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Musical Estonia sings in 90 years since independence

by Anneli Reigas*

The Baltic state of Estonia is tuning up to mark 90 years of independence today, and its celebrations will spotlight the pivotal role of song and music in its history.
"I think it's in our blood to feel so attached to beautiful music," Evald Roeigas, a Tallinn resident who at 97 is older than his own country, told AFP.
"As a boy I was singing in a choir myself. The emotions we got from the song festivals helped us to keep our spirit during the darkest years of Soviet occupation," added Roeigas.
Estonia's song festivals, which draw hundreds of thousands of people and have been organised regularly since 1869, have given its people comfort as they have been shaken by the winds of history and politics.
Estonia declared independence on February 24, 1918, after the communist Russian Revolution brought down the Tsarist empire.
The country enjoyed only 22 years of freedom, before being reoccupied by the Soviet Union in 1940, seized by Nazi Germany in 1941 and again taken over by Moscow in 1944.
Tens of thousands of Estonians were deported to Siberia or fled into Western exile during the five-decade Soviet era.
Music became a symbol of passive resistance to Soviet rule, a way for Estonians to express their national pride, just as was under the Russian empire.
In the Soviet era, Estonians performed in their native tongue, albeit under huge, politically-correct posters of Lenin and Marx.
These festivals ended with a song that was never listed on the official programme: "My Dear Fatherland", written by an Estonian poet in 19th Century, which brought tears to the eyes of hundreds of thousands of audience members who sang along with the choir.
Estonia won back its independence in 1991 from the crumbling Soviet bloc, and the country of 1.3 million people has since worked hard to remind the world that it is no teenage newcomer on the international stage.
Hence the ambitious plans for its 90th anniversary, in which music, of course, will play a major part.
This year, world-renowned Estonian musicians, composers and conductors such as Paavo Jarvi are to perform in 37 countries across the globe to celebrate.
"The strong and long music culture in Estonia is definitely one of the best trademarks of our nation," Grammy-award winning Jarvi told AFP.
Jarvi is the chief conductor of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra in the United States, Germany's Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra and Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie. He is scheduled to become lead conductor of the Orchestre de Paris in 2010.
He comes from a family that symbolises the Estonians' troubled history of exile and provides sonorous proof of the musical talent of this Baltic nation.
His father, conductor Neeme Jarvi, fled with his wife and three children to the United States in 1980. Paavo's brother Kristjan conducts Vienna Tonkunstler Symphony Orchestra, while his sister Maarika is a flautist.
Music also played its part in Estonia's independence drive in the dying days of Soviet rule.
The so-called Singing Revolution began in June 1988 when Estonians started to sing anti-Soviet anthems and fly Estonia's banned blue, black and white national flag.
Later Tallinn's song festival venue was used for pro-independence rallies.
Emotional memories of the musical opposition will be uppermost next year.
From July 2-5, 2009, Tallinn's vast open-air Baltic shore venue will host the five-yearly national song festival.
Tens of thousands of Estonians practice year-round in their local choir to get a shot at attending the festival, where a single conductor leads a choir of 19,000 — a size unseen elsewhere.
"When I tell my colleagues abroad about this, I often get the feeling they at first think I'm slightly crazy or I've made it up," Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Paet told AFP.