David Donnelly: Why every American should learn the story of Estonia

David Donnelly, an American filmmaker and the director of the documentary, “Nordic Pulse”, writes that Americans should learn the story of the Soviet-occupied Estonia where artists suffered under censorship, because Americans have no idea how hard it is to live in a communist country – and “You don’t know what you have until it’s gone”.

Over the past decade, I have travelled to 26 countries filming documentaries about classical music. While researching my first documentary, “Maestro”, I stumbled across a remarkable story that few Americans have ever heard. Deeply moved by its symbolism and timely relevance, I found myself returning to it for my latest documentary, “Nordic Pulse”.

The year was 1968 in Estonia, then known as the Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic. Its unique geopolitical position serves as a bridge between East and West, and thus for centuries has been a continual battleground. Estonia’s tumultuous history includes occupation by the Danes, Germans, Swedes, Russians and eventually the Soviets. In short, Estonia has spent most of modern history under occupation.

In the late 1960s, Estonia was under the grip of the Soviet empire, and the world was still reeling from the impact of the Cuban missile crisis. Communist control was in full swing and the Soviet propaganda machine transformed the ideology of Marx, Engels and Lenin into the rule of law. Anything that didn’t fit into the state-sanctioned belief system was aggressively censored.

Suppressing non-state sponsored messaging

Believing religion to be the “opiate of the masses”, the Soviets banned it, including religious representations in art. Eastern Europe has a rich cultural appreciation for the arts, especially classical music, even during this particular chapter in its history.

Because of the art form’s popularity and influence, the government needed a way to censor the frequent religious themes found throughout the classical music canon. The regime also needed to suppress non-state sponsored messaging from emerging in any new musical pieces. As a result, all new scores were required to be submitted and approved by the composers’ union before the premiere of any work. In reality, this was just a Soviet censorship committee.

So, when the young Estonian composer, Arvo Pärt, finished a piece titled “Credo”, he was fully aware that it would not be approved by the union. The title itself, “Credo”, can be defined as a statement of faith, and it opens with the chorus singing “Credo in Jesum Christum” or “I believe in Jesus Christ”.

Arvo Pärt’s “credo”, performed at the Jõhvi Concert Hall, Estonia, in 2005.

The piece continues with the chorus singing the Latin version of Matthew 5:38–39, part of the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus offers the antithesis to “an eye for an eye”. “Credo” is a musical collage composed in a neoclassical style utilising dodecaphony, the twelve-tone technique. The beautiful sounds of JS Bach (Prelude in C Major) are juxtaposed with violent, often chaotic interruptions.

Performed again despite a ban

“Credo” was composed for a full orchestra and choir. Performing it would require dozens of musicians willing to publicly engage in an act of defiance at a time when individuals who engaged in such acts often ended up “disappearing”. Most importantly, the premiere needed a conductor brave enough to be the face of this musical rebellion. Arvo’s friend and conductor on the rise, Neeme Järvi, agreed to perform the piece without submitting it to the composers’ union for approval.

On 16 November 1968, in an inspiring, courageous and potentially life-threatening act of artistic freedom, Järvi and Pärt premiered “Credo” with the Estonian Philharmonic at the Estonian Concert Hall in Tallinn. Unsurprisingly, “Credo” was immediately banned. But Järvi and Pärt decided to push even further. Two days later, they performed it again. The message Pärt was sending to his fellow Estonians was clear: we must find non-violent means of rebellion against our oppressors.

Arvo Pärt (courtesy of the Arvo Pärt Centre).

The Soviets found themselves in a precarious position. Järvi was quickly becoming one of the most prominent conductors in Europe and there was no arguing that Pärt was a genius. Their growing fame created value for the government, but defiance could not go unpunished. Ultimately, retribution came in the form of a blacklist. Pärt’s commissions dried up and he spent the next eight years on a hiatus, where he reinvented his compositional style. Järvi, under the watchful eye of the Soviet Union, continued to perform.

In 1971, Järvi won first prize in the International Conductors Competition at the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia in Rome. His award was a beautiful apartment in Tallinn, Estonia’s capital, where he could live and serve as an example of the beauty of the communist system. But not surprisingly, this gift came with a small caveat – when Järvi travelled abroad to perform, his family was not allowed to travel with him. The last thing the Soviets wanted was the bad optics of a young star defecting to another country, so they needed some insurance, which in this case, was his wife and children. As Neeme’s son, composer Kristjan Järvi says in “Nordic Pulse”, “it was like having a dog on a leash”.

