America does things big. Our Super Bowl attracts 100,000 fans and a hundred million TV viewers; New Year’s Eve on Times Square draws a million celebrants. But adjusted for population, these numbers have nothing on Laulupidu, the national song festival of the tiny nation of Estonia that takes place every five years.
When I tell Americans about my interest in and travels to Estonia, I often receive a quizzical look. It’s understandable: the little nation of 1.3 million people (not even half Iowa’s population) is tucked up near St. Petersburg, Russia, just south of Finland in northeast Europe. Its people speak Estonian, a tongue related only to Finnish and Hungarian. A former Soviet republic, Estonia has rapidly modernized since independence in 1991.
Today it can lay legitimate claim to the title of most technologically advanced country in the world. In addition to being the birthplace of Skype and Kazaa (a music-sharing platform of the early 2000s), it is at the forefront of numerous innovations. Online banking in the U.S. today is still not quite to the level I experienced in Estonia fifteen years ago. Estonia now conducts secure online voting in all elections and is the first country in the world to establish an “e-residency” program, allowing foreigners access to Estonia’s business environment, banking, and tax structure from their own countries.
If Estonia’s tech savvy is a 21st-century phenomenon, its song festival tradition is much older,
deeper and more impressive. From its outset, Laulupidu has been tied to the Estonian people’s sense of identity and aspirations. They organized their first song festival in 1869 during Estonia’s two-century occupation by tsarist Russia. After the Russian Revolution, Estonia enjoyed a brief hiatus of national self-determination, but in 1940 it was reoccupied by the even more oppressive Soviet Union. When Estonia gained its freedom in 1991, they did so not with guns but with peaceful protests centered on choral singing at the festival grounds. Their non-violent movement was dubbed the “The Singing Revolution.” Through it all, Laulupidu continued and grew, despite the societal turmoil that surrounded it.
Last month, I had the opportunity to perform in the 27th Laulupidu, which also commemorated the 150th anniversary of the festival. I was part of a choir of over 25,000 singers, gathered on the enormous festival stage for an audience of over 100,000. Add those two numbers together, compare them to the national population, and you realize that around 10 percent of the nation was on that gentle slope next to the Baltic Sea in the capital city of Tallinn.
You don’t need statistics to grasp the scale of Laulupidu. It kicks off with a parade from the city center, in which hundreds of choirs from around the country (and a few foreign ensembles) march roughly 2.5 miles to the festival grounds, an activity that takes almost six hours to finish. Thousands of spectators line the streets, cheering for the singers all the way as if they were World Series champions. When the last singer has reached the stage, the Estonian President addresses the festival, the national anthem is sung, and an Olympic-style torch is lit. With that, Laulupidu is officially underway with a four-hour concert that first night followed by an eight-hour concert the following afternoon.
That is a lot of singing! Through it all, the audience sits, mostly on blankets on the grass, and listens, although not quite in the way an audience listens at a formal concert. To me, it felt more like an Independence Day fireworks celebration or outdoor concert here in the States, where families sit and listen but talk among themselves. (Coincidentally, Laulupidu always takes place on the 4th of July weekend.) Skirting the edge of the grounds are scores of concession and merchandise stands, continuously mobbed by throngs of festival goers, reminding me distinctly of the Iowa State Fair.
Laulupidu translates literally as “Song Party,” and that is really what it is: not so much a concert as a massive national party with choral music at its center. It was once described as a “parade of our national culture,” and that is accurate, too. The repertoire, all in Estonian, almost exclusively sings of the country—its beauty and character—and its people.
The Estonian people endured foreign subjugation for centuries, with the worst atrocities committed in the last one and memories of them still vivid. Perhaps for that reason, Estonia’s national celebration conveyed to me no feeling of imperial aspiration or militancy, even though the national flag could be seen everywhere and shouts of “Eesti! Eesti! [Estonia! Estonia!]” frequently interrupted the program. Rather, Laulupidu seemed to affirm simply, as an Estonian friend told me long ago, We are Estonian, we are alive, and we are together. There is pride, too, in Estonia’s place today and the path it has taken, from a possession of various empires to a sovereign nation set to join the United Nations Security Council in 2020.
Thirty-three hours after the parade began, the festival torch was extinguished and the crowd and choir began to disperse. Although it was 11:00 p.m., it was still quite bright out. My voice was trashed and my feet burned from standing on the concrete steps of the stage for so long. I grabbed a quick bite to eat at a nearby food stand with some friends before walking back to my apartment for a long, deep sleep. My body was exhausted, but my heart was full.
Although Estonia is small, Laulupidu is enormous, bigger than anything I have ever personally experienced. It is a powerful example of how communal singing can unite us and can remind us of who we were, who we are, and who we strive to be. Laulupidu will take place again in 2024. Who knows what will transpire between now and then, but I hope to be there, sharing the gift of song again with about 125,000 of my closest Estonian friends.
David Puderbaugh is Assistant Director of Choral Activities at the University of Iowa and Music Director of the Chamber Singers of Iowa City. A graduate of Drake University (where he studied with Aimee Beckmann-Collier) and the University of Iowa, Professor Puderbaugh conducts Estonia's Voces Musicales choir on a beautiful new CD, Black Birch in Winter: American and Estonian Choral Music, (MSR 1675) and served as consultant for a documentary about Estonia's Singing Revolution (Sky Films, 2008).