Maris Hellrand

Maris Hellrand is a freelance journalist and producer and focuses on non-profit PR and fixing for international media in Estonia.

Maarja Kruusmaa – transforming nature’s design into high tech

Estonian scientist Maarja Kruusmaa founded the Centre of Biorobotics at the Tallinn University of Technology (TalTech) in 2008; in 10 years, the centre has become one of the best known and most acknowledged research centres in Estonia and literally making waves around the world. The unique niche of Kruusmaa’s research are robots, …

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Estonian Song Celebration timeline

The Estonian Song Celebration (Laulupidu) is a unique event, which every five years brings together a huge choir of 25,000 people for a weekend in July. More than 100,000 spectators enjoy the concerts and sing along to the most popular songs.*

The festivals have become the main anchor of Estonian identity. Twice the song celebrations have led to Estonia’s independence.

In the 19th century, the choirs and song celebrations were at the core of the national awakening of Estonian peasants, who discovered the value of their own language and cultural heritage through singing. The national awakening and establishment of identity led to Estonian independence in 1918.

After WWII, during the Soviet occupation, the song celebrations helped keep the national identity alive. In 1988, several hundred thousand people gathered at the Song Festival grounds and sang for freedom for many days and nights. The Singing Revolution helped end the Soviet rule and indirectly led to Estonia’s independence once again in 1991.

The timeline below highlights the most important instances of this unique Estonian tradition.

Song Celebration timeline


The first Estonian Song Celebration was held in Tartu with 878 male singers and brass musicians. All of the songs were in Estonian.

The publisher Johann Voldemar Jannsen initiated the Song Celebration as part of the Estonian national awakening movement. Simple peasants discovered that their traditions could be part of high culture. Jannsen’s daughter, Lydia Koidula, whose sobriquet means “Lydia of the Dawn”, was the author of lyrics for two Estonian songs, “Sind surmani” and “Mu isamaa on minu arm”, both of which are still in the repertoire today. Lydia Koidula, also referred to as Koidulaulik – “Singer of the Dawn”, was also involved in the preparations of the scores and fund-raising; quite an unusual role for a woman at that time.


The third festival was held in Tallinn for the first time. A year later, Finland arranged its first nation-wide song and music celebration.


At the fourth festival, mixed choirs participated for the first time. In spite of the efforts by the Russian czar to ensure the dominance of Russian language in public life, more than half of the songs were in Estonian, among them songs by Miina Härma, Estonia’s first female composer. Singers spontaneously joined in today’s Estonian anthem “Mu isamaa, mu õnn ja rõõm” by Fredrik Pacius. In the years to come, choral singing remained the only cultural activity conducted in Estonian, as the Russian emperor required all official matters and education to be handled in Russian.


For the first time, choirs from Estonian settlements in Russia participated at the fifth festival in Tartu. The anthem by Pacius was sung again.


Starting with this the sixth Laulupidu, the festivals have been held in Tallinn.


The festival was held in Tallinn with children’s choirs among the performers for the first time. Mihkel Lüdig, whose “Koit” (Dawn) is the current opening song, was the artistic director of the celebration and offered a complicated repertoire.



The eighth festival and the first one in independent Estonia, was held on a permanent stage in Tallinn, which accommodated 12,000 singers. The first aerial photograph was taken and the first film of the celebration was shot. With the Song Celebration of 1923, the tradition of holding the festival every five years was started.




The ninth festival was the first one held in today’s Song Festival grounds in Tallinn; the new stage designed by the architect Karl Burman accommodated 15,000 singers.

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Female choirs participated for the first time; the first radio broadcast from the festival.




In the eleventh Laulupidu, Gustav Ernesaks conducted the choirs for the first time, and his music was performed. In 1944, he wrote the music for “Mu isamaa on minu arm”, with the lyrics of Lydia Koidula, during his deportation to Russia. Five days later, the Soviet army bombed Tallinn and destroyed the Estonia opera house, the national broadcasting centre and the conservatory, among many other buildings. In 1944, more than 70,000 Estonians fled the country to the west, among them many well-known musicians. In 1946, the first large Estonian Song Festival was held in Germany; later they were held in Sweden, the USA, Canada, Australia and the UK.





The twelfth and the first post-war song festival, with Gustav Ernesaks as one of the artistic directors. In spite of massive Soviet propaganda, the repertoire was mostly traditional. People were arrested even at the Song Festival grounds. Ernesaks’s “Mu isamaa on minu arm” was performed for the first time. In 1950, another wave of Soviet repression swept up the Song Celebration artistic directors Alfred Karindi, Riho Päts and Tuudur Vettik.


