The Role of Music in Estonian Culture: The Estonian Choir is A Force for Freedom & Unity
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Kaie Tanner is an Estonian choral conductor and manager. She holds the position of Secretary General in the Estonian Choral Association and since 2010 has conducted the children’s choir and preparatory choir in Children’s Music Studio of Estonian Radio. She is also chief conductor of the Children’s Choir of Estonian Church Music Union.
Expressing their national identity through song has been an Estonian tradition for as long as memory serves–-the Estonian Literature Museum contains more than 1.5 million pages of folk songs and there are continual competitions and festivals around the country. The country’s “choir culture” is flourishing, with music continuing to serve as the force that unites Estonians as they enter the third decade of their fledgling democracy.
I met with Kaie during a visit to Estonia on the occasion of its 20th anniversary of re-independence from the Soviet Union. In what became known as the “Singing Revolution,” residents of this Baltic state wielded a long-held cultural practice as a weapon of change, without a drop of blood spilled. Over the four years between 1987 and 1991, hundreds of thousands of Estonians gathered publicly in a series of spontaneous events to sing prohibited patriotic songs, risking their lives to proclaim their desire for independence, culminating in a choral event that close to one-third of the country’s citizens attended.
I hope you enjoy connecting with Kaie and Estonia’s choral culture through this conversation!
Meg: When did you first become interested in music?
Kaie: I think that as most kids, I liked performing and singing very much. The certificate I received when I finished kindergarten, where they write what is the best subject for this child, it was recorded that I liked to read poetry and perform and sing songs and so on. Also the school I attended was the normal gymnasium, but the class was specialized in music, so we had five lessons of music per week, and we had a very good school choir, and I also learned an instrument, I studied the recorder. We had very good ensemble and we went to competitions.
During gymnasium, my teachers recommended to me several times that I should learn to be a music teacher and choral conductor, and I always answered that it is something that I will never do. I never wanted to be teacher and I never wanted to be choral conductor. But still, I have a godmother who is a choral conductor, and she was an example, because she is very good conductor. It’s excellent job. It’s the best you can do, really. I have conducted very many choirs–youth choirs, children choirs, mixed choir, male choir, female choir, everything–but I have found that I like most working with children.
Meg: When you were encouraged to go into teaching and to become a conductor by your own teachers, why were you were resistant?
Kaie: I think probably it was something to do with teenage complexes. I didn’t want to be in front of the class. I didn’t want to stay in front of choir, with everyone looking at me–it was scary. I think that many teenagers have problems with self-confidence. I just grew out of that, and I found that it’s very interesting job.
I mainly worked in church music. I had children choirs in Kaarli Church, which you can see here, with two towers. I worked there for many years, but when I finished my studies at the Music Academy, I was invited to work in the Choral Association, as well as with some other choirs. Today, I work with Children’s Choir of Estonian Radio and Children’s Choir of Estonian Church Music Union, and I have also been conducting in the Youth Song Celebration this year.
Song Celebration is a big concert of 24,000 singers, which almost all Estonian (and also some foreign) choirs attend. We have adults’ song celebrations and youth song celebrations, both taking place in every 5 years.
Leading an Estonian Choir of 8,000 Kids at Estonian Youth Song Celebration
Meg: What is it like conducting at the Song Celebration?
Kaie: Of course it is really a wonderful experience. When I was first asked to go to a Song Celebration to conduct a young children’s choir, I said, ‘I can’t do this, because it is the biggest choir category in the song celebration after joint choir–like 8,000 kids!’ I thought that if I go to the conductor stand, I will just faint, I can’t do it. That was for the 2007 Youth Song Celebration–we had good team and they convinced me.
Meg: Have you done it now more than once?
Kaie: Yes, three times. In 2009, it was an Estonian Adult Song Celebration, and this year, it was Youth Song Celebration again. Of course, it’s kind of complicated, because it’s young children, and this year, it was 9,500 kids from 5 to 10 or 11 years of age. This is the first time they are in a song celebration, their first time on that stage, and they completely agog and looking at everything–except the conductor. But if they don’t look at you, they are not together, so you must be interesting. You must play rabbit, as we call it. You do whatever you can to make them sing together. It’s complicated, but of course, it’s a wonderful experience.
Meg: The idea of that many kids on a stage is just almost inconceivable. Could you talk a little bit about how it all works logistically? How are these kids chosen? Do you have any time to rehearse with them?
