The desire for independence is so instilled in the human psyche that whether on an individual, tribal or national basis no matter how suppressed, repressed or brutally denied it remains one of the most powerful forces in human existence.
For the tiny country of Estonia, its geographic position and small population have made it a favourite of barbarous invaders—including Denmark, Germany, Sweden and Poland—for centuries. How did this Baltic nation finally achieve its most recent independence (this time from the Soviet Union in 1991)? As painstakingly documented by James and Maureen Tusty, the key to liberation was catalytically provided by the most incredible weapon in the unarmed culture’s possession: the human voice.
Modern, Western viewers may find it strange that an entire population is versed in the basics of vocal skills. With a repertoire drawn largely from traditional folk songs and Estonian composers, the language and historical incidents are lovingly passed down from generation to generation in a musically shared tradition.
Because of this national joy of music, a Song Festival was established in 1869. Choirs and their conductors would practise the prescribed repertoire diligently and then perform en mass for their fellow countrymen every few years. Traditional dress was worn; flags were flown high.
After the signing of the Nazi-Soviet pact of 1939 and subsequent invasion of the free-since-1920 country by Stalin’s soldiers, the music seemed at risk of being tossed into shallow graves along with the executed intelligentsia or shipped to Siberia with those whose only crime was to be born in the wrong place.
Hitler’s “betrayal” of his Russian friends in 1941 started a horrific military ping-pong that lasted until 1944 when the Soviets resumed their occupation (this followed Stalin’s assurances to Churchill and Roosevelt that “I will set up free elections”—a declaration adopted by many a despot to legitimize their continuing reigns-of-terror and fend off international sanctions). The “Russification” program became so successful that 40% of the population was imported from the Motherland.
The 1947 festival was largely a propaganda buffet where the music praised Stalin, Lenin and the wisdom of collective farms. Curiously, a new setting by composer/conductor Gustav Ernesaks of poet Lydia Koidula’s “Mu isamaa on minu arm” (“Land of my Fathers, Land That I Love”) slipped past the censors. Its inaugural performance struck a chord with the embattled Estonians—instantly becoming the anthem for independence. The straightforward melody and poignant suspensions in the part writing were repeated at every subsequent gathering.
The 1969 centenary “celebration” was a muted affair. The Soviets banned both the anthem and traditional garb. Spontaneously, the thousands of singers courageously broke into the forbidden song (without benefit of a conductor, which proved unnecessary given the unifying passion and determination that drove the music forward); not even the cacophony of a suddenly cued brass band could stop the choral movement of rebellion. Temporarily giving up, the Soviets permitted the composer to take the podium and lead his music properly. The historical footage of this moment is a magnificent revelation of the power of song over might; the intensity seen in the eyes of the chorus is unforgettable, foreshadowing the coming mantra from artist Heinz Valk, “One day, no matter what, we will win.” (Valk also coined “The Singing Revolution”).
The film spends much of its time outlining the political events that moved the cause of freedom forward. Notably, the Estonians couldn’t totally agree amongst themselves as to how to tame the Bear and send it packing. Those loyal to the Russian leadership (Interfront) liked the status quo and their domination over the oft-invaded “comrades.”
Everything comes to a head as Gorbachev’s free speech policies truly let the “ghost out of the bottle.” The adage “music has charms to soothe the savage breast” is so ingrained in the Estonians that a potentially bloody conflict with Interfront—as they storm the Congress—they proudly open an escape aisle amidst their number and let their astonished tormentors retreat without “a drop of blood being shed.” A subsequent tank invasion (following in the footsteps of Lithuania and Latvia in 1991) serves only to bind all Estonians together and symbolically vote for independence.
The collapse of the Soviet Union is the last straw for Communist supremacy but the first brick for a nation that eschews bullets and guns for full lungs and four-part harmony.
As the combined choirs sing in celebration, the montage of archival clips and present-day life (ably captured by Miguelangel Aponte-Rios’ imaginative cinematography and Mike Majoros’ stellar edits), the music, its performers and audience meld into an incredible spirit, filled with future possibilities for this battered people. Notably absent are the imported citizenry who may yet wish to nurture a theme of their own with or without their dormant great protectors.
The perfect accompaniment to the film is Pritt Vesilind’s book of the same name. The narrative provides further detail and background. The generous amount of photographs adds yet another dimension to this extraordinary tale. JWR