The darkest chapter in the Song Celebration history. In the thirteenth Laulupidu, Soviet propaganda songs dominated the repertoire; choirs of Soviet miners and the army choir were among the participants. During the dark era of Soviet oppression, choir singing remained one of the few areas where private initiative and trust were still present. This helped keep the longing for freedom alive. In spite of the schizophrenic situation, most Estonians held the Song Celebration dear as the most important national event.

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ErnesaksBy the fifteenth festival, the new Song Festival stage, by the architect Alar Kotli, had been built. Before the concert, “Mu isamaa on minu arm” was removed from the programme. However, choirs started to sing it spontaneously and, after a moment’s hesitation, Ernesaks climbed up to the conductor’s stand and started to conduct. Since then, the song has been the most anticipated and the “compulsory” finale of the celebration.


The first centennial of the song celebrations with the flame being lit for the first time in Tartu, the birthplace of the celebrations, and carried through Estonia to Tallinn. The repertoire of the seventeenth festival was a lot more traditional compared with the Soviet propaganda-filled celebrations before and after. “Koit” (Dawn) by Mihkel Lüdig became the traditional opening song.




Exiled Estonians organised the first ESTO, with a worldwide Estonian Song celebration as its focus, in Toronto, Canada. Estonian dissidents sent a letter to the United Nations demanding the restoration of Estonia’s independence. At the end of 1970s, the Soviet army invaded Afghanistan and many Estonians were drafted.


The nineteenth festival was part of the cultural programme of the Moscow Olympic Games, which were boycotted by most of the free world. The Soviet authorities increased pressure on dissidents, and the well-known Estonian musicians Arvo Pärt and Neeme Järvi emigrated to the West.



The twentieth festival saw the participation of male, mixed, female, boys’ and Russian choirs, as well as brass orchestras, violin ensembles and choirs of Russian war veterans. Of the 82 songs on the programme, only 48 were written by Estonian composers.



Alo Mattiisen’s “Five Patriotic Songs” were performed at the Tartu Pop Music Days in May. The Singing Revolution started at the Tallinn Song Festival grounds in June. Thousands of people flocked to the spontaneous singing gatherings night after night; in the end, there were many hundred thousand people.


Although formally still in the Soviet Union, the twenty-first Song Celebration was dominated by traditional symbols and repertoire. The concert finished with “Mu isamaa, mu õnn ja rõõm”, the former and current Estonian anthem, which was banned by the Soviets. Estonia’s independence was restored a year later, on 20 August 1991.


The first celebration after the restoration of independence. The festival celebrated its 125th anniversary.


Young children’s choirs participated for the first time. President Lennart Meri was quoted as saying, “The Song Celebration is not a matter of fashion. The Song Celebration is a matter of the heart.” Even though Estonia was independent now and the cultural identity was not threatened by foreign powers, people still considered the Song Celebration a matter of pride and joy ,which needed to live on.


The Estonian, Latvian and Lithuanian Song and Dance Celebrations were listed as UNESCO oral and intangible heritage.


The statue of Gustav Ernesaks was unveiled at the Tallinn Song Festival grounds. Due to heavy rain, the official procession was cancelled, but singers and dancers still spontaneously joined the march following the call of the maestro Eri Klas.

Gustav Ernesaks sculpture


The American filmmakers, Maureen and James Tusty, started a documentary about Estonian song festivals and the Singing Revolution. On 1 December 2006, The Singing Revolution premiered at the Black Nights Film Festival in Tallinn, Estonia.

The authors said: “We had made the film for the rest of the world, but we could think of no better venue for our international premier. We were deeply touched by the fifteen-minute standing ovation the Estonian audience gave us. It is not just a story about Estonia – it’s also a story about humankind’s irrepressible drive for freedom and self-determination.”


“To breathe as one”: beginning with this festival, besides music a message of values was established, with the first being the connection between generations. “Breathing as one” became a new idiom in the Estonian language.

Singers started a wave of raised hands travelling from the top of the stage to the last row of the audience, resulting in an ecstatic melting together of the performers and audience.

Photo by Mait Jüriado III

Photo by Toomas Tuul


“Touched by Time. The Time to Touch.” A record-breaking number of participants – 42,000 singers, dancers and musicians – filled three days of celebration with dance and music.

The first concert of the Song Celebration, on 5 July, took the audience on a musical journey through the history of the celebrations, from 1869 to present day. The second concert, on 6 July, presented classical pieces along with new repertoire commissioned for this celebration in a seven-hour musical marathon.

Photo by Mait Jüriado


The XXVII Song and XX Dance Celebration is entitled “My Fatherland is My Love”. Participating in the Song Celebration are 1,020 choirs, which include over 35,000 singers. The youngest participant is Emma Kannik (5) from Musamari Koorikool (Tallinn) and the oldest is Aino (90) from the New York Estonian Choir.

