The Germans exported their song festivals to the Baltic countries, where the original patriotic spirit has survived, amazingly fresh, until the present day. The mammoth events offered a surreptitious channel for giving vent to suppressed national feelings during the years of Soviet rule.
Tallinn’s first song festival was arranged by the city’s German population in 1857. Three years later, the Latvian capital Riga hopped on the bandwagon.
The University of Tartu became the hub of the Estonian national movement in the 1860s. The organist and newspaper publisher Johan Voldemar Jannsen (1819-1899) founded the Vanemuinen choral society, giving the wealthy ruling class of the Baltic countries, which liked to emphasize its German origins, a dose of their own medicine. The first Estonian song festival was arranged in 1869 on the initiative of the Vanemuinen society. The event was carefully timed, and this was an anniversary year for the abolition of serfdom, celebrated all over Estonia with “festivals of joy and praise”. This obeisance to the reformist policies of Czar Alexander I was simultaneously an act of defiance to the German population, Estonia’s other power.
The patriotic festival soon took root in Estonia. One of the keys to success was Jannsen’s widely circulated newspaper. What could more clearly express the reciprocal benefits of mass events and mass media? The press wrote up the rousing gatherings, analysed them and aroused anticipation – fanning the flame in the process.
Before the opening of Tartu’s first song festival in 1869, the rumour of great happenings reached the north coast of the Gulf of Finland. C. G. Swan and J. R. Aspelin (later State archaeologist), rushed to the festival. Swan wrote a report for the Finnish papers which changed the life of A. A. Granfelt (1846-1919), who was just over twenty.
“I was only a young student at the time, but I began to dream of a time when the two main tribes of the Finnic people would again draw closer to one another, and the Gulf of Finland, which now separates them, would be a link between them instead”, Granfelt later wrote.
He studied in Tartu in 1874, but the idea of the song festival lay dormant just then. In 1877, the time was ripe for a fresh starts. A number of Finns, cives academici Granfelt among them, were ready to attend, but the outbreak of the Russo-Turkish war postponed the event, and the new dates did not suit Granfelt. He had become a powerful official in Finland: secretary of the Kansanvalistusseura, the Society for Culture and Education.
The next song festival was arranged in Tallinn in 1880. This time Granfelt was in luck. He was able to attend, though the whole event was on the brink of cancellation. The Empress of Russia died on June 3, and the nation went into mourning with the Czar. Nonetheless, permission for the festival was granted. From this moment the countdown for Finnish festivals began.