CoachEstonian Music Festival

The spread of the plague has led to the cancellation of many long-awaited summer events, including the highly anticipated 2020 Tokyo Olympics and the famous 2020 Coachella Music Festival. Luckily, the Estonian Song and Dance Festival evaded these unforeseen circumstances this summer by holding their most recent festival last year, the festival has been taking place roughly every four to five years since 1923.

The first of the Estonian Song and Dance Festivals took place in 1869, more than 150 years ago (way older than the most popular American music festivals such as Woodstock, Burning Man, and Coachella). Johann Voldemar Jannsen, publisher of the festival, wanted the event to evoke a national Estonian movement where peasant culture could join the spheres of high culture. Slowly, the festival would include Russian performers, and by 1896 the festival permanently moved locations from Tartu to Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, while the number of both performers and attendees also grew in size. 

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Estonian Song and Dance Festival, 1910

1938 would be the last Song and Dance festival before World War II, it was conducted by composer Gustav Ernesaks. Six years later, Ernesaks wrote the music to “Mu isamaa on minu arm” (which translates into English as “My Fatherland is My Love”) with the poetry of Lydia Koidula, when he was deported in Russia. The patriotic song came to be seen as an unofficial national anthem. During the same year (1940), Estonia was at the frontlines of the war, and Soviet aircraft bombed Germans soldiers on the ground in Tallinn on March 4th. The bombings destroyed 20 percent of the buildings in the city, including the Estonia opera house and other culturally important national buildings; more than 600 civilians died while more than 70,000 fled to the west. 

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Estonian Song and Dance Festival, 1938

The first festival that took place after the war was in the summer of 1947, this would also be the first festival that would take place after being incorporated into the Soviet Union. Ernesaks would return and risk trying to keep the festival’s spirit of Estonian nationalism and tradition, while also being mandated to promote Soviet patriotism. As Jannsen intended for the festival, from its creation to its running under Soviet rule, the festival would continue to show the Estonian people that they had the right to express their own national culture, despite the assimilation policies of their rulers (during both the Imperial era and the Soviet Era). The festival was massively important to the Estonian people, this first festival after the war was attended by almost a fourth of its over one-million population. 

In countering this expression of Estonian nationalism, Soviet influences and powers tried to break up these sentiments by carrying Soviet slogans through marches in parades related to the festival and also tried to deter Estonians from aspects of their tradition, like not being able to wear their national folk dress and diluting the choirs and performers with Soviet musicians. Throughout the Soviet repressions, the Estonians realized the importance of their music festival, and each year at the closing of the festival the Estoanians would sing “Mu isamaa on minu arm” against Soviet wishes.

While “Mu isamaa on minu arm” was considered the unofficial Estonian anthem behind the pre-Soviet union Estonian anthem “Mu isamaa, mu õnn ja rõõm”, which translates to “My Fatherland, My Happiness and Joy”, the Estonians gained another national anthem with the addition of “Eesti NSV Hümn”, “State Anthem of the Estonian SSR”, in 1945. It was one of the only national anthems of the SSR (other than the Karelo-Finnish SSR and the Georgian SSR anthems) that did not mention the Russian People:

Ye roar, factories, and corn-fields, wave;

Reap, sickle, and beat out, hammer!

May the life of the Soviets throb in mighty swing;

May happiness be brought to people by good labor!

Among our Soviet nations and states

Estonia, march in the firm fore!

Though, after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1990, the Estonian people were not hesitant to readopt their original national anthem, “Mu isamaa, mu õnn ja rõõm”, one year later Estonia had its independence restored.

My native land, my joy, delight,

How fair thou art and bright!

And nowhere in the world all round

Can ever such a place be found

So well beloved as I love thee,

My native country dear!

Despite Stalin’s assimilation campaign to suppress national movements and take control of the international communist movement after World War II, the Estonians continued to fight for the right to celebrate their culture and traditions. The importance of the Estonian Song and Dance Festival is so significant that in 2003 the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization deemed the festival a “masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity”. It is interesting to see the entirety of a nation’s culture and tradition embodied into a summer music festival that takes place only every four to five years, it is even more intriguing to see the sentiments from changes of regimes reflected in national anthems. The most recent festival that took place in 2019, headlined as “My Fatherland is my Love”, exemplifies the spirit of the Estonian nation and heart of its traditions after half a century of Soviet rule, repression, and assimilation efforts. 

14 thoughts on “CoachEstonian Music Festival

  1. I thought your post was well written and very informative, I also appreciate your inclusion of the two national anthems of Estonia. I find Estonia and the Baltic region as a whole very interesting, they were some of the smallest republics of the USSR. But they offered some of the firmest resistance to Soviet rule and were the richest republics in the country.