The smallest choir of 12 singers is Kauksi Primary School Choir and the largest is the European Estonian Choir, with 123 singers. The latter is not the only expat choir – 25 Estonian choirs from abroad and 17 foreign choirs are performing at the celebration.

The Dance Celebration involves 713 dance groups – including 15 Estonian expat groups – with 11,500 dancers. This is the largest Dance Celebration of all times.

Cover: The Song Celebration in 2014. * This article was originally published on 4 July 2014, in collaboration with Life in Estonia magazine. It was lightly edited and amended on 4 July 2019.

LIVE: The Lennart Meri Conference – ten years of leading the discussion on international affairs

Entitled “Shaping the New Normal”, the 10th Lennart Meri Conference (LMC) will focus on the future of Europe and the West from 13-15 May when outstanding analysts and policymakers gather in the Estonian capital, Tallinn.

The annual conference was first held in 2007 as a commemorative event for the late president Lennart Meri, organised by the International Centre for Defence Studies (ICDS) to carry forward Meri’s legacy and to ensure that Estonia will be part of seeking solutions to international policy issues. In the past nine years, the LMC has proven to punch well above its weight within the international security conference circuit. The Estonian president, Toomas Hendrik Ilves, the patron of the conference is proud that the LMC has become one of the premier foreign and security policy conferences in Northern Europe: “If you want to know how things are in this part of the world, this is the place to be.”

Year after year, the LMC has attracted a notable number of high-level decision makers, the brightest analysts and top tier journalists from the capitals of Europe as well as the US. Jüri Luik, a former foreign minister and ambassador of Estonia, now the director of ICDS, says participants value the frank discussions. “There is readiness to be blunt and open. Nobody beats around the bush,” he notes.

Newcomers to the conference are impressed by the informal atmosphere, as Lilia Shevtsova (Brookings Institution, Chatham House) half-jokingly puts it: “Can you imagine a Russian speaking before Estonia’s president?”

One of the most memorable conferences was the one in 2010, known by the insiders as the “Volcano Conference”. The founder of LMC, currently a senior fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, Kadri Liik, managed to turn a force majeure event – the activation of Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull volcano that brought air travel in Europe to standstill, into a very special event for the brave guests who managed to reach Tallinn in spite of all travel obstacles.

Riina Kaljurand, a research fellow at ICDS and the director of LMC since 2013, says ahead of the tenth anniversary event: “The world is a different place from the one we envisioned ten years ago when the LMC was first launched: international treaties are being blatantly violated, national borders are being changed by force, masses of people are on the move seeking refuge, national identities are being challenged, and extremist tendencies are flourishing. The United States as the key guarantor of transatlantic security is overstretched. Europe’s role as the source and home of universal values is eroding. The West has lost initiative. We will search for ideas and solutions how to deal with this bleak international state of current affairs.”

“The United States as the key guarantor of transatlantic security is overstretched. Europe’s role as the source and home of universal values is eroding. The West has lost initiative. We will search for ideas and solutions how to deal with this bleak international state of current affairs.”

Key policymakers and analysts from around the world will among other topics address the current refugee crisis that is not only tearing apart the EU but also the national governments of the EU member states.

Universal, liberal values that have made up the cornerstone of Western democracies have suddenly got a price tag, which not all governments are willing to pay. How to fight the root causes of mass migration and secure the European borders? How to help border states to manage the migrants’ inflow and share the burden between the receiving countries? These are the questions that require both sense and sensibility and will be discussed by Frans Timmermans, the first vice president of the EU Commission; Marina Kaljurand, the foreign minister of Estonia; Artis Pabriks, the European Parliament’s rapporteur for the European Border and Coast Guard; and Ruprecht Polenz, the president of the German Association for East European Studies.

“While the Wales summit shifted NATO’s focus back to territorial defence, now Warsaw must decide the practicalities. Frontline states want a substantial forward presence, providing reassurance, deterrence and military capability in the event of a Russian attack. Yet others believe this contravenes the spirit of NATO-Russia Founding Act,” according to Riina Kaljurand. Peter Hultqvist, the minister of defence of Sweden; Alexander Vershbow, NATO deputy secretary general; Philippe Errera, the defence policy director at the French ministry of defence; and Witold Waszczykowski, the foreign minister of Poland, will head the discussion on what trade-offs will face the NATO decision makers as they try to reconcile these conflicting views.

The discussion on the future of Europe will be joined by Radosław Sikorski, a senior fellow at Harvard University and the former foreign minister of Poland; Andrey Kortunov, the director general of the Russian International Affairs Council; Ivan Krastev, the chairman of the Centre for Liberal Strategies; and Riina Kionka, the chief foreign policy advisor to the European Council president, Donald Tusk.

