A thrilling, moving spectacle

Trip Start Apr 19, 2014
Trip End Jul 09, 2014

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Friday, July 4, 2014

July 4-6: I was so impressed with the Song and Dance Celebration in 2009 that I was keen to witness it again in 2014. A Song Celebration was first held in 1869, the first Dance Celebration in 1934. Now they are staged once every five years, although in the intervening years there are youth and regional celebrations. This year was the 26th Laulupidu (song celebration) and the 19th Tantsupidu (dance celebration). Over three days, there were three performances of the dance extravaganza at a sports stadium; a procession of choirs, bands and dance groups that took almost six hours, spectators cheering along the entire five-kilometre route from Freedom Square to the Song Festival Grounds; a three-hour song concert on Saturday evening; and a seven-hour song concert on Sunday, beginning with a young children's mass choir and culminating in a huge, mass choir. The event is extraordinary, unique, amazing, thrilling, emotional, important and just plain fantastic. I loved it this time as much as I did five years ago, if not more. If I am still alive and kicking and financially able in 2019, I will be back again in Tallinn.

When you understand the meaning behind the celebration and the role that singing has played in Estonia's history, when you see the emotion on people's faces, the exuberant flag-waving and the joy they get from singing and dancing, it is awesome in the true sense of the word. Tears came to my eyes during some of the songs. My grinning muscles were greatly overworked during the street procession. I loved seeing all the different traditional costumes and headgear. I also saw my favourite choir in the world, near the beginning of the procession: the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir. I've seen them in concert a couple of times (was blown away by them at the 1993 World Symposium on Choral Music in Vancouver). I'm quite enamoured of Estonian composers Arvo Pärt and Veljo Tormis and have several CDs of their work.
All ages take part in the celebration - what a fabulous inter-generational experience it must be. What a great social leveller it is also: no matter whether you're a doctor, teacher, artist, musician, city worker, street cleaner, IT specialist, politician, homemaker, whatever, you're dancing and singing together as one nation. The President of the Republic of Estonia attended all the events, dressed in his black greatcoat, singing and swaying to the music along with everyone.

Especially during the 1987-91 period, singing national songs at music festivals and political gatherings fed the growing, burning need to be independent. The Singing Revolution, it was called. With no blood being shed, Estonia gained indepedence in 1991. No wonder they celebrate so fervently.
I read some figures about this year's event: 42,000 performers, including more than 1,000 choirs and 654 dance groups, and 153,000 spectators. The printed program said the mass choir numbered over 21,000 – and that doesn't include the 7,400 young children and 5,400 children who performed earlier in the program; and there were 91 orchestras with 2,500 musicians. A few foreign choirs are accepted each year – looked like there were three from Canada. The dance celebration involved 9,200 performers. It was fun how the huge choir connected with the audience, before the concert began, by starting a wave that several times ran from the top row of the choir to the bottom, through the rows of seated guests and on through the thousands of people seated all the way up the hillside to the line of trees. When the wave reached the farthest row, everyone would cheer even more loudly. It really worked to join us all together. As one. That was the theme in 2009: "To Breathe As One." This year it was "Touched by Time. The Time to Touch." 

The Saturday evening concert featured one song from each Song Celebration of the past, grouped in sections called "Period of National Awakening - The Road to Freedom" 1869-1910, "Estonia between the two World Wars" 1923-38, "The Period of Occupations" 1947-85 and "Regaining Independence" 1990-2009. But for 1950 there was instead a moment of silence. That was a year when only Soviet-approved songs had been permitted.

At the concerts, the choir roared its approval of each conductor, composer, lyricist and artistic director who came to the podium. Several favourite songs, the choir demanded, by its chanting, to sing again, so the long programs grew even longer. Everyone sang with feeling and waved their flags. I've come to love the blue, black and white of the Estonian flag: blue for the sky, black for the soil, white for the aspirations of the Estonian people. After the final number on the final day, much of the choir was still singing, as the audience and choir were filing out and making their way home. Even the walk home was wonderful: masses of people calmly and quietly walking back towards Old Town, along the seaside path or down the middle of the road, which was closed to traffic. What a memorable experience.
I'm going to insert some links at the bottom, in case people are interested. There are two US-based newspaper articles about this year's events, two promotional videos from the organizers and some Youtube clips of songs and dances from this and the previous celebrations. Videos, photos and articles continue to be posted on Laulupidu's facebook page. I haven't seen the To Breathe As One documentary yet; I hope to catch it on PBS sometime. If you have 11 minutes to spare, do watch the "Koit" clip(*). Tõnis Mägi is an Estonian composer/guitarist/singer/actor who was very involved in the Singing Revolution. His patriotic songs became rallying cries for freedom.
After a day to pack and clean up the place a bit, I flew to Amsterdam, stayed overnight at a unique hotel beside Schiphol Airport, and next day made the long journey home to Victoria, where the weather is perfect right now.
Wall St Journal article: http://online.wsj.com/articles/singing-for-freedom-at-estonias-laulupidu-festival-1405550002

NY Times article: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/07/11/arts/music/estonias-revolutionary-spirit-embodied-in-music.html?src=twr&_r=1

To Breathe As One documentary: http://www.tobreatheasone.com/trailer

*Song "Koit" (Dawn) - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BTS4JvKXvMI - for the encore, composer Tõnis Mägi is soloist.

2008 video of "Koit" with English lyrics as subtitles: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u4Ae3o8mpWQ

2008 video of "Koit" - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XUCYcCboUVE

Estonian lyrics to music for "Koit": https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GhGayxqQaHw

"My Native Land, My Dearest Love" soundtrack: http://classical-music-online.net/en/listen/97818

"Ta Lendab mesipuu poole": https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1IKqnO18ZVc&feature=em-subs_digest-vrecs

Official photos: 

history: http://2014.laulupidu.ee/en/history/

Based on 2009 event: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CNjBwIsT8sU

Lead-up to 2014 event: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ieKfoxVWUSo&feature=youtu.be

One-minute version of Dance Celebration: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jnu7-aug5hA&feature=youtu.be

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Deb S on

So I am finally caught up. What an amazing finale to your trip. The logistics of organizing that many performers is a big job.
Your photos give a sense of the pride and well being that is shown by the Estonians.

wayfgrrl on

Thanks for persevering, Deb, and getting all the way to the end. This trip was a great bunch of experiences, and it was special to end on this highlight in Tallinn.

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