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    1. Thank you De’Vonte! I also thought it was interesting that such a small country could put up a resistance against the USSR, I found it even more interesting that in this context, they decided to use song and dance to do so. Also for the national anthems, I didn’t really understand the significance of even having a national anthem, only after reading about the different anthems in Estonia did I comprehend that they are actually very reflective of how a nation feels about itself.

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      1. Absolutely! Thanks so much for writing about this and for taking such a deep dive into a kind of cultural expression that’s so often taken for granted. I still can’t wrap my head around the fact that up to 30% of the entire country attends these festivals. Wow. I mean, just wow. Also, to think that this concerted effort to use choral singing as a locus of identity dates back to the Imperial period is just so powerful. I’m having a hard time finding it now, but will keep looking for video that a student who attended this festival a few years ago took of the back of the crowd — at night — singing this glorious lyrical hymn (not the national anthem) with their phones for illumination. Will post it when I find it.
        Meanwhile — it’s interesting to think about how WWII shaped the adoption of a new anthem for the Soviet Union — a hymn that replaced the Internationale and is still the hymn of the Russian Federation today. I’m struck by how stylistically similar these 20thc “national anthems” are.

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  2. I’m so glad to have know that even after all Estonia had been through, they still managed to retain their culture and traditions in spite of Stalin’s attempt to assimilate them into a collective Soviet identity. Also, the idea that 1/4th of a the country turning up to this music festival is so crazy to me. I mean, I know they have a small population in comparison to the US, but still! It just goes to show you how strongly they feel about themselves and their country!

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    1. I completely agree with the second part! I can’t even imagine what something like this would be like for the United States (considering that we have about 330 million people). But definitely, I haven’t seen anything like this from a country before, striving so hard to keep and maintain aspects of national culture or tradition. Its really commendable and impressive.

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  3. Joy, it was very interesting reading about how a simple music festival can become a symbol of national unity and defiance when confronted with an overwhelming occupying force such as the Soviet Union. I think our blog posts complement each other nicely in that the cultural defiance of the Estonian music festival fed the political and military resistance movements that were active throughout the Baltic States during the Soviet occupation. It is very bold for such a small country to openly defy the comparative monster that was the Soviet Union. Great post!

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    1. Hey Eric! Thank you so much! I do think its really crazy and impressive how such small countries can make a stand to a giant monolith like the Soviet Union. Its really inspiring that these people did anything in their power to defy the USSR, whether that be something serious like having their own part in World War II (disjointed from Russia) or something more emotional and culturally significant like having a music festival.

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  4. Hi Joy! This was a really nice post! I really like your title, and how you use current events in your introduction. I had never heard of this music festival before, and it was really interesting to learn about. The part that resonated with me the most was how they used the music festival as a way to retain some of their culture and independence after becoming apart of the Soviet Union, because it seems like such an unorthodox way of going about that. Good for the Estonians for standing up for themselves and fighting for what they believe in!

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    1. Hi Lauren! Thank you so much, I really do feel like the easiest thing for me when writing these posts and looking for an interesting topic is to look for something that I could somewhat relate to and put into current contexts. I also had never heard of the festival, which is kind of crazy considering its been around for so long and because so many people do attend it. With using music as a way to retain culture and independence, I also agree, I feel like using music would be kind of a fragile and weak way to fight against the wishes of the USSR. But I was definitely wrong, I underestimated how powerful music can be for some people!

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  5. I really liked learning about this topic. The national anthems sounded very inspiring and wonderful. I liked how after their independence, the Estonians soon changed their national anthem from the Soviet Union to their own. I guess Estonia did not like the Soviet Union that much and preferred being an independent state. This goes to show how individuality trumps over collectivism.

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    1. Hi Matt! While looking a the sources the write this post I never realized how important patriotic songs or just traditional displays of patriotism are to a state. I think as Americans we may take for granted or overlook that our national anthem has largely stayed the same for 400 years. I really loved how Estonians were pretty much like “good riddance” to their Soviet national anthem right after they became independent.

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  6. Professor Nelson! (For some reason, I can’t respond to your reply, but) Thank you so much! I didn’t think that looking into the music festival would surprise me so much, it is very crazy and impressive how long the Estonian festival has been going on and how so many people attend it. Please post the video when you find it! I would love to see it! Also, knowing how the National Anthem of the USSR has been somewhat a meme these days for reasons I don’t understand, I could immediately notice the similarities between the USSR’s anthem and Estonia’s Soviet anthem. I really have never realized the importance of national anthems until now (I am literally listening to Whitney Houston’s 1991 Super Bowl national anthem as I am typing this).

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  7. Very informative post! You don’t think too much about music around this time period. It was good for Estonia not to give into Stalin even while under occupation.

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  8. Great post Joy. I thought your choice of pictures was interesting and I’d like to see if you know what the record for attendance was at one of these? That second picture especially makes it seem like an outrageously massive event.

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