Choir brings to life Estonia’s ever-evolving tradition

The Baltic states have a strong tradition of singing and a spiritual culture that extend back through antiquity—two characteristics independent of each other, but often intertwined. Songs of every topic imaginable exist in their folklore, and singing was ever-present, most notably at significant events or rituals.

The writings of first-century Roman historian Tacitus are considered some of the first records of the Baltic people, and even in his time, they were noted for their spiritual culture. In subsequent records, as early as the 1000s, there are accounts of their singing. For millennia, they have sung for peace, which, in 1991, even played a significant part in Estonia gaining independence from the Soviet Union—with a bloodless revolution through song.

Singing is still very much a part of the culture of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, and, not surprisingly, very fine singers and professional choirs have risen from this tradition.

The Estonian composer Arvo Part is today one of the most performed living composers, and, according to BachTrack, the top-performed classical composer for the last six years.

A leader in performing Part’s music, the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir (EPCC) has won two Grammys for recordings of his music and been invited to perform all over the world. Part lives in Tallinn, Estonia, and works with EPCC on a regular basis.

“The Renaissance approach to music was supposed to reveal the divine nature of harmony,” similar to mathematicians’, scientists’, and visual artists’ approach to their craft, said Kaspars Putnins, conductor of EPCC. “Arvo Part is in the same realm. His music, his message, is a humane experience.”

On Feb. 1, EPCC will perform a program of all Arvo Part works at the Church of St. Ignatius Loyola, as a part of the music series Sacred Music in a Sacred Space.

A Search for Authenticity

The entire EPCC program is selections of Part’s work, all sacred texts set to music with the exception of “Solfeggio,” which is the C major scale repeated ten times, but to beautiful effect. It’s very characteristic of Part, Putnins said. “He uses often very simple mathematical formulas, which reveal the beauty and harmony of the world as is.”

“He’s the most gentle soul you can imagine. At the same time, he is extremely well educated,” and knowledgeable about all things music-related, Putnins said.

Putnins cites Part’s journey as a musician as one reason the music is so widely performed and enjoyed.

Part began composing in the mid-1900s in Estonia when it was still under Soviet rule. The trend at the time was avant garde, which Part studied and wrote. His music was considered outstanding but controversial, with many criticizing him for being openly religious in his art in the Soviet Union.

Then came a period of crisis, when Part stopped making music entirely. He had to reinvent himself and question what music was and how it related to humans and the world.

In Part’s official biography, he recounted having given up all musical genres, before intensely studying early music—from the Gregorian chant to Renaissance polyphony. Eventually he reemerged in 1976 with a new style.

Putnins believes Part went through a process of finding authenticity, evident in the self-revelations found in his later music, that is “so important for so many people today.” These revelations, Putnins believes, inspire others.

A Singing Culture

Putnins, from Latvia, says he has been in the choral music world his entire life. He went to a specialized school starting from age 6, where in between classes like math and physics, students would take subjects like solfège (learning pitch and sight singing) and harmony. His mother was a choral conductor, and at 14 he started taking conducting lessons as well. Straight out of school, he continued it professionally.

“I’ve always been thrilled by this special art form,” Putnins said. “With voice, you can basically do anything. It’s the closest [instrument] to our soul.”

For centuries, there have been ancient accounts from travelers to the Baltic states who wrote of the musical culture. And for nearly as long, there has been a history of protest through song. In the 13th century, Estonians sang in protest to German invaders, and in the 18th century they sang as an act of resistance to Russian czar Peter the Great’s invasion.

In 1987, hundreds of thousands of people from Tallin, Estonia, to Riga, Latvia, would link together and sing patriotic songs and religious hymns forbidden by the communist state, beginning a “Singing Revolution” until Estonia declared independence in 1991.

Today, every five years, the Baltic states hold a singing festival, Laulupidu, where around 25,000 people show up to venues designed specifically for these big sing-ins.

In Latvia, Putnins said, where there is a population of about 2 million, there are about 2 million folkloric texts for songs, on any subject you could think of, about any human relationship you could think of. The Baltic states were also quick to adopt the reformation of churches, and with that, adopted the tradition of choral singing in parishes. Since then, even the tiniest schools in the most rural areas have taught choral singing.

With such a mass of amateur singing, we also find some very talented groups and individuals, Putnins said.

Shaping Sound

Putnins joined EPCC as artistic director three years ago, but had worked with the choir many times previously. They often collaborate with the Latvian Radio Choir, which he has been with since 1992.

Of course, a conductor has a clear vision of what the sound should be, but “revealing the individual impulse of my musicians is important to me,” Putnins said. It’s not just communicating text, or communicating to the audience. It’s highly valuable teamwork that comes from enabling a group of musicians to communicate with each other, he said.

Each individual singer gives a bit of themselves, and “then it’s like a dance,” he said. “[And] then the audience is involved.”

Musical Exploration

Like Part, EPCC has had the opportunity to explore wide-ranging musical styles. As a full-time professional choir, the group has so much time to play, explore, and perfect, according to Putnins.

EPCC also commissions at least half a dozen pieces from Estonian composers every year, Putnins said, from small to large, and it has been a very interesting way of furthering a musical tradition. “These relationships [with composers] represent different generations of the culture,” he said. They may sing something set to an electric guitar but with traditional folkloric text, and then come back to the bread and butter of their repertoire and “see Johannes Brahms in a different light,” Putnins said.

Exploring beyond your core repertoire gives you more to reflect on with each musical piece, he said. “It’s not that you ever lose anything.”

“If you expand your musical universe, you find novelties in your daily bread,” Putnins said.