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Song Festival of the ‘Children of Freedom’

Around 30 000 choir singers and dancers represent a new generation

10 min read
© Aivar Pihelgas

The 12th Youth Song and Dance Celebration will take place in Tallinn from the 30th of June to the 2nd of July 2017. Around 30 000 choir singers and dancers represent a new generation — ‘children of freedom’, who were all born after Estonia regained its independence in 1991. Most of the composers and conductors belong to this young generation who now want to give a vow and promise to take care of their cultural heritage under the theme ‘Here I’ll stay’. One of them is composer Rasmus Puur (25), the author of the concept of this year’s Song Festival.

  © Aivar Pihelgas

Puur’s interest in music grew from his long experience as a choir singer. He entered the artistic competition for the concept of the Song Festival right after graduating from the Music Academy. ‘Surprisingly, our idea “Here I’ll stay” won the competition and now we are implementing it together. I couldn’t do it alone, it really involves the whole generation and going through the process together while learning through it and accepting the responsibility for the culture.’

Can you shed light into the process of joint creation? Now we are already at the finish line of the preparations, the major work has been completed. What did it look like? Usually selecting the repertoire is a first step of each Song Festival. What was your vision and role in this?

Selecting the repertoire is the most thorough process. Our concept was to include young composers and to have a new piece in each choir category. We had a competition for young composers so that everyone could be part of it. Next to the contemporary ones we have included early compositions by our legendary composers to see how young people thought in different eras. The exciting thing is that many of the Song Festival standards were composed when the authors were very young. Mihkel Lüdig was 24 when he composed the classic opening song ‘Koit’ /Dawn/ within only 15 minutes! Enn Võrk composed ‘Eesti lipp’, the anthem of our flag, at the age of 17. This puts these songs in a totally different context. At rehearsals all around Estonia I have told the singers to keep in mind that these songs are by people younger than me and they are full of youthfulness. They don’t have to sing it as some sacred anthem but rather as a celebration full of joy and pride. So it’s very interesting to put the classics in a different context.

What were the criteria for selecting the commissioned pieces?

First we looked at existing repertoire that would be suitable. Then we discussed what was missing in each choir category – a song with instrumental backing or without, something more boisterous or more thoughtful. Composing for the Song Festival is a totally different process as you have to consider very many restrictions: we have young singers, who need to be able to learn it, so it can’t be too difficult, too high, too tiring. Since the process of learning takes a year, it’s important that the singers don’t get bored after a month. It has to have meaningful lyrics that support the concept of cultural responsibility for our heritage. It was a task with many rules. At the same time the composer needs to keep his unique character.

What kinds of songs were proposed? What is the language of this new music?

This new music has a very contemporary sound, very understandable for us today but still clearly rooted in the Estonian musical canon. The selected songs feel like they have always existed. We had very many good entries, way more than were finally selected, just because of the slots and the types of songs that fit in. Just as one can’t study to become a Song Festival conductor, it’s also not possible to study to become a Song Festival composer. You need experience for this special genre of Song Festival.

What about lyrics? It seems to be incredibly important for you. How were the lyrics for the newly commissioned songs selected?

The composers selected the poetry. When the competition was announced I went through lots of poems to find the ones that relate to the topic of this Song Festival best. I need the poetry to really touch and move me, to be in the service of the idea, then the music just flows. The piece for joint choirs based on a poem by Anna Haava was born very quickly. It really has a young person’s face written all over it – ‘we don’t want to be a forgotten and silent page in the book of time’. This is a very strong classical text of Estonian poetry that reflects all the big topics and feelings so characteristic for youth. Power, intensity, will, faith – without the doubt that will emerge later in life.

Does it take guts to dare to work with big classic poetry like that?


When I am face-to-face with the text on my own I don’t feel the weight of the responsibility at all. It’s my daily comfort zone from where I face the text and have the freedom to let the music happen.

