History of Song Festivals

The tradition of nationwide song festivals in Estonia was established by the first general song festival, held from June 18th to 20th, 1869, in Tartu. In the late 19th century, Estonia was a province of the Russian Empire, ruled by German landlords over Estonian peasants. With the spread of literacy, Estonians began to desire freedom and self-expression. The song festival was a manifestation of these feelings of national awakening. It was both a musical and a cultural-political event, outlining the future direction of Estonian freedom movements. The sense of solidarity and the vision of a better future have been closely associated with song festivals from the beginning. Estonians often refer to themselves as a “singing nation” – an expression of our national identity, which has united Estonians in the struggle for national independence both in the early 20th century and during the Soviet occupation. The initiator and organizer of the first general song festival was the singing society “Vanemuine,” led by Johann Voldemar Jannsen.

From 1879 to 1910, six general song festivals were held, playing an important role in the cultural and economic self-determination of the people. The tradition of organizing song festivals every five years began during Estonia’s first period of independence. An exception was made in 1969, when a jubilee song festival was held to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the first general song festival. Since 1950, general song festivals have been held every five years. The XXII general song festival, held in Tallinn in 1994, established the five-year cycle of general song festivals based on the year of the first general song festival.

The foreign powers that ruled Estonia have tried to exploit song festivals for their own interests. During the Tsarist era, Estonians were forced to organize “thanksgiving song festivals,” and during the Soviet era, song festivals were linked to communist holidays. Estonians sang foreign propaganda songs only to ensure the opportunity to perform their own songs. An example of beloved songs among Estonians is “Mu isamaa on minu arm” (My Fatherland is My Love) by Gustav Ernesaks, set to the lyrics of Lydia Koidula, which became an unofficial anthem for Estonians during the occupation – at the end of each song festival, the united choir performed the song in front of the standing audience with solemnity. Singers, musicians, conductors, and composers, led by Gustav Ernesaks, became a kind of “people’s representatives,” embodying Estonia’s best aspirations. The tradition of general song festivals laid the groundwork for the Singing Revolution in Estonia in 1988 when hundreds of thousands of people gathered at the Song Festival Grounds to make political demands and listen to patriotic songs.

The Estonian collective consciousness holds two beliefs related to general song festivals. The first is that the anonymous rural population sang itself into a European nation in 1869, and the second, related to later times, confirms that the Estonian people sang themselves free. The I, II, IV, and V general song festivals took place in Tartu, while all others were held in Tallinn.

The first (the ninth in the series) general song festival on the current Tallinn Song Festival Grounds took place in 1928. The largest combined choir on this stage was 24,500 singers at the jubilee general song festival in 1969. Usually, the number of singers in the combined choir ranges from 20,000 to 30,000, although there are actually many more singers than the stage can accommodate. Only choirs that have mastered the repertoire well are admitted to the festival. Typically, two regional preliminary rounds are held in the first half of each festival year to refine performances and select participants. Throughout history, general song festivals have been a tremendous unifying force – the boundaries between performers and the audience disappear, and a community is formed that shares common values. The festival is preceded by a great collective effort, which is rewarded with a common, powerful enthusiasm. Since 1962, youth song and dance festivals have been held in the years between general song festivals.