We’ve had such a positive response to our article about choral singing in Estonia, featuring information about its Song Celebration and comments from Arvo Pärt, that we’ve been keen to hear more about the choral scene there. Ülo Krigul sings with the Estonian National Male Choir and offers some interesting insights into the strong grounding choral singing has in Estonia’s education system, news of the amazing festival where thousands of singers meet to make music together, and his thoughts on the Baltic bass sound.

Ülo Krigul
Ülo Krigul

In the UK, choral singing is enjoying a huge renaissance at the moment. What is happening in Estonia? Can you give us any examples?

Estonia, with its 1.3 million population, has more than 40,000 amateur choral singers in about 1360 choirs. Choral singing here has enjoyed continuous popularity with no dramatic ebbs nor flows. We speak of choral singing as a form of music making, but its social side is even more important here (remember the Singing Revolution in 1987-1991).

The most unique phenomenon in the Estonian choral movement is the tradition of our Song Celebrations (Laulupidu) launched in 1869. Every five years, almost all Estonian Choirs gather in Tallinn’s Song Festival Arena to sing in the 30,000 member joint choir and express the feeling that they belong together. Almost annually, we host choral festivals of different scale and Estonian choirs are eager to participate in festivals all over the world.

Song Celebrations (Laulupidu)
Song Celebrations (Laulupidu)

Which styles of choral writing do you think are engaging audiences (and performers) the most?

The absolute favourites for the singers and audiences alike are naturally the highlights of world classics. Folk music-based works enjoy similar popularity – either Estonian or world music. Veljo Tormis' vividly original music on the world arena serves as a good example. Crossing the borders between choral and pop music and the renaissance of sonorous, full-harmonized music in last few years, have brought larger audiences to concert venues and more singers to choirs. What matters is not so much the style but the way the composers deliver their message.

What is the usual route for singers in Estonia into choral singing? How far does the education system go into training young voices? Are there many young people singing in choirs or is it mostly a more mature scene?

In Estonia, musical education for 3-4 year olds starts at playschools and kindergartens. Generally, they have music classes once a week, while singing together plays an important role. The same pattern continues in elementary, basic and secondary schools where, in addition to regular music classes, we find children’s, youth and mixed choirs. A school without a choir here is considered an anomaly. As a rule, Estonian schools use relative Jo-Le-Mi (solfeggio) system, which is a newer, expanded version of the century old Kodály Method and considerably helps to develop sight-reading skills. Vocal technique does not receive equally systematic attention. In short, choral singing is popular with young people.

The age of singers in a choir depends largely on its priorities. When the main focus lies on social activities, peer policy is preferred. When the goal is making music, then you will find grandfathers and their granddaughters singing side by side.

Estonian National Male Choir © Jaan Krivel
Estonian National Male Choir
© Jaan Krivel

The eastern European bass makes a very special sound and Baltic/ Russian composers have utilised this in their compositions. Why do you think this is? ...And can western choirs really reproduce it?!

I have sung for almost 40 years in the basso profundo section of Estonian National Male Choir and therefore obviously belong to the above-mentioned “very-special-sound-makers”! Nevertheless, I very much doubt that this kind of vocal-geographical speciality is anything else but a myth. Rather, it is a tradition with its roots in Orthodox church music and its predominantly masculine way of performing, combined with the composers' (both then and today) skilful use of overtones. Anthropologists have claimed that men in these parts of the world are the tallest which, drawing parallells with organ pipes, might be one of the reasons. Yet the lowest pitches in our choir are produced by the shortest man among us. I have also heard very impressive basses in Italian, German and American choirs and I don't believe that they have been imported from our corner of the world.

Who are the other new, exciting choral composers and choirs emerging there?

The world-famous Arvo Pärt and Veljo Tormis do not stand alone in Estonian choral music – Tõnu Kõrvits, Pärt Uusberg and Evelin Seppar are following them. Besides the professional Estonian National Male Choir and Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, there are our top amateur choirs like Vox Clamantis, Voces Musicales,  Head Ööd Vend, HUIK! and many others, which are already successful and much appreciated both at home and abroad.


Ülo Krigul (62), singer in the Estonian National Male Choir, director of Consono Concert Agency

The Estonian National Male Choir (Eesti Rahvusmeeskoor, otherwise known as RAM), founded in 1944, originally singing a cappella, is now a world-renowned professional choir noted for its renditions of large-scale choral works. The choir regularly records for broadcasting companies and has collaborated with Deutsche Grammophon, Sony, Finlandia, Alba Records, Virgin Classics and GB Records. In 2004, RAM won the Grammy Award in the category of Choral Music for the CD of Sibelius’ Cantatas (Virgin Classics), an album which featured the Estonian National Male Choir, the Girls’ choir Ellerhein, and the Estonian National Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Paavo Järvi. The album of Edvard Grieg’s Peer Gynt, recorded by the same musicians, was named the best album of orchestral music in 2005 by BBC Music Magazine.

The choir’s repertoire ranges from the Renaissance period to the music of the 21st century. Estonian composers aside, the choir has performed works from Shostakovich to Taktakishvili, and from Bryars to Bonato in recent programmes. The Estonian National Male Choir has performed more than 6,000 concerts in Estonia, in major cities of the former Soviet Union, in various countries across Western Europe as well as in Israel, Canada and the United States.

As of the 2011-2012 season, Mikk Üleoja has acted as the principal conductor and artistic director of the choir.