Here’s an intriguing question for pub quizzes: which country has the barn swallow as its national symbol? It’s Estonia.  Music has always played a vital part in its identity, from the inauguration of the song festival Laulupidu in 1869, at the height of Estonian national awakening, to the “singing revolution” in 1988, when one-third of the population (the country still only has 1.3 million inhabitants) came together in the twilight years of the Soviet Union in its relentless drive towards self-determination.

The Estonian Song Festival grounds in Tallinn
© Kaarel Mikkin

Punching well above its weight in musical terms comes naturally to this fiercely independent country. Just as Venezuela showed what could be done by creating a powerhouse for young people through El Sistema, so Estonia has long recognised that the process of transforming the musical landscape has to start from the moment children begin their schooling. Music education is a fundamental part of the curriculum: every child is encouraged to play an instrument and sing in a choir. This means that when young people graduate from their schools there is already a wide awareness of the importance of music as well as an appetite for building on acquired skills. 

Any outsider looking at the array of individual music festivals in the country may well come away feeling bewildered. There are some four dozen of them. Each has a specific focus, in a setting which often maximises the country’s history and traditions or the appeal of special venues, from the Haapsalu Early Music Festival (often an opportunity to spotlight international artists) through the Glasperlenspiel Festival (with its regular commissions of new works) to the Saaremaa Opera Festival (in historic castle grounds on the island of the same name). Most are quite short in duration throughout the summer months, yet visitors can move almost seamlessly from one local event to whatever the next locality has to offer. There are festivals devoted to the organ (Estonia has well over 200, mostly historical ones), the guitar, chamber ensembles as well as sacred and choral music. What is particularly notable is the wide range of performing sites: innumerable churches, public buildings, open-air spaces as well as more conventional concert halls. One key factor in anchoring performances in the public mind are the many live relays of concerts; public radio has also been busy archiving not only from the present but stretching back well into the past.

This plenitude of festivals derives largely from the past three decades, evidence of the way in which music increasingly acts as a life-stream in Estonia, coursing through every locality. There is a simple reason for this, as I discovered when talking to Madli-Liis Parts, the Music Adviser for the Estonian Ministry of Culture, music journalist and former organiser of the Estonian Music Days festival. Everything begins at the local level: musicians come together with friends to give expression to their own ideas and then establish their own festival. Because music has to be seen as accessible all over the country, with ticket prices which those on low incomes and students can afford, there has never been any pressure to create a few centralised festivals on the scale of Salzburg and Lucerne. In Estonia music is for everybody. However, that does also mean that local initiatives have to work very hard to establish their presence and demonstrate that they are maintaining high standards. Only then can they expect official subsidies. Even though an annual music budget of some 15 million euros (and 440,000 euros specifically for festivals) might not seem lavish, the percentage that the Estonian government spends on culture is very favourable (2 per cent of GDP compared to an average of just 1.2 per cent in the rest of the EU).

La Bohème at the 2018 Birgitta festival
© Tanel Meos

And how many other countries have self-styled composers’ cooperatives? In the Estonian case, this was instrumental in setting up the Estonian Music Days, which showcase a lot of the work of younger composers. People like Helena Tulve and Tõnu Kõrvits may be comparatively unknown in the UK, but they are household names in Estonia. Look up the page for Estonian composers on Wikipedia and you will find entries for nearly every letter of the alphabet. Nor do programmes with contemporary music spell box office disaster. On the contrary, concerts for this festival regularly sell out and are especially well attended by young people. Part of its attraction lies in individual composers introducing and talking about their new works. 

When it comes to singing, and Estonia is “the singing people”, few have the international reputation of Tõnu Kaljuste, founder of the professional Estonian National Philharmonic Choir and the Tallinn Chamber Orchestra, both of which play a key role in the Nargen Festival culminating in the Arvo Pärt Days that conclude on the composer’s birthday on 11th September. I wanted to know from Kaljuste why it is that singing matters so much to Estonians. It’s self-evidently a powerful social leveller, important not only in creating a sense of togetherness but also in making each individual appear stronger as part of a wider group. “If I sing,” Kaljuste said, “I have the power to change the world.” This deep-seated confidence in the transformative qualities of singing helps to explain the large number of choirs and their extraordinary reach in bringing together thousands of other participants from all around the world (the Estonian Song Festival, held every five years, has well over 30,000 singers). Given the reputation of his choral mentoring and performing, was there something special in his approach? He drew a parallel with his chamber musicians: “Vocalists need to have instrumental thinking and instrumental players need vocal thinking.”