Lennart Meri Conference in 2015 II

The McCain Institute will bring a whole panel from the US to discuss the US presidential election with Ian Brzezinski and Daniel Vajdich, both senior fellows at the Atlantic Council; Sally Painter, a co-founder and the COO of Blue Star Strategies; and Leigh O’Neill, the policy director at the Truman National Security Project. The panel is to be moderated by Kurt Volker, the executive director of the McCain Institute.

On 12 May, the LMC will hold a pre-conference panel in the EU border city of Narva in cooperation with the Narva College of Tartu University. Since the Russian aggression in Crimea the question has been on the minds of researchers, journalists and policy makers alike: how would the Russian diaspora in the bordering EU countries respond to a possible aggression? The session in Narva, led by the former Moscow bureau chief of CNN, Jill Dougherty, seeks to find some answers to this question in a face-to-face meeting with the locals.

The conference can be attended by invitation only; however, the public panels of the Lennart Meri Conference will be streamed live on Estonian World.I

Cover: President Lennart Meri with a then Finnish president Tarja Halonen.

“Adam’s Passion” – a unique cooperation of Arvo Pärt and Robert Wilson premieres in Tallinn

As the world celebrates its most performed living composer, Arvo Pärt’s 80th jubilee this year, an equally influential artist, Robert Wilson, is paying his homage with a special production in Tallinn.

Estonian composer Arvo Pärt and American theatre visionary Robert Wilson will come together for a new creation of modern music theatre titled “Adam’s Passion”.

The musical core of the production consists of three main works by Pärt, selected by the maestro himself: “Adam’s Lament”, “Tabula Rasa” and “Miserere”. “Sequentia”, a new work specially composed by Pärt, will blend the monumental landscape into a powerful story of depths and splendour of the humankind. Wilson’s staging will be a personal reading by the great theatre visionary of the music of the performance, born in close collaboration of two peerless authors.

The live event for the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, the Tallinn Chamber Orchestra, conductor Tõnu Kaljuste, Lucinda Childs, Michael Theophanous and other soloists and actors, local drama and dance students, designed for the unconventional space of the Noblessner Foundry in Tallinn will premiere on 12 May.

Pärt-Wilson-Noblessner_c-Kristian-Kruuser-465x309Pärt has selected three major works to be included in the production – two choral works – “Adam’s Lament” (2010) and “Miserere” (1989/1992) – and a double violin concerto – “Tabula Rasa” (1977). “Tabula Rasa” was one of the first compositions of Pärt’s distinctive ”tintinnabuli” style. Pärt chose this name for his method of composing that he developed in the 1970s, and to which he adheres to this very day. The term refers to the Latin word “tintinnabulum”, meaning “little bell”. Pärt turned to this personal style after having composed using dodecaphonic techniques in the 1960-s. He then remained silent for several years until 1976. “Tabula rasa” was recorded and released as a CD on the German independent label ECM New Series in 1984. It was this CD that led to Pärt’s international breakthrough. “Miserere” is a typical example of how Pärt starts from text. In this case he uses a section of the catholic liturgy that can be summarised as a cry to God for mercy, containing also the “Dies Irae”, a section about the day of last judgment.

“I could compare my music to white light, which contains all colours.” – Arvo Pärt

“Adam’s Lament” is Pärt’s most recent work to this date (2010). It is based on a text written by the Russian orthodox monk Saint Silouan (1866-1938), who lived in a secluded monastery on Mount Athos in Greece. This work depicts Adam lamenting the loss of paradise and expressing his deep grief that he has lost the God’s love due to his sin. Beholding his son Abel having been slain by his brother Cain, he foresees all the cataclysms of mankind and feels guilt. In the end, Adam begs once again for God to give him divine love – “love” being the last word of the piece.

Wilson, ”the Sun King of American avant-garde performance art” (The Times) is the founder and artistic director of The Watermill Center, a laboratory for performing arts in Watermill, New York. Since the late 1960s, Wilson’s productions have decisively shaped the look of theatre and opera. A master of modern theatrical language and one of the main founders of avant-garde theatre, Wilson has remained on top of the international scene since his breakout production of “Einstein on the Beach” (with Philip Glass, 1976).

Wilson described the staging of “Adam’s Passion” in August 2014. “In the process of staging ‘Adam’s Passion’, I am mostly intrigued by lighting solution. Without light there is no space, therefore it is important to find a solution full of light. I hope we will be able to reach a state of released senses in order to welcome the flow of ideas suitable for enjoying Pärt’s music.”

Tõnu Kaljuste, a leading Grammy-awarded international choir and symphonic conductor, a lifelong close collaborator with Arvo Pärt and one of best performers of his works, is the musical director and conductor of “Adam’s Passion”.


Cover: Scene from “Adam’s Passion” production. Photo by Kaupo Kikkas.

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