Kaie: It is a very big logistical system. We have organized the Song Celebration since 1869, so we have done it for 140 years. If you do something so long, it means that you are probably pretty good at it. I think it’s just a question of being used to it, because Song Celebration is the place where all Estonian choirs go. Everyone wants to go there. It’s not only children’s choir. It’s also mixed choirs, male choirs, female choirs… My God, just everyone goes to Song Celebration every fifth year. They come from all over Estonia.
In Estonia, about one-third of the population is Russian and usually some people ask that if the Song Celebration is a kind of nationalistic event, where are Russians during the song celebration. The answer is that they are here. They participate and they sing with repertory in Estonian. Of course it’s a problem that Russian choirs finish after school – Russians don’t continue to sing in choirs after school. I really don’t know why. Most of them don’t go in for choral singing, but they have good children’s choirs, boys’ choirs and girls’ choirs.
The repertory for the Song Celebrations is chosen like two years before, and we print songbooks which are distributed to all the choirs. All choirs register – actually, they apply to participate in the Song Celebration. We have special seminars for conductors, usually in October or November, where all the conductors of the pieces go and explaining to each choir’s conductor how they want these songs to be taught and sung.
After that, from January to May, we have rehearsals all over Estonia. When they are all together, there are more than 25,000 singers. This year, I remember that we had about 330 rehearsals, because you have to separate all these people into different rehearsals. It’s big logistical system. These rehearsals take place in every county—singers come by bus from small villages to central locations.
During January to May we rehearse with each choir in two separate rehearsals. The first time, it’s like learning, and introducing and so on, and also correcting some mistakes, because the repertory is sometimes quite complicated, and conductors make mistakes, rhythmically or whatever. Then in second rehearsal, there are final corrections and there are also auditions.
The choirs have to perform the repertory to see whether they know it very well, because in Estonia, we have about 33,000 singers, and 25,000 of them go to Song Celebration, so we have to sort some out, because there’s just not enough space for everyone. You have to also take into account their level, because they really have to know the repertory. Then we select all the singers, and we have also one main rehearsal on the Song Celebration stage, but it is like one day before. So they have really much, much rehearsing, and it’s quite a big job.
The repertory for small children, it is two parts; for girls and children’s choir, it is three to five parts; for mixed choirs, it is four to eight parts music.
The Baltic Song Celebrations are unique in their scope and that is why they belong to UNESCO’s list of intangible heritage. Estonians are quite individualistic people, and of course it is very important for us that this tradition has recognition from UNESCO. But actually, it’s very important for us anyway, so it’s just maybe good to know that UNESCO also understands that, but the importance is very big anyway.
Estonian Youth Song and Dance Celebration. Credit: http://laulupidu.ee
Meg: The main thing, really, is that you as an Estonian care about it deeply.
Kaie: Yes, I think so. I finished Music Academy eleven years ago, and when I was studying music, all the young students all talked about, ‘Oh, it’s old tradition and the Song Celebration is 140 years old, and we really need something new, and it’s not “in” anymore,’ and so on. I think that all students in Music Academy have always said the same thing but now I am conducting at Song Celebrations and all my fellow students are participating with choirs, so maybe it’s something you just live with, because it’s very important.
Meg: Someone told me that they personally felt a little bit disappointed by the concert held this summer on the 20th anniversary of Estonia’s re-independence, because they felt it was really a rock concert, and not really the singing of the old Estonian songs that they had hoped they might hear and participate in at the event. Do you have any thoughts on that?
Kaie: I have heard these kinds of comments. I think it’s just a question of the tradition of gathering at the Song Celebration grounds because as you probably know, Estonian’s independence came about by singing. These kinds of songs were prohibited when we were an occupied country. We didn’t want to throw Molotov Cocktails but it was a kind of protest during the Singing Revolution to go to the Song Celebration stage and sing these prohibited songs. Almost one-third of the entire nation, several hundred thousands of people, came together to sing. Any mention of independent Estonia or fatherland was prohibited, but if you have 200,000 people, you can’t arrest them all. Of course there was Soviet police around the whole square, and actually, it was scary, but you really know that they can’t arrest such an amount of people. It was a way for people to really feel that we are independent and we belong together and we can sing our songs if we want.
As now it was the 20th anniversary of independence, everybody thought that it is an event which remembers that, held in song celebration square, and they called it the Song of Freedom. Then they went there and it was just a rock concert, and you can see such rock concerts everywhere, and everyone’s expectations were different. They expected that it is the same kind of event, but it wasn’t. So many people were just angry, and they said that the publicity was wrong, and they should have advertized this concert like a rock concert and not call it Song of Freedom. I think that then it would be okay, but yes, it’s funny, how it works.
