Our songs have been our weapons, Song Festivals our victories," stated Estonian president Lennart Meri in his opening remarks for the twenty-third National Estonian Song Festival this past July, reinvigorating a tradition that began in 1869. Surveying an audience that by all estimates exceeded 100,000, the elder statesman was prompted to chide critics who claim the festival is outdated.

Estonian history reveals an incessant struggle for independence over the last 700 years amidst foreign domination and cultural repression. After centuries of feudalism and paganism, Moravian missionaries sparked a revival in the eighteenth century; musicologists agree it spread through choral singing more than by preaching. Estonian Evangelical Fellowship President Meego Remmel confirms that the methodology has not changed. One choral conductor noted, "Music is the first pulpit here in Estonia—the sermon is the second."

Soviet occupation in 1940 under the brutal Stalin regime led to a mass exodus of Estonia's best and brightest. The russification schemes of the 1970s also threatened the country's ties to its culturally Christian past. But the more Soviet leaders believed that russification would eventually smother local characteristics that were considered "non-Russian" and "anti-Soviet," the more Estonians determined to resist. The singing culture celebrated especially through Song Festivals provided a means for a peaceful, yet effective resistance, nurturing a renewed national community. One choral conductor noted: "We sang ourselves free."

When glasnost made real change a possibility in the 1980s, organizers who were gathered for a "Singing Revolution" at the Song Festival grounds in late 1988 to reinstitute the 1869 and pre-Soviet tradition boldly inserted political speeches between the concerts. Soon afterward concrete steps were taken to separate Estonia from the USSR. By 1990, the National Song Festival was a massive and intense affair, drawing thousands of people and hundreds of choirs. In 1999, the two-day event featured large choirs from Estonia and abroad, some numbering up to 29,000 singers.

Estonia accurately represents many nations living under repression whose people turn to the arts—and music in particular—as a means of preserving ethnic and religious identity. But when political threats are removed, art styles and content often are influenced by market trends and economic demands rather than prophetic urgency.

Recognizing this new danger, President Meri implored his nation to continue to support this uniquely national art form and its deeply spiritual roots. "The next century will be waiting for new children's choirs, the world will be waiting for new Estonian music," Meri exhorted this year's crowd at the festival. "Long live our songs and composers … our poets and conductors … our old and young that have kept the fire of songs burning today!"

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