Song Contests

[By John Kingery]

Within every ethnically diverse community there exists an element that vividly defines that group. Cultural traditions have the ability to link the individual to the entire community as well as linking the community to the nation. This creates a national identity, which is acknowledged and sometimes admired by the world. Some societies have well-developed cultural forms whereas for others cultural traditions remain less developed. As for the traditions in place within the Baltic States, one cultural element has not only defined the people within its borders, but also aided in the peoples’ recognition of its own nationalistic potential. With their history of foreign intervention and rule, these states located their identities in the culture of traditional songs and dance. The song festivals have been a part of Baltic culture since the mid-nineteenth century, predominantly in Estonia and Latvia. However, the festivals and the nations’ cultures spawn from their local and national folklore. Lieven writes that “[for] nations which had been suppressed by other nations…the only route to the recovery of a national cultural and hence political identity was through the rediscovery of folklore” (Lieven, 113). Despite centuries of foreign rule, the naturalistic beauty of Baltic songs created a unity within the state, inaugurating a movement that carried the people towards independence.

Imperial Rule and the Festivals

The tradition of the song festivals began with the first all-Estonian festival in Tartu in 1869. A certain amount of influence came from the German nationalistic traditional festivals brought over by migrants. The purpose of the original song festival was to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the emancipation of peasants in the district of Livland. The program began with the singing of My Native Land, the Estonian national anthem. This was followed by an assortment of native compositions sung by choirs from different districts specifically for the first event. These relatively new songs were enjoyed by some 800 in attendance, a number that greatly increased in the following decades (Raun, 75). The songs’ subject matter was recognizable through local and national folklore passed down for generations. During the first festival, attendees heard Jakob Hurt, a member of the Estonian intelligentsia; speak on the development of Estonian education. The speech “provided a powerful stimulus to the development of Estonian national consciousness and musical culture” (Raun, 75). Hurt identified culture and folklore as means of educating the population and thereby creating an Estonian national identity.

The success of the first celebration launched the preparations for six more all-Estonian song festivals before the century’s end. Occasions for the celebrations ranged from the peasant emancipation to the celebration of tsarist anniversaries and included all members of Baltic societies. Despite the different reasons for celebrating, it was clear that the festivals were becoming less of a German tradition and more of an Estonian and broadly Baltic tradition. As the festivals grew in number so did the number of participants; native song compositions also increased. In 1896, the number of singers and dancers performing at the festival reached 5,520 and the audience was estimated at over 50,000 (Raun, 75). Despite being under imperial rule, the increase in attendance is evidence that the festivals were having a great impact on the state. In other words, “they symbolized not only the unity and aspirations but the very existence of the Baltic nations” (Kuutma, 2). Thus they initiated the national awakening within the people.

Soviet Rule and After

In Soviet-ruled Estonia and Latvia, little change occurred to the song festival’s program, yet its purpose altered significantly. Soviets influenced the content of the performances, such as the singing of Soviet Estonia’s national anthem, My Fatherland Is My Love, and banning the singing of My Native Land. With the festivals occurring every five years, participation in such events continued to increase as did the number of compositions being produced, especially by native Estonians. Such activity revolving around their musical culture proved to be a fitting contribution towards consciousness of a national identity. The festivals’ continuance during this period was strongly linked to the Soviet idea of mass participation in the promotion of the state. Also, the celebrations remained fairly secular (though with neo-pagan overtones), thus molding itself to the ideal Soviet form of ideological promotion in that it “offer[ed] fruitful ground for the application of the Stalinist principle, ‘national in form, socialist in content'” (Raun, 188). However, the continuation of the festivals threatened to undermine Soviet power and internationalist aspirations. It created within the people an internal awareness of their cultural and traditional identity. In other words, the festivals gave the people the opportunity not only to rebel against Soviet rule, but to make “a further step in the consolidation and mobilization of the spirit of the Baltic nations” (Lieven, 111).

The festivals survived the Stalin era, and glasnost increased the Baltic States’ literary as well as religious culture. However, it is within the song and dance festivals that the states of the Baltic truly gained their identity and independence. During the 1988 ‘Baltika’ festival, such defiance was witnessed with the raising of the national flags of all three Baltic republics. The role of the festivals during the Soviet period was to “symbolize…the unbreakable national unity and purpose in the face of all political conflicts and disputes” and this was also the case after independence (Lieven, 112). The festivals were an occasion for the entire family to don their best clothes and reunite with family and friends from all over the region. The same holds true after the fall of the Soviet Empire. Today the festivals continue to exhibit that national identity and are thus linked to a culture that originally lacked their own traditions. Kuutma states that Baltic pride was provided by the “definition, propagation, and perpetuation of ethnic values” (Kuutma, 2).

Much of what is witnessed at the present day festivals has been identified as a form of tradition invention. This notion can be seen in the traditional dress of historic peasant costumes decorated with flora and fauna which identify choirs from different regions, A recent addition to the festivals from the post-1991 period. However, the fact that the invention of tradition was successful has been a direct contribution to the formation and development of Baltic identity. One simply has to note the folkloric aspect at many of the national festivals which can be seen in “the frequent spontaneous singing, occurring outside the official programme” (Kuutma, 7). With up to 300,000 in attendance at a single festival, such spontaneity is reminiscent of the Singing Revolution in the late 1980s. Links to the Tsarist and Soviet governments and their local presence assisted in the creation of this unique musical culture and the nationalistic identity within the Baltic region of today.


Works cited

  • Evi Arujärv, “The Estonian Song Festival: A Chameleon Strategy”
  • Kristin Kuutma, “Cultural Identity, Nationalism and Changes in Singing Traditions” (2007)
  • Anatol Lieven, The Baltic Revolution: Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and the Path to Independence (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993).
  • Kevin O’Connor, Culture and Customs of the Baltic States (Westpoint: Greenwood Press, 2006).
  • Mairika Plakso, “Dance Festival – Invented Tradition?” (2004)
  • Toivo U. Raun, Estonia and the Estonians (Stanford: Hoover Press, 2001).