Meg: Did you participate in the night protests?
Kaie: Yes, of course. Of course. I was fourteen, fifteen years old, but yes, of course, we were there.
Meg: Can you tell me about that experience?
Kaie: It was dark, it was crowded, but it was fantastic to see all these artists singing there, because these were singers who were really important in Estonian music life. We knew that they could have problems because they performed there, and so we admired how brave they were to go there and sing the songs which were prohibited. The police couldn’t arrest all the people, but they could arrest the musicians who are playing there.
It was fantastic how all the people were holding hands. It was so, so, so crowded, and it wasn’t important at all who was next to you, because everyone was holding hands. I think it was really a fantastic experience, because as I said, Estonians are quite individualistic people. They don’t hold hands, they don’t hug, they don’t smile, and so on, but it is the place where it changes.
Meg: I’ve actually had Estonians tell me that that Estonians are not naturally expressive people but that by singing, it’s a way to express how you feel that otherwise might be uncomfortable.
Kaie: Yes, probably. Of course, not all Estonians sing, because we have one million people and we have 35,000 in choirs. Most of our schools have choirs and I know that many European schools don’t have music teachers any more. In Estonia, I couldn’t imagine that, because people think that it is important.
Just this summer, I thought, I go and conduct a choir of nine and a half thousand kids, but actually, the most important thing is that I know these kids. I have seen them in tens of rehearsals from January to May. I can actually see their faces and can recognize some of them.
All your friends and all your acquaintances are among the audience, and they always ask after song celebration, ‘Could you hear me? Could you hear me shouting when you were performing?’ But that is the point, that everyone knows the Song Celebration conductors and everyone is shouting and everyone is probably feeling that it’s very personal. I think that every Estonian feels ‘This is my stage, it is my nation, and it is my Song Celebration, and it is my songs.’ I think that it is very personal.
Estonian Tradition of Singing Fosters Sense of Belonging
Meg: I wonder if part of the importance of the tradition is the idea of people feeling they belong.
Kaie: Of course. For sure. For sure, because we have really been occupied so many times and there have been so many problems. It had actually been decided policy in the Soviet Union that all Estonian schools and gymnasiums would switch to speaking Russian, and there were plans to cancel all Estonian education. This was about three years before the Soviet Union crashed that this education policy would have been put in place. Already all Estonians were studying Russian from kindergarten and university education already was in Russian partly.
It made us want to stay together and it made people wish to feel that they belonged together, and really stick together. Of course, I also think it’s a question of being a small nation because if you only have one million people, they say that it is the limit of a language surviving. They say that if you have less than one million native speakers, actually the language just dies. And if you have more than one million, it’s quite optimistic. So this one million is really like a border, so we know that we have to work to preserve our language and our culture, because it is just very, very small.
Meg: Can you single out a couple of songs that are particularly important to Estonians and maybe explain a little bit about them?
Kaie: One of them, of course, is considered the unofficial anthem, “My Fatherland, Thou Are My Love.” As it spoke about my fatherland, it was kind of prohibited, but still, in certain times, there was a tradition that almost all choir concerts ended with this song, and usually, all the people stood up. We also wanted to put this song on the Song Celebration program, but everything was checked by the Soviet censors, and they didn’t allow that.
I think it was 1969 when choirs wanted to sing this song at the Song Celebration. After the official program was over, they just didn’t leave the stage and they tried to start singing this song, but it was joint choir of 25,000 persons. It isn’t such an easy song, and it’s quite long, and actually, you really can’t sing it together without a conductor. You can try, but still, someone is in other tempo. So they tried several times, but they just stopped. Then they began to shout, ‘Conductor!’ The composer of this song was also conducting at the Song Celebration, and they began asking him to go and conduct, chanting ‘Conductor, conductor” with rhythmic clapping.
My father was at this event – it was 1969, it was very, very deep Soviet time. This conductor was then like 60 years old, and he was sitting in the first row, but he didn’t dare stand up and go to conduct. But all the singers were looking at him, and they were clapping and shouting, and my father was also in this first row, and he said that it was so sad to see this old man who wanted to go but he didn’t dare. But finally, he just stood up and went there, and began to conduct, and everyone stood up, and everyone cried because they knew that maybe tomorrow, he’s not here anymore. Maybe he’s taken away. But they sang.
