Heather MacLaughlin Garbes (Mägi Ensemble)


Nation/Culture(s).   This region has been invaded and occupied numerous times during its history due to its ideal location for shipping, fishing and military bases. Folk songs and national poetry were used during these times to assist people in maintaining their cultural identity while conforming to the restrictions of the occupying government. The traditional song forms of the Estonian regilaul became the basis for songs composed in this region1 The text of these songs focused on life, love and nature, focusing on the seasons and the natural progression of life.2 Choral music that focused on traditional folk songs is studied in the schools as well as small community ensembles from numerous workplace groups, such as the mechanics choir. Singing is such an important part of the culture that one out of twenty people in this region currently sings in a choir and one out of ten have sung in a choir at some point.3


Music.   The importance of song and choral music to the cultural life of Estonia has led to an abundance of choral music and choirs with varied voicings and purpose. From casual singing at the beginning of a town meeting to the use of song as a means for revolt against the former Soviet regime, choral singing has long been a part of Baltic culture. It has been used to maintain cultural identity throughout times when other elements of life were restricted. These songs are used to pass on the traditions and stories from one generation to the next.


Song Festivals became a way for Estonians to meet and share in their national spirit under the close watch of the government. Begun in 1869 in Tartu, Estonia, these festivals allowed the Baltic people to gather together in song and spirit to celebrate their unity in times of oppression. 4 After the Soviet Union invaded Estonia in 1939, the region became a Soviet or German territory for almost 50 years. The darkest period of ideological pressure – with real danger to life and limb – lasted until the death of Stalin in 1953.


In cultural life, the campaign against ‘bourgeois nationalism’ and ‘cosmopolitan formalism’ culminated with the Eighth Plenum of the Estonian Communist Party in 1950, when several prominent musicians, writers and artists were attacked and stigmatized as public enemies. As long as these artists conformed to governmental restrictions, they were supported well through state education and funding. During these times, governmental restrictions dictated which songs were to be performed and there were demands to have the words of many of the traditional songs changed to fit the Soviet ideology, including songs in tribute to Stalin and the Soviet Motherland5Songs. Folk songs that were not a part of the prescribed song list created by the government were sung spontaneously as a unifying event for the participants. Due to the large number of singers and the inability for Soviet officials to understand the non-Russian texts that were being sung, these spontaneous bursts of folk songs were accepted.


Through these singing events from 1987-1989, the Baltic countries were able to stand up against the Soviet government. This eventually led to the Singing Revolution, begun in 1988, with the gathering of one third of the Estonian population at Tallinn’s song festival grounds to support the populist movement. As stated by the Estonian journalist Heinz Valk, “Until now, revolutions have been filled with destruction, burning, killing and hate, but we started our revolution with a smile and a song.”6

On August 23, 1989, for the commemoration of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact7, thousands of people throughout Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, gathered to join hands and sing together. This human chain spread throughout each country by people connecting hand in hand in a chain that spanned the entire region from Tallinn, Estonia to Vilnius, Lithuania, via Riga, Latvia, a span of nearly four hundred miles.8


Many of these songs are the inspiration for a new generation of composers in the beginning of the 21st century and the song festival tradition continues to this day.

Song Festivals are held once every four years in each country and a dance element has been added to the performances. On average, over 20,000 singers participate in the festival with over 60,000 people in attendance. Held at specially designed and constructed song stadiums9, these events continue to strengthen the national pride of this region. In 2003, UNESCO designated these festivals as masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.


When asked “Why singing”, Jaan Tiidemann, a participant in The Singing Revolution stated, ”It may sound even naïve…but it is so natural to express our feelings…and declare that we have a right for our own country.” 10Perhaps these thoughts will help future generations around the world learn to express themselves through song rather than violence.


Notable Musicians.

Gustav Ernesaks (1908-1993): Esteemed conductor and composer who held up the tradition of the National Song Festivals during the time of the Soviet occupation.

Cyrillus Kreek (1889-1962): An eager collector of Estonian folk songs, which were the basis of his own music. The Estonian Requiem and Psalms of David are his two most well-known pieces.

Rudolf Tobias (1873-1918): Known as being one of the leaders of Estonia’s emerging public musical life.

