We Breathe as One: Memories of Estonia’s Song Festival

By Bruce Herdman

On the same weekend that the Barbershop Harmony Society was holding its International Convention in Anaheim, my wife Aita and I were visiting her homeland, the tiny Baltic country of Estonia (pop. 1.1 million). We and 110,000 other spectators were experiencing the incredible sounds of a 24,700 person choir. Yes, you read that right – 24,700 singers, which means that 10% of the country’s population were there, participating either as singers or members of the audience. This was Estonia’s XXV Song Celebration and singers as young as 7 years old sang on stage in choirs of their own along with people well into their 80s.


Singing and choral music go back thousands of years but Estonia’s Song Celebration, held just about every five years for the past 140 years, shows that Estonians have developed a unique singing culture which some consider a ‘world wonder’. As some of you may know, Estonia was illegally occupied by the Soviet Union and was the first Baltic country to declare independence from the communists. They did this through song, and the incredible story is captured in the movie, The Signing Revolution. “We sing as a people who have been a free nation for 18 years,” said one of the people in the movie. For those of you who are interested, I would be happy to lend a chapter member my DVD copy of The Singing Revolution.

The idea of the Song Celebration is to show the national individuality of Estonians through choral singing and the playing of instruments. The first Song Celebration – also called a “Songfest” — was held in 1869 in the city of Tartu, Estonia’s second largest city. Tartu was chosen because, as a university town, the student’s quarters, vacant for the summer, could be used to house the choirs. From these relatively humble beginnings (800 singers) the Celebrations have continued every five years, with breaks during WW1 and WW2. Later, the Songfest was moved to the capital, Tallinn, as the facilities were better.

2009 Celebration

Each Songfest has a theme. This year’s theme was titled ‘To Breathe As One’ – and its underlying message was ‘innovation and achievement lack meaning if we do not recognize and honour the value of inter-generational connection’. As I read this in the program notes I could not help but reflect on the Society’s efforts to connect with the youth in our own communities.

For this year’s Songfest, Estonians began rehearsing in the fall of 2004, hoping to qualify for this year’s festivities. Those that are successful then begin years of practice on a select number of songs. Some choirs will sing several songs. Some may sing only a verse or two of one song. Few, if any, sing all the songs. But they all proudly learn their parts to an unbelievable degree of precision. Then, about six months before the big show, the men and women who will direct the choirs on stage visit the rehearsals and provide the interpretation. What a moment it must be for the directors to hear the on-stage results of years of dedication to song.

But this event isn’t only about song. Leading in to the Saturday/Sunday songfest are events held on Thursday and Friday. Most extraordinary of these is the Dance Celebrations — 7,500 dancers (also selected by competition) dance in unison to complicated choreography that, I’m sure, took years to perfect. Again, those putting on the show ranged in age from young children to older folks. As well, people can enjoy an “Instrument Party” in the centre of Tallinn, the capital of Estonia. In the heart of “Old Town”, the medieval part of Tallinn in the town square, orchestras comprised of various instruments, from accordions to zithers and everything in between are played for several hours.

Once the Thursday/Friday dancing and instrumental music is over, it is time for song. In the early afternoon on Saturday, choirs gather in the town square to walk the 4.5 km journey to the site of the choral concert. It’s just about the only way to get there – walking – so many audience members walk along with the choirs. Choir members are dressed in native costume – although one choir had cowboy hats and I’m not sure there is historical evidence for a culture of cowboys in Estonia! – and each choir carries a name banner (such as ‘Vanelinn Segakoor’ – Old Town Mixed Choir), the choir’s flag, and at least one (though often many, many more) Estonian flag. As it enters the stadium, each choir is announced, and each time the audience offers thunderous applause. My wife and I arrived at 5:00 pm to watch the choirs march in. The last one made its entrance shortly before 9:00. Remember – the first group set off at 2:00.

At some point a somewhat disgruntled woman behind us muttered something about the length of the procession and that the organizers should think of the audience and show a little less greed, or words to that effect. To my delight another woman responded that the Celebration was not for the audience but for the singers. It’s true. The singers are so in love with song that it wouldn’t matter that there were 110,000 of us in the audience. They loved singing. As proof, one director acceded to the pleas of the choir she had just completed directing and directed them through an “add on” song that was not in the program.

I’ll admit that it made me a bit nervous to think that a massed choir of almost 25,000 people were going to start to sing in harmony on stage. How could 25,000 people make anything but noise? But it was music they made and such beautiful music, too. They also had effective dynamics in their presentation – raising and lowering their 24,700 voices as the music and lyrics demanded. There were smaller groups – selected women’s choirs, selected male choirs, children’s choirs and instrumental groups, including the Estonian Philharmonic Orchestra. The evening ended well after midnight to be followed by another choral presentation Sunday at 2:00. Although there was no parade this time, Sunday’s concert ended past 7:00 pm.

As I mentioned, my wife is Estonian and so our family has been shaped by this country, touched by this country, by the years of occupation, by the tiny nation’s fierce determination, by the love of song. Without a doubt, I will never forget this Estonian Song and Dance Celebration, the elegant pride every participant and spectator took in their music and their country, and the fact that we all, do indeed, “Breathe as One.”