Of course, the Soviet censors were also at this concert, and they were checking what was being sung and whether anything was being sung other than official repertory, and they were very angry. But there was one friendly member of Communist government, an Estonian man and these Russians asked, ‘What is this last song? It isn’t in official program, and why are they all standing up?’ And he said ‘It isn’t anything special, it is just an anthem of Song Celebrations, that’s why they are standing up.’ And as the Russians didn’t understand a word from the Estonian text, they accepted this explanation. So this conductor survived, and after that, the Russians allowed this song in Song Celebration. But thanks God for this friendly Communist, because without him, I don’t know.
Meg: That’s a pretty powerful story.
Kaie: Yes, it is. And it’s funny because I wasn’t there, I wasn’t even born, but my father told me that, and I think that I will tell it to my children one day.
Meg: Is your father a musician or a singer?
Kaie: No, he’s a scientist. But he sang in university male choir during his studies, and my mom played accordion and loved to sing and also sang in the choir. So me and my sister both learned music because our parents thought that it is important.
Meg: In your own family personal history, how was your family affected by the Soviets occupation?
Kaie: My grandfather—my father’s father–was taken to Siberia. He came back, but his health was ruined, and he died quite fast after that.
Meg: Why did he get sent to Siberia?
Kaie: Actually, I don’t know. In those times, it was so easy. I even don’t know. In those days, it was so simple. It could be for whatever. Someone said that he has too much money or whatever. I should ask my father. Maybe he knows. I really don’t know. But actually, it shows that during these times, it was so normal that you were taken to Siberia. I even think that many people didn’t ask why, because the reasons were just figured out–it could be whatever. They just took as many Estonians as they could.
Meg: Can you talk a little bit about the relationship you have with the choral group, what the dynamics are like?
Kaie: Conductors have t-shirts like “I am a conductor so let’s just assume that I am always right.” The other very nice conductor’s t-shirt was that “I am almost perfect, I have only one problem: I am too modest.”
My teachers always said to me that choral singing is not a democratic process, because you can’t decide with a choir what to sing and how fast to sing or whatever. In choral singing, there is always conductor, who decides and the choir who follows. There is an Estonian saying that when a conductor doesn’t like the singer, the singer leaves. When singer doesn’t like conductor, the singer leaves. Actually, my old professor always said that conductor must be a dictator.
Of course, it is a kind of joke, and we don’t actually think that conductors are kings but actually, it is a little bit true. In choral singing, you can have one conductor, and you can’t have discussion what to sing or how fast. The conductor must make decisions, and the conductor has responsibility, because if choir fails or if choir doesn’t sing well, everyone blames conductor.
Estonians are so used to singing in choirs that if you conduct a choir, very often there is another conductor sitting in the choir as a singer. It’s absolutely normal that when I’m singing in the choir, I don’t comment on the work of conductor. When I go in front of the choir, I am the conductor and I decide, but if I am singing, then I’m a singer. I can be a conductor, but in this moment, I am singer. So I think it is quite good school, that sometimes you are in that role, like deciding role, and sometimes you are like following role.
But in a children’s choir, the children react differently at different ages. This spring, during one week, different children came to me. A six year-old comes to you and says, ‘Oh, I like you very much.’ They are so sweet. And then the eleven year-old comes to me, ‘Oh, you look great today.’ Then the fourteen year-old comes to you and says, ‘You are normal. You can understand things.’ I think that this teenager actually gave me the biggest compliment, because if you are fourteen years old, you never say something nice to the teacher. I think the maximum she could say was, ‘You are normal, you can understand things.’
Meg: That is indeed high praise from a teenager!
Kaie: Absolutely. It was really funny.
Meg: Can you tell me about Estonian choir music winning a Grammy?
Kaie: Yes, actually, it was, I think 2004, or 5 or 6? 4? Actually, it was a big cooperative project of Jean Sibelius’ Cantatas, conducted by Paovo Jarvi, but those two Estonian choirs who sang there, it was Estonian National Male Choir and Ellerhein Girls’ Choir. This recording was very successful and got a Grammy, and of course it was huge news in all of Estonia, because it was the first Grammy for Estonian music and choirs. Actually, the music was Finnish, but it was an Estonian conductor and Estonian choirs who performed it. We had been candidates several times before—with Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, for example – , but they have never received a Grammy.
