476
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