Conductor Hirvo Surva has explained the meaning of Song Festivals for Estonian music life as being the foundation of the musical pyramid that supports everything else. So when using this metaphor it must be amazing to climb to the top of this pyramid — conducting the most prominent part of the concert, the joint choirs of 30 000 people, who sing your own song.

This is only possible in Estonia. Every person who does something will be noticed, will not get lost. Every person counts. If you do something with dedication, if it has ideas, thoughts and content, you will be noticed and given the opportunity to do these things. This is probably quite rare. So yes, I can do the biggest musical event of the country immediately after graduating from the Academy of Music. Everyone realizes that we need to keep the connection between generations. The sense of responsibility also comes from the opportunity that the older and more experienced people have given us – just go ahead! They have given us a signal that we are welcome as equal partners, no more children.

On this background it is may be quite easy to say: ‘Here I’ll stay’ — the theme of this year’s Song Festival. The personal experience of responsibility given to you probably makes the choice to stay the only possible one.

For me this question has never occurred. I felt this sense of responsibility before it was actually given to me. Because here I can do everything I want. I have the possibility to do it with the people I want to. Here everyone is just a phone-call away. It is not enough just to stay here in a passive way though. We also need to do something. This is the hidden part of the message − to keep the continuity of the culture that has lasted many thousand years. We have the duty to keep our face and character while being contemporary and modern in our time. Being open while being ourselves. If we don’t pay attention we will lose our character and then there is no need for us to be here at all.

When composing choir music here the fact that the performers understand your language and your musical roots is an important anchor, in the case of symphonic music this restriction might not apply. The whole world could be your playground.


I have no ambition to conquer the world. For me it is important that my people here understand my music and enjoy the experience. I understand Estonian instrumental music much better than music written in Germany of France. I have a clearer grasp of it because it was created in the same cultural space, the people have walked the same streets and forest paths like me and I feel it. There is a connection. Maybe we even understand it more clearly in the instrumental music when there is no text, just the feeling.

We do have composers who are very sought-after worldwide and this shows they can be understood globally.

This is a true miracle. Veljo Tormis’ huge contribution was that his music has set us apart from the rest of the world so distinguishably. Our own voice, our own music. Now our choirs have something to offer to audiences abroad. Also Arvo Pärt for me represents Estonian character very strongly – he is very frugal in his notes and never adds anything beyond what’s absolutely needed. I can recognize the sky of Estonia in Pärt’s music.

What is your expectation regarding the Song Festival?

I haven’t really thought about it. Even the first cycle of the rehearsals has been such an enriching experience – to see the whole picture all around Estonia. To see how much people care about the Song Festival, how important it is for the kids, how much effort they have already put into it, how eagerly they wait. This has been so overwhelmingly rewarding already. I’m afraid that after conducting the 30 000-person choir at the Song Festival I won’t even remember the emotions afterwards.

The process is even more important for the participants than the event itself?

Absolutely. I have had 38 rehearsals all over Estonia in the last three weeks and I was a bit afraid that I’d get tired of speaking about the same things all over. But I didn’t – the new audience every time, in a way, cheated me into feeling as if I were telling it for the first time. It has also been a chance to leave the first impression so many times in a row – this will never happen to me again. Every time I can test and take a small risk – who do I want to be today? In the end of course I am who I am. At the beginning it was really hard – to face the hundreds of singers and feel the responsibility. The first time I failed miserably. The next day I had to overcome it and do it all over again. I totally underestimated it. You cannot experience such a big choir anywhere else.

Going through the process is important so by the end of it you actually know all 30 000 of the singers that you’ll meet again at the Song Festival.

Yes, I actually do remember the faces at the end!

How do the singers deal with you being part of their own generation?

It’s probably part of the magic and an aim in itself – a festival of youth that we all create together. For the singers I’m more like an older brother. They get the reassurance that it’s nothing unachievable to be a composer or conductor – “I could do it!”

Source: Life in Estonia

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