The Singing Revolution

Urmas SisaskThe Estonian composers featured on our upcoming concert program, Arvo Pärt and Urmas Sisask, reflect, each in his own way, The Singing Revolution, a series of politico/musical events which were instrumental in restoring the independence of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania in 1991, after more than fifty years of Russian rule.  Beginning in 1987, Estonians gathered in spontaneous mass demonstrations, by the hundreds of thousands, to sing national songs and hymns, which were forbidden by the Soviet authorities, while Estonian rock bands played.  Eventually, these events served as opportunities for political leaders to work up the crowds, which often numbered more than 300,000 people, one quarter of all Estonians.  After more than four years of this, Estonia proclaimed its independence, on August 20, 1991, with no blood having been shed.

Arvo Pärt, born in 1935, was not even in Estonia during this period.  After years of struggle with Soviet authorities, he had already emigrated to Vienna with his family in 1980, and moved from there to Berlin.  He returned to Estonia in 2000, and has lived there since, a symbol of his nation’s triumphant struggle, revered both for his international musical prominence and for his resistance to pressure from the Soviet regime.  His compositions do not reflect specifically Estonian themes or procedures—it seems clear he thinks of himself as a world-citizen, as inheritor of the entirety of the European musical tradition; throughout his career, he has immersed himself in Gregorian chant and Renaissance polyphony, and has reinterpreted these musical roots through a personal, minimalist language characterized by simple harmonies, static rhythms, and narrow melodic arches. He composes for a wide variety of instruments and in a wide variety of genres; his choral music consists almost entirely of settings of sacred texts in Latin or Church Slavonic.  This choral music is immensely popular in Estonia, as it is throughout the world.

Urmas Sisask was born in 1960, and represents the very generation most involved in, most affected by, The Singing Revolution.  While Pärt was living in Vienna and Berlin, Sisask studied and worked in Estonia; since 1985 he has lived and worked in the small town of Jäneda, where he has conducted a choir, taught, and pursued his passion for astronomy, which is reflected in his compositional ideas and techniques.  His works are also influenced by an interest in shamanistic cultures and ancient Estonian song.  He utilizes short, core melodies, or cells, which he repeats over an ecstatic rhythmic pulse, with small variations and a constant building of intensity, in a manner which suggest medieval dance music and ancient shamanic rituals, as well as Estonian folk music.

I found this through Google:  “Universe was created with love 13,7 milliards years ago. Stars, galaxies, planets, comets and other cosmic beings, including us, exist happily in great love. Human beings were created here to sense the love. Planet Earth is a magnet to life. Human being is born of stars and becomes to stars as well. Therefore I don't regard myself as a composer, rather transcriber of music.” (Urmas Sisask)

This mystical overview of existence is somehow obvious in his choral composition:  he expresses directly, simply, powerfully, with great energy, but without much self-consciousness or circumspection.  He just lays down the notes.  In Estonia he seems to have nearly rock-star status:  he has been awarded the Cultural Award of the Republic of Estonia (1990), the Order of the White Star (Fourth Class) (2001), the Armorial Order of Järvamaa County (2001), the Estonian Defense Forces Special Service Cross (2004), Veljo Tormis’s Estonian Choral Music Grant (2007) and the Estonian National Culture Annual Award of Pro Patria and Res Publica Union (IRL) (2009), title of Musician of the Year of Estonian Radio (2010) and Annual Prize of the Culture Endowment of Estonia (2010).  YouTube videos show ecstatic teenagers at outdoor gatherings which include thousands of singers, singing his music with their arms around one another, much as the scenes of the late 1980’s are described.