Arvo Pärt (b. 1935): Known for his innovation and creativity with sound scapes, Pärt developed the technique of tintinnabuli (“little bells” in Latin) in which a form of polyphony is drawn away from a traditional tonic system of functional harmony.

Ester Mägi (b. 1922) : Known as the “First Lady of Estonian Music”, Mägi has composed in every music genre except opera and is known for her elegant melodies and strict adherence to form.

Veljo Tormis (b. 1930): Tormis is well-known for his extensive collection and promotion of traditional folk songs and melodies as well as their incorporation into his works.


Music in Higher Education.

Estonian Music and Theatre Academy (Eesti Muusika – ja Teatri Akadeemia) :

Historically the Tallinn State Conservatory began as the Tallinn High Music School in 1918 and was then renamed the Tallinn State Conservatory in 1923. In 1993 the name was changed to the Estonian Music and Theatre Academy. The school offers Preparatory, Bachelors, Masters and Doctoral programs. Programs include a vocal preparatory course, music performance, cultural management and musicology.


Music in Schools.

The Tallinn Music High School (Tallinna Muusikakeskkool) was established in 1961 to ensure quality applicants for the Tallinn State Conservatory ( the Estonian Music and Theatre Academy). This is the only music-specific school in Estonia. It employs over 50 university-level teachers and over 80% of students successfully continue their studies at the music academy.



Estonian Music Information Centre:

Estonian Music and Theatre Academy:

Estonian Theatre and Music Museum:


Recommendations for Listening:

Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir:

Revalia Men’s Choir

Tartu University Women’s Choir

Estonian National Symphony Orchestra:

Estonian National Opera:


Recommendations for Viewing.

The Singing Revolution movie by James and Maureen Tusty

Singing Revolution clips on youtube


Recommendations for Reading.

Daitz, Mimi. Ancient Song Recovered: The Life and Music of Veljo Tormis. (Hillsdale, NY: Pendragon Press, 2004).

Kuusk, Priit and Mare Põldmäe. Who is Who in Estonia, Music. (Tallinn: Estonian Encyclopaedia Publishers, 2004.)

Normet, L. and A. Vahter. Soviet Estonian Music: Ten Aspects of Estonian Life. (Tallinn: Eesti Raamat, 1967).

Puusemp, Ene, Alo Ritsing and Ants Nilson. Gaudeamus 50: Estonian, Latvian and Lithuanian Students’ Song and Dance Festivals, 1956-2006. (Tartu, Estonia: Tartu Üliõpilasmaja, 2006).

Ross, Jaan and Ilse Lehiste. The Temporal Structure of Estonian Runic Songs. (New York: Mouton de Gruyter, 2001).

Thomson, Clare. The Singing Revolution: A Political Journey Through the Baltic States. (London: Michael Joseph Ltd., 1992).

Vesilind, Priit. The Singing Revolution. (Tallinn: Varrak Publishers Ltd., 2009).


1Mimi Daitz, Ancient Song Recovered: The Life and Music of Veljo Tormis, 4344.

2 Topics include herding, milling, weddings, haymaking and swinging songs. Collections of songs relating to the events of the calendar year are also very popular.

3 Normet and Vahter, Soviet Estonian Music: Ten Aspects of Estonian Life, 5.and

4 Ratassepp, Estonian Song Festivals, 5.

5 Palmer, The Baltic: A New History of the Region and Its People, 394.

6 Smidchens, Guntis. “Was Singing Necessary in the Singing Revolution?, AABS Baltic Studies Newsletter, 6-7.

7The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of 1939 (officially titled the “Treaty of Non-Aggression between Germany and the Soviet Union” was a t10-year arrangement that divided Northern and Eastern Europe into German and Soviet areas of political dominance. This allowed them to then invade these areas and became the catalyst of the Soviets occupation of the Baltic States.

8 Thomson, The Singing Revolution, 15-16.

9 Lauluväljak is the main arena where the song festivals as well as other concerts are held in Estonia.

10 Smurr, Robert. “Nations and Nationalism, Singing and Song”. AABS Baltic Studies Newsletter, 7.