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.
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.
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:
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.
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.