Once every five years, the Estonian song festival grounds (Lauluväljak in Tallinn) are filled with folk costumes and smiling people. Imagine tens of thousands of singers forming one huge choir and hundreds of thousands of people sitting on the grass to hear traditional choir music – no wonder it shocks, surprises and mesmerises overseas visitors!
What makes it even more special is that, due to the small population of Estonia, there are less than million Estonian speakers and yet, a tenth of them attend the event. Long established song festival traditions are most likely the reason why Estonians – not known for our pop-music or global musical prowess – are still referred to as the “singing nation”.
Singing and songs have played a very important role in Estonian history. Songs were sung when cottagers tilled the manor land, singing sparked the “awakening” era in Estonia, our troops sang national songs fighting through the world wars and during the end of eighties, the Singing Revolution (which started right here on the Song Festival grounds) enabled us to regain our independence from the Soviet Union. The Estonian national collection of folk songs comes second only to Ireland. 2007, the first-ever punk-song-choir festival was organised in Estonia. In 2010 the first ever digital song festival was held in Estonia. Our Night Song Festivals (Öölaulupidu) and (M)Ärkamisaeg (Awakening Time/Noticing Time), are events held to honour our independence, and are the world’s largest music events in the world in terms of the percentage of population (over 25%) participating! The joint choir on General Song Celebrations (consisting over 20 000 singers) also owns the title of being the world’s largest permanent choir.
Tallinn’s song festival grounds, Lauluväljak (the Song Festival Grounds), have been visited by virtually every single Estonian. The stage under the “song arch” accommodates nearly 30 000 singers at once and there is room for almost 200 000 spectators. It is difficult to imagine Song festivals taking place anywhere else but here. But the tradition itself was born in Southern Estonia, in the second city Tartu and the first joint Song Celebration, held in Tartu in 1869, is considered to be the beginning of the Song Festivals as we know it.
The Song Festival moved to its current location, Lauluväljak, in between the wars in 1928. The stage was a lot smaller then and the hill surrounding it accommodated far fewer people, so during major renovations a new stage was constructed to take double the number of singers and a higher tower for the “Song Festival live Fire” was built. Our song festival stage – the Song Arch – has a very unique architectural structure and the arch actually lifts higher when the sound is loud enough!
In 2003, UNESCO declared Estonia’s Song and Dance Celebration tradition a masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.
Estonia is not the only country with Song Festival traditions and even our song festival grounds look quite similar to those in Riga (Latvia) and Vilnius (Lithuania). But fortunately for us, we have managed to keep the traditions strong both for Song Celebrations as well as for Dance Celebrations and festivals organised in Estonia are of a larger scale.