Estonia’s Singing Revolution

Steven Pierson

Editor’s Note: The author’s dissertation, from which this article is excerpted, identifies sources by code only. Therefore, citations to these sources are omitted.

Singing has both expressed and supported Estonian national identity, especially during the Soviet era. One musician stated, “We Estonians think that music saved our nation.” A Tallinn pastor, commenting on the nation’s song festivals held every five years, added, “I remember from my childhood there was an official program – songs about Lenin and things – but when this was over, people did not leave. Tens of thousands of people just stood there and started to sing their own songs. No police could do anything.”

The Estonian Song Festival

In 1988, during the first post-Soviet song festival, one full day of the two-day program was devoted to Christian songs. A pastor recalled, “There was a special part for singing Christian songs, and a new mass by an Estonian composer was performed. Also, people from the government were present. Some parliament members said later: ‘It was great that we could hear Christian songs at the song festival; it felt like we had been in church.” In 1988, the huge crowds that gathered at the song festival grounds served as a metaphor, symbolizing a powerful yet peaceful movement of freedom from Soviet dominance. The song festivals reflect foundational Estonian values by means of peaceful artistic expression. Immense yet quiet crowds, listening and singing together in harmony, may suggest deeper values at work, including a deep longing for peace.

In the midst of incessant war, destruction, and foreign dominance, Estonian peasants seemed to have developed a longing for peace that became a cherished value, treasured especially during the Soviet years. When the political atmosphere turned favorable, Estonians used song to express peacefully their desire for independence. Other Soviet republics resorted to armed conflicts of one kind or another. In Estonia, songs successfully carried the message and crystallized the movement. Soviet occupation, and particularly the policy of Russification, jeopardized Estonian ethnic identity. In this context, music became a special symbol, a means of survival and a movement for independence. In the “Singing Revolution,” beginning in 1988, choirs became the main symbol for political efforts to separate Estonia from the Soviet Union. One pastor explained, “There is no doubt about the importance of music. [Independence] would not have been possible without the help of music. The singing revolution has become a symbol of freedom.”

An Entire Nation in Song

The size of the movement in proportion to the ethnic Estonian population is significant. In the midst of the first steps toward independence, the rally in September 1988 attracted large numbers of Estonians. A Tallinn pastor gave this eyewitness account: “At the same square where the song festival is held, there were 600,000 Estonian people, two-thirds of the Estonian nation. The place was so completely filled that nobody could actually sit.” A revival of Christian choir music also resulted from the singing revolution. “Especially during the five years after that explosion you couldn’t even hear other music, it was just Estonian Christian music.”

Growing Western Influences

Before independence, little contact with Christians outside Estonia was possible. Since independence, Estonian churches have been open to non-Estonian influence. Music from the West has influenced worship since 1991. Of the Western countries, those interviewed named England, Finland, Sweden, and America as having the most influence. Western styles of music included American worship songs, the music of the Taize Movement, and English worship songs by Graham Kendrick.

A pastor outside Tallinn stated that Western music is artificial. Others surveyed felt that the new styles do not relate well with Estonian culture. One pastor contended that expressions of truth from different cultures often create tension. “You have this very lively way of expressing Christian truths, and sometimes when it comes into our culture, it can be a little painful.” Two pastors and one musician cited translation problems. The musician noted, “It has been easier to translate than to create our own.” A different pastor expressed the concern, “We are losing part of our uniqueness.”

One Tallinn pastor believed his congregation was approaching equilibrium. “Young people were singing a new repertoire from the West, and classical music was pushed more into the background. But by now, they have got[ten] over this time period and again, classical music is loved. So there are different kinds of music: classical, chorales, and worship songs.”

Estonians highly value choir music and festivals. The sense of unity, joy, and openness that comes through participation in choral festivals breaks down patterns of atomization, isolation, and mistrust created by Soviet policies. Those surveyed valued the national song festivals and affirmed the strength and character produced by these festivals, especially during the late 1980s. Those surveyed also understood the movement for political independence as a singing movement.

