Mother and daughter Margaret and Elizabeth Barnett of Los Altos recently traveled to Europe to perform in front of thousands of people at Laulupidu, commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Estonian festival’s Song Celebration.
The Barnetts sang with the Estonian Community Choir of San Francisco, one of eight American choirs in a festival that featured 1,020 of them. To qualify, the choir had to undergo a two-part selection process that involved learning the festival set list – in the Estonian language.
Although the Barnetts do not have any Estonian heritage, they were drawn to the choir by their “love of beautiful choral music, and what the Estonian festival meant to everyone ... singing as one voice, united through music,” Margaret said.
She added that the 22 members of the choir range in age from 16 to 82, with Elizabeth being the youngest, and come from throughout California. That made in-person rehearsals challenging, Margaret said, and they often had to record individual videos to prove to their director they were practicing, and the choir would even rehearse together over Skype.
The choir landed in Estonia days before the festival, which ran July 4-7. This year’s theme, “My Fatherland, My Love,” related to the Estonian national anthem, “Mu Isamaa On Minu Arm,” which translates to “The land of my fathers, the land that I love.” According to Margaret, this year’s attendance broke a festival record.
She said the program for the festival was compiled over three years, and in addition to traditional songs, several new pieces were commissioned for this year. The opening concert, titled “To the Teacher,” was a celebration of music teachers and began with the song “Koit” (“Dawn”), which “is 150 years old and has been the symbol of all song celebrations for the past 50 years,” Margaret said.
United in song
Laulupidu began with two days of dance performances, followed by a five-hour parade of all the performers to the festival ground leading into the first concert of the two-day Song Celebration. Most of the performers wore traditional Estonian costumes throughout the festival, including Margaret and Elizabeth.
“I will never forget the sound that emanated during that first rehearsal,” Margaret said. “I was standing shoulder to shoulder, within a crowd on stage of tens of thousands of people. We started singing the Estonian national anthem in unison. We were 33,000 singing together as one voice. It was awe-inspiring. I have sung in many choirs in concerts all over the world, but that sound gave me goose bumps.”
Founded in 1869, the Song Celebration combines the Estonians’ love of music with their desire for self-determination. It was used as a protest method against the Soviet occupation from 1987 to 1991, during what was known as the Singing Revolution.
A particularly memorable protest of the Singing Revolution, the Baltic Chain, occurred in 1989, when 700,000 Estonians, half a million Latvians and 1 million Lithuanians linked hands to create a human chain that stretched 360 miles from Tallinn, Estonia, to Vilnius, Lithuania, according to Smithsonian Magazine.
The festival’s history remains inspirational to participants and attendees today.
“A moment that stood out to me,” said Elizabeth, entering her junior year at Los Altos High School, “was when before the parade, a man came up holding a box and invited us to select a necklace to keep. We found out later that he was a political prisoner (when Estonia was under Soviet regime) and he handmade all the necklaces to welcome everyone ‘home’ to Estonia.”