The conductor of the Ellerhein Girls’ Choir, she is a very eccentric lady. I think she’s 76 or 77 now, and she decided ‘I’ll go to LA to receive this Grammy.’ The Grammy organizers send invitations, but as they don’t pay any expenses, usually not all people go there to really receive Grammy in L.A. But she went, and when she came back, we greeted her at the airport, our Minister of Culture at the time was there. She was very dramatic, she had big long white fur coat, and when she marched out from the travelers’ door, she really made a big show of that. Even now, Tiia-Ester Loitme, the conductor of the Ellerhein Girls’ Choir, is called Madame Grammy, because she just acts like Madame Grammy. But she’s sweet.
Meg: That’s a good story, too. Do you have any final comments about the importance of singing to Estonians?
Kaie: There are official statistics that Estonia is one of the less religious countries in Europe. It is actually said that Song Celebration is Estonian religion because it is something that almost every Estonian believes in. Sometimes they say that Song Celebration is like a big service, every fifth year Estonians come to Song Celebration grounds, and it is their way to be religious. Maybe it is.
During this big concert, it is like 100,000 people listening and 25,000 people singing, and the concert is six hours long. Of course, people are not just sitting there, but they go around, and they go to toilet, and they buy a drink, and they buy something to eat, and they talk to the neighbors they haven’t seen and so on. My friend said that when the song began, ‘My Fatherland Thou Are My Love,’ all the people—the people under the trees, the people who were actually queuing to get a drink–they all were suddenly silent because it was their song.
Song Celebration, where everyone comes together to honor Estonia. Credit: http://laulupidu.ee
There is a second story about the importance of Song Celebration which is quite a good illustration. In 2007, we had Russian rebellions on the streets and it was quite problematic. A day after that, we had a Song Celebration rehearsal in Eastern Estonia, which is a totally Russian area. Life was quite tense, you didn’t know what might happen, and you could really feel that Russians were angry and protesting.
A group of us Song Celebration conductors were going to this rehearsal, we were talking to each other, saying ‘Okay, we have patriotic songs to rehearse, and there are 300 Russian children—-who are really Russian, they even don’t speak Estonian.’ We just talked, and asked each other, ‘Could we do this Estonian anthem “My Fatherland Thou Are My Love,” could we make these children rehearse this patriotic song? What if they boo?’
The conductors, they all said “I don’t feel very comfortable making them rehearse these songs.’ Finally, as I was the youngest, they said ‘You have to do these two songs.’ I didn’t feel very comfortable about that. I remember that I thought ‘I don’t want to go to the stage and say, let’s now sing the Estonian anthem.’ I didn’t dare to say Estonian anthem. I said the title. Let’s sing “My Fatherland, My Joy.”
All 300 of these Russians stood up and began to sing by heart. It is just rehearsal. In rehearsal, we sit. Okay, it’s the anthem, but we sing it in rehearsal, we sit. All these Russians stood up and they sang by heart. Not all Estonian kids can sing it by heart. Because for these children, they felt this song is also ours and we are proud of that. And we were like ‘Phew.’ We actually felt so bad, that we really had been afraid. As our old director of this Choral Association who has organized 18 song celebrations always said–people who sing together never will fight together. I think it’s the key of integration and everything.
Meg: That’s a very powerful story. That really says it all, doesn’t it?
Kaie: Yes, I think so. Usually, stories do that.
Meg: You brought up this story in the context of Estonians not being religious. I know when I have fear and get anxious and then things work out beautifully, that to me is a spiritual experience.
Kaie: Yes, of course. Actually, it is. And I think that it remains so. I have seen in the Song Celebration that young people and children think that the tradition is important. The other traditional song in Song Celebration, “Flying Towards the Beehive” was actually left out from this year’s Song Celebration because you can’t have only old songs.
After the concert ended, the children demanded this song. After that, we discussed that you can’t say that young people only want to get new and interesting things. They also feel how important the tradition is. They sang choral arrangements of rock songs, and they really like to sing young and innovative music, but they still want to sing these old traditional pieces also.
Read more about the Singing Revolution and Choral Traditions in Estonia:
- Estonia’s Onion Route & the Old Believers
- Saaremaa, an Island Window into the Singing Revolution
- Cultural Traditions on Kinhu Island, Estonia
Publisher and editor of www.BestCulturalDestinations.com (BCD), which profiles people engaged in creating & preserving culture, and celebrates our unique differences and shared human condition. BCD defines “Best Cultural Destinations” as those that teach us, and help us grow in understanding, compassion, and capacity for connection.