Arts: A Nation That Sang Itself Free
by Steven Pierson
Our songs have been our weapons, Song Festivals our victories," stated Estonian president Lennart Meri in his opening remarks for the twenty-third National Estonian Song Festival this past July, reinvigorating a tradition that began in 1869. Surveying an audience that by all estimates exceeded 100,000, the elder statesman was prompted to chide critics who claim the festival is outdated.
Estonian history reveals an incessant struggle for independence over the last 700 years amidst foreign domination and cultural repression. After centuries of feudalism and paganism, Moravian missionaries sparked a revival in the eighteenth century; musicologists agree it spread through choral singing more than by preaching. Estonian Evangelical Fellowship President Meego Remmel confirms that the methodology has not changed. One choral conductor noted, "Music is the first pulpit here in Estonia—the sermon is the second."
Soviet occupation in 1940 under the brutal Stalin regime led to a mass exodus of Estonia's best and brightest. The russification schemes of the 1970s also threatened the country's ties to its culturally Christian past. But the more Soviet leaders believed that russification would eventually smother local characteristics that were considered "non-Russian" and "anti-Soviet," the more Estonians determined to resist. The singing culture celebrated especially through Song Festivals provided a means for a peaceful, yet effective resistance, nurturing a renewed national community. One choral conductor noted: "We sang ourselves free."