A rebellion of voices

As time passed, the consequences of Neeme’s actions began to take their toll. He was out of work and facing an uncertain future for his wife and three children. But in the late 1970s, as part of Henry Kissinger’s detente philosophy to ease Cold War strains, the Soviet Union allowed members of its Jewish population to reconnect with family in Israel. Neeme’s wife, Liilia, recognised the opportunity and immediately applied for a family visa. After nearly a year of nervously waiting, her request was finally approved. The Järvi family fled the Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic…to visit a family member who never existed. By way of Vienna, the Järvis arrived in America on 20 January 1980.

As Neeme Järvi’s international career continued to explode, the Estonian people were still living under authoritarian rule. In protest, they rebelled with the strongest weapon they had available – their voices. In 1988, a third of the entire Estonian population banded together at the Tallinn Song Festival Grounds in peaceful protest of their continued occupation by a collapsing Soviet regime. What came to be known as the “Singing Revolution” helped lead to the Estonian sovereignty declaration of 1988, declaring the Estonians free people. When the Järvis could finally return to Estonia, they would do so as a dynasty.

Paavo (left) and Neeme Järvi. Photo by Kaupo Kikkas.

In a matter of a few decades, the Järvi family name became associated with a level of musical excellence often compared to the Bachs. Neeme went on to record more than 400 albums, making him one of the most recorded musicians of all time. Neeme’s son, Grammy award-winning conductor Paavo Järvi, is one of the most in-demand conductors alive and was the focus of my first documentary “Maestro”. 

Visionary musician Kristjan Järvi, younger brother to Paavo, whose entire childhood was influenced by borders, ended up devoting his life to breaking them. He is the leader of the Baltic Sea Philharmonic, an orchestra comprised of musicians from the Baltic region, including, of course, Estonia and Russia. The impact of young musicians, from various nations with a history of conflict, coming together in the name of music is as inspiring as it sounds. That’s why I spent several years of my life documenting their journey in my film “Nordic Pulse”.

Estonia today is a nation that can only be described as thriving. It has a population of less than 1.5 million, and yet its international impact is only now beginning. Its relentless prioritisation of the arts has inspired a surge of creativity in virtually every field, including technology. In fact, Estonian entrepreneurs can be credited for the creation of Skype and the government even has a digital residency programme that is attracting digital nomads who want to launch businesses in the EU. The story of this Baltic nation serves as a reminder of the true value of creative freedom and the miraculous ability of art to help us through the direst of times.

Musicians performing at the Estonian Song Celebration in July 2019. Photo by Aivar Pihelgas.

Civilisations are judged by the stories they tell

I have spent a substantial portion of my professional career exploring and documenting various tales connected to the story of Estonia and its prominent family of musicians. To those unfamiliar with classical music or the modern, vibrant history of Estonia, it’s understandable to ask how a young man from Kentucky could end up making documentaries about such an unusual niche. What is it that makes this so important to me?

The adage, “You don’t know what you have until it’s gone”, sums it up most effectively. I have deep gratitude for the democratic and artistic freedoms we have in the United States, freedoms that my ancestors risked their lives to protect. The very fact that I can express myself creatively and make documentaries without having to get approval by a censorship committee is in itself something I hold dear. In proportion to the entire scope of human civilisation, it’s also incredibly rare.

If you’ve spent your entire life growing up in America, it’s hard to fathom living in a communist country. Most American students learn some basics of the Cold War, and we are familiar with the images of breadlines and extreme censorship, but this chapter in history can seem increasingly distant.

With international travel and age, my appreciation for our freedom grows and, along with it, a keen awareness of its fragility. Documenting stories that preserve the beauty of artistic freedom and making sure these stories are in libraries and classrooms is a mission well worth the time spent. After all, civilisations are ultimately judged by the stories they tell. As time progresses, some of the most important stories are often forgotten, and when they are, history tends to repeat itself. We must strive to keep these stories alive – and with them, our liberty.

The opinions in this article are those of the author. Cover: Joyful choirs at the Estonian Song Celebration in July 2019. Photo by Sven Začek.

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