This is a contribution by Julie Bowen, who also wrote a guide to the Baltic for Iglu Cruise.
Music is a huge part of Estonian culture dating back to c. 1179 when ancient warriors were said to sing before a battle to rally the troops and instil morale. It’s developed through the ages and Estonia’s heritage song became their anthem of independence and even now, music festivals of all genres are held all over their country to celebrate their culture.
History of Music
Estonia has deep roots in animism – the belief that all animals, plants and objects have feelings and spirits. Therefore, storytelling and folklore have a huge place in their culture. These tales were often told though music and these songs were passed down from generation to generation. In fact, they weren’t even written down until the 19th century during wartime, when preserving Estonia’s culture and history was of the utmost importance to the Estonians. These songs not only told stories of the afterlife, giving more modern Estonians a better idea of their ancestor’s belief system, they also provided teachings on life, birth and marriage.
When Estonia gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 with other Baltic countries Lithuania and Latvia, their love of music took on an even more important role. The “singing revolution” saw hundreds of thousands of Estonians gather to raise their flag and sing their heritage song during the 1980s. These songs had previously been banned by the Soviet Union and therefore carried a strong message of defiance. This show of togetherness and solidarity caught the attention of the Baltic’s Communist party, who eventually pushed for Estonia’s independence in the early 90s.
Music is still a prevalent part of modern Estonian life with a range of festivals taking part every year. Estonia’s Song Festival is one example. Every five years in the country’s capital, Tallinn, up to 18,000 choir singers take part in the atmospheric song festival in order to sing well-known Estonian songs, including their heritage song.
As well as the song festival, Estonia also hosts a range of instrument-based festivals, including the incredibly varied Haapsalu String Festival and Accordion Festival also known as “Harmoonika”. The latter sees several accordion players pay homage to famous Estonian musician Karl Kikas. The popularity of the modern song, dance and music festivals reflect the country’s deep love of music to this day, showing the world that peaceful protesting and storytelling through verse still has a firm and effective place in Estonian culture.