Peeter Perens: Our descendants have to be able to look back to our era and understand us through the songs and music created today.

By Maris Hellrand

Estonia is celebrating the 150thanniversary of the Song Celebration this July. The first ever event in 1869 brought 878 male singers and brass players to Tartu. Publisher Johann Voldemar Jannsen initiated the Song Celebration as part of the Estonian national awakening movement. Jannsen’s daughter, Lydia Koidula was the author of lyrics of “Mu isamaa on minu arm” /My Fatherland is My Love”/ that gained the status of Estonia’s unofficial anthem with the melody by Gustav Ernesaks from 1944. “My Fatherland is My Love” is also the title of this year’s anniversary Song Celebration on 6thand 7thJuly in Tallinn. The grand event that will bring more than 30 000 singers and dancers on stage at the Tallinn Song Festival Grounds has been two years in the making.

Peeter Perens

Each edition of the song celebration is based on the unique vision of the artistic director and his team, selected in an open competition. The artistic concept of the 27thsong celebration was created by Peeter Perens (47) and Siim Selis (46), both conductors of the TalTech Academic Male Choir.

Perens comes from a family of choir musicians and remembers his first song celebration as a four-year-old in the procession, on the shoulders of his father, also a choir conductor. With the conductor’s baton of the Song Celebration he now has reached the top of the pyramid of choir music.

PP: “The foundation of this concept is to look at the combination of two cultures that define the vitality of Estonians – the old Finno-Ugric runic song culture that has been in focus for Lennart Meri (the late president and writer 1929-2006) and Veljo Tormis (composer 1930-2017) on the one hand and the European culture that we are part of today on the other hand. In the concept for this celebration we want to create a musical fusion of these two cultures. Estonian classical choir music like by VeljoTormis, Cyrillus Kreek or Ester Mägi always includes ancient Estonian folk songs and European composition culture. This is a very natural thing in Estonian music that we want to be very aware about.

The song celebration takes place on two days and offers two different concerts. The second day usually is quite traditional with only minor changes throughout decades. The first day however offers more flexibility and artistic freedom. So, my idea for this was to arrange a happy open-air concert of Estonian classical music, just as they happen all over Europe during summer with people listening to opera or Tchaikovsky with their picnic baskets. We looked for the brightest pieces of Estonian music that would suit this concept at the song celebration. By doing that we realized that what has been the key to Estonia’s success is the thirst for education, hence the subtitle of the first concert “To the Teacher”. The programme is a journey through different schools of composers and dedicated to teachers within them. We are talking about Estonian music education and focusing on the teacher by doing that. Any teacher actually, not just music.”

Is it easy to find “happy” music within Estonian classical choir music?

PP: “The programme includes instrumental pieces and even a solo song next to choir pieces. Classical music tends to be introvert overall, it’s not just a characteristic of Estonian music. Classical composers usually deal with deep individual analysis. So yes, it’s more difficult to find extrovert classics, but fortunately it is possible in Estonian music, it’s all not that sad!”

What are your favourite pieces of the first day?

PP: “A very special piece on the programme is a Latvian song “Riga dimd” – the reason being that the Estonian music education actually began in the 19thcentury at the Livonian teachers’ seminar in Valmiera, later Valga, led by the Latvian Janis Cimze. Among the students were later well-known conductors and composers such as Aleksander Kunileid, Aleksander Läte, who became founders of Estonian classical music. It makes me very happy to have a song in Latvian language in the programme. We live next to each other and should interact much more than we do.

I am also very happy to have a piece by Mart Saar “Noore veljo, veeritäge” in the programme – a very energetic song for mixed choir and a brave choice for song celebration. It’s polyphonic, rhythmically complicated, but having heard it in several large rehearsals it seems to be a risk worth taking. It sounds great and the singers are very motivated.

Towards the end of the first concert we will perform a newly commissioned piece by Tauno Aints, that will hopefully turn into a runic joint choir with the audience. Aints has used a runo song to create a new piece with lyrics by Urve Tinnuri with the title “Üksi pole keegi”/Nobody is alone. The singers on stage will take the lead and the whole audience will hopefully join in in response. I’m looking forward to this as a highlight of the first day.”

The selection of songs in the programme has to be extremely well founded. It has happened before that not just singers but the wider audience debates the suitability of a song for the event. People really seem to take it personally.

PP: “I’m very glad that you can see the profound reasoning behind the selection of the repertoire. It might not always be obvious but having gone through the process I can assure that we have really looked extremely carefully at each piece that is included. Also, the new commissioned songs – the composers have selected the lyrics very thoroughly, often in cooperation with conductors. I am incredibly grateful to our artistic council that has put such an effort into selecting the music. Song celebration is always teamwork, and my special thanks goes to Ave Sopp and Siim Selis.

The singers and audience are always expecting something new from the song celebration. In fact, it is of course exactly the same celebration as 150 years ago but we have to find a new angle each time that keeps it interesting and up to date for us also today. I think the singers are ready for something extraordinary.”  