At the heart of touristic interest is the medieval old town in Tallinn itself. Not far from this architectural jewel are the 15th century ruins of St Bridget’s Convent at Pirita, where the annual Birgitta Festival is held. I had an opportunity to speak to its Executive Director, Margit Tohver-Aints. She explained that this festival, founded by Eri Klas in 2005 and co-financed by the Tallinn Philharmonic Society and City of Tallinn, covers a very wide spectrum of music theatre: operas, ballets, galas and oratorios. Even though there are physical limits imposed by the performing space (the stage is only twenty metres wide and twelve deep) and other technical restrictions which make it difficult to import wholescale productions from elsewhere, guest companies regularly feature in the programme in addition to home-grown Estonian ensembles. The UK’s Black Cat Opera Company and Opera North have both performed here, as has John Neumeier’s Hamburg Ballet and the Brno National Ballet. In this year’s August festival there will be visits by the Dmitri Hvorostovsky Krasnoyarsk State Theatre of Opera and Ballet for both Aida and Eugene Onegin. The entire operation will be logistically complicated since the Russians are bringing a total of 206 personnel with them, but Tohver-Aint’s enthusiasm in continuing the tradition inaugurated by Klas is undimmed. Her task, as she says, is “to bring the work of others to Estonia and make it accessible to everyone”. 

One of the other leading festivals is at Pärnu, a creation of the Järvi family and now into its second decade. “I can be useful to Estonia,” says Paavo Järvi, when I ask him about his specific role.  Education is at the core of what happens here, something in which he believes passionately. For him everything really is “a labour of love”. A central role is played by the Academy Orchestra providing “a springboard for young musicians”: young Estonian artists are tutored and given vital experience as well as the all-important self-confidence. They play not only for tyros working in the Conducting Academy but also as members of the Pärnu Festival Orchestra. They sit side-by-side with concertmasters and section-leaders from leading European orchestras and beyond. They grow as a consequence, technically, artistically and spiritually. When I ask Järvi about the added value his work and commitment bring to the wider picture, he doesn’t hesitate for a moment. Many of those who have passed through Pärnu since its inception, he proudly states, are now working not only in Estonian orchestras but outside the country too.

Paavo Järvi and the Estonian Festival Orchestra at the Pärnu Music Festival
© Kaupo Kikkas

Crucial to what is happening in Estonia now is the existence of role models. The grand old man himself, Arvo Pärt, constantly inspires younger composers to follow his example. In a forest setting at Laulasmaa, the recently created Arvo Pärt Centre contains his entire archive. With multi-media facilities and its own concert-hall there is now an additional focal point for all those working on their own compositions. “He has done it, so why can’t I?” is how Järvi sums up the spirit of endeavour he encourages. Almost daily there are stories in newspapers and the wider media about emerging composers, musicians and conductors. It’s the old realisation: success breeds success. For Järvi it’s not about talent as such, since he believes talent can be found anywhere and everywhere, it’s more about a system which nurtures young people in what they wish to do and provides them with an adequate framework for achieving their goals. When I ask if he has ever been tempted to inaugurate his own conducting competition, he simply comments: “We are not there to judge people, we are there to teach them.”

Back to suitsupääsuke, or the barn swallow. Why are these birds peculiarly relevant to the music scene in Estonia? Matching the blue-black-and-white of the national flag, they inhabit nearly all continents, they depend on human settlements, they migrate and they symbolise the coming of spring, qualities that resonate with the way musicians in Estonia see themselves in the modern world. As Shakespeare puts it in Richard III, “True hope is swift, and flies with swallow’s wings.”

This article was sponsored by Tallinn Culture and Sports Department.

Tallinn is a candidate to become a City of Music in the UNESCO Creative Cities Network 2021

Editor's Note, 12th July 2021: we have received news that the Birgitta Festival 2021 has been cancelled.