Music as a Means of Discipleship

Those interviewed spoke in detail concerning the role of music in Christian development. Themes such as courage, fellowship, support, purification, community, problem solving, resolving doubt, and developing personal convictions were said to find clarity in music. In addition, Estonian Christians spoke of the ability of music to amplify and integrate truth, aid in recall, broaden perspectives, and aid in learning theology. As may be expected, singing and worship appeared inseparable. According to those surveyed, youth work, in particular, centered in music, especially during Soviet times when traditional Western forms of youth ministry were prohibited.

Those surveyed confirmed that Soviet repression created a situation in which survival depended on the ministry of music. Professional musicians provided leadership and high standards for church music. The Oleviste Baptist Church in Tallinn functioned as an example in the performance of major Christian works, influencing many of those surveyed. Music ministry existed at this level because authorities allowed Christian young people to attend the Tallinn Academy of Music. Christian parents also encouraged children in the study of music because it was free of Soviet ideology and provided the opportunity to serve in the church.

Threats to Estonia’s Musical Tradition

Estonian Christians appeared unprepared for the freedom they suddenly experienced in the early 1990s. Financial pressures on families required increased personal income. Today, many Christians work several jobs and experience fatigue that results in decreased musical activities. Consequently, diminished involvement in and apathy toward music seem on the rise. In addition, powerful cultural and financial influences from abroad threaten to overwhelm traditional Estonian approaches to life and music. Estonian choir traditions may be jeopardized. In spite of these concerns, those surveyed believe that this period of transition will end with some sort of return to traditional forms and values.

Song festivals feature distinct rituals and traditions that reflect the characteristics of a sacred event. One of the more obvious characteristics is the ceremonial lighting of the festival torch, similar to the Olympic ceremony. The torch is borne from Tartu to Tallinn by ceremonial horse-drawn carriage. The general behavior of the crowds and the enormous popularity of the event easily suggest a departure from profane (normal) time to sacred time in which national identity is celebrated and renewed.

The invasion of Western worship music into Estonia’s deep and prophetic music culture alarms some observers. Many feel powerless to stop the process, however, because of overwhelming financial need. Musicians who spent copious amounts of time serving the church for little if any pay, now find themselves forced to maintain several jobs to survive financially. In this situation, compromising with powerful musical patterns from abroad easily becomes the path of least resistance. Many express concerns, but few can actually do anything at this point. Some even feel that the great Estonian Christian choir tradition may not survive the pressure of transition and change, and that participatory music may be eclipsed by the Western pattern of music “consumption.”


Significant efforts must be made to ensure the preservation and future development of Estonia’s singing culture. These efforts must include conscious resistance to the invasion of Western musical forms, which detach listeners from traditional, national singing. Perhaps one way to resist is to focus on the continued creation of Estonian music with traditional high standards, which will then be exported to the international community.

In Summary

In the midst of a chaotic transition, the Estonian church stands in a place of unique service. In a situation in which many Estonians suffer from economic and emotional pressure, the church provides a place of rest and peace from the demands of the world. The Estonian church not only can provide refuge. It also can preserve the national singing culture.

Estonia’s singing revolution was a rare, if not altogether unique, phenomenon. The capacity of Estonia’s singing culture to bring about significant political change in the face of armed occupation provides the international community with a remarkable example of peaceful change. The role of Christianity in the process also gives the universal church a unique testimony. ♦

Edited excerpt published with permission from Steven James Pierson, “We Sang Ourselves Free: Developmental Uses of Music Among Estonian Christians from Repression to Independence.” Ph.D. dissertation, Trinity International University, 1998.

See also, Steve Pierson, “We Sang Ourselves Free: Music Lessons From Estonia,” Evangelical Missions Quarterly 38 (April 2002), 314-22.

Steven Pierson teaches at Wheaton College, Wheaton, Illinois, and College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, Illinois. He plays the French horn in the DuPage Symphony Orchestra, Glen Ellyn, Illinois.