The second day of the Song Celebration has always been based on the repertoire of different choir and orchestra types – each type has an opportunity to showcase a number of pieces, the grand finale includes all performers for the traditional standards and usually a special commissioned piece. According to Perens this year’s new commissions include many pieces that have been based on traditional folk songs: “The treasury of our folk songs is a truly endless source. What is new and changing are the topics. We have to find a balance between new music and Estonian classics that people expect to hear.Here the grand finale of joint choirs is always extremely important. I am so pleased to have a new cantata by Pärt Uusberg “Igaviku tuules”/In the Wind of Eternity/ in the finale – a special commission for this celebration that he will conduct himself. It’s based on the lyrics by old Estonian poets Juhan Liiv and Kristjan Jaak Peterson and an Estonian folk song. It’s hard to imagine anything more “Estonian” than a combination of these three sources of lyrics. Uusberg has captured the character and full potential of joint choirs in this piece. He truly uses the joint choir as an instrument. We have heard this piece in the rehearsals performed by a few hundred singers and already this sound truly incredible. I think this song has the potential to become one of the lasting song celebration standards that will be performed many times in the future.”

Isn’t it always the ambition when commissioning new music for the song celebration? The main idea is to enrich the choir repertoire with new contemporary music as if weaving an endless carpet. But the secret hope is also to create a piece or a few that will shine beyond one celebration and remain in the repertoire for years to come.

PP: “This is true. We certainly hope that all the new music will be like pearls. Right now, it seems that the singers have really responded very well to the newly commissioned music. Even some of the more complicated pieces, like “Kannel” by Hain Hõlpus for mixed choirs, that did cause some rising eyebrows at first due to difficult changes of key and other elements, have by now become familiar. Good thing takes time. Great music will not give itself in immediately, it takes practice until one realizes the greatness.”

For singers it seems interesting to challenge themselves and perform new complicated music. The question remains, how will the audience react.

PP: “I would not underestimate the audience. They are to the most part also friends and family, neighbours and colleagues of the singers. I have the feeling that the discussion about the repertoire is not just confined to choirs and musicians but rather it spreads to the whole society. The rehearsal time is almost two years, so by the time of the actual celebration people are familiar with and excited about the new pieces, eager to hear how they actually sound. As long as we can offer this kind of excitement all is well. If that ceases and people just come to a concert of songs that have been sang 150 years, it’s over. Our descendants have to be able to look back to our era and understand us through the songs and music created today.”

The Song Celebration is also a very powerful tool of communication as it touches and involves the majority of Estonians. What is today’s public debate about, how does it reflect the values and changes in the society? In that way the artistic director and team have a huge responsibility as they are actually able to lead the public debate.

PP: “I realized this responsibility during the last celebration (2017) when I was the head conductor of young men’s choirs. I have a daughter and a son who sing in choirs. All of a sudden, I started to hear the songs that we had chosen for the celebration from the shower. In that moment it hit me – all over Estonia there are young guys singing these songs in shower. Fortunately, we had chosen wisely and there was nothing to be ashamed of. If a young man sings in shower “my dear Estonia, where I was born and raised…”, you realize, it’s fine.

It is of course very tricky to select pieces for the repertoire that would be very topical today, as the process takes about two years and you can’t predict, what is going to be in the centre of public attention by the time it will be performed. This means, we focus on universal and lasting values. This is the foundation of the song celebration. To step aside from the daily hustle and contemplate about really important issues. We get together and tens of thousands of people talk about important things by singing, not one person preaching from a lectern. Song has been a medium for the most important messages ever since. Sang words are more powerful than spoken words. There and then you realize: song celebration –  it’s everything, our core, our security, our education, everything.”

Perens says, his biggest wish is to create a celebration just as worthy as the predecessors during the 150 years: “Then we have accomplished our task. This is not a humble wish. The musical level and peoples’ expectations have been very high, so if we manage to add another pearl into this row, that is just as valuable and yet original, we have already reached the high bar.”


The programme of the XXVII Song and XX Dance Celebration “My Fatherland is My Love”:

  • Relay of the Flame 1.06 (Tartu) – 3.07 (Tallinn). The journey passes all Estonian counties in 33 days.
  • Choral concert at St. Mary’s Church on Thursday, 20 June in Tartu
  • Dance Celebration on Thursday, 4 July at 7 p.m. Kalev Central Stadium in Tallinn
  • Dance Celebration on Friday, 5 July at 11.00 a.m. Kalev Central Stadium in Tallinn
  • Dance Celebration on Friday, 5 July at  6 p.m. Kalev Central Stadium in Tallinn
  • Folk music concert on Friday, 5 July at 2 p.m. Freedom Square in Tallinn
  • Procession on Saturday, 6 July from 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. central Tallinn to the Song Festival Grounds
  • Song Celebration „To the Teacher“ on Saturday, 6 July at 7 p.m. Tallinn Song Festival Grounds
  • Song Celebration on Sunday, 7 July at 2 p.m. Tallinn Song Festival Grounds