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Tallinn - City Full on Music

City full of music, with multiple faces. Tallinn’s musical identity is not related to any particular musical style or facility. Music has several faces in Tallinn. Historical organs alongside modern experimental electronic music or jazz alongside opera are part of everyday life in Tallinn. The pleasantly perceivable scale of the city encourages musicians from different fields to cooperate with one another, as a result of which unique musical events are born. Tallinn is a city which stimulates creativity.

Tallinn crosses its geographical borders. An important part of cultural life in Estonia and the Baltic Sea region is concentrated here. Tallinn is also a sea city, and a city which is fully open to the world. Tallinn’s accessible and cosmopolitan musical identity developed in the Middle Ages and early modern times, when Tallinn had the status of a Hanseatic city. Cultural influences from other parts of the world arrived here quickly. However, Tallinn was not only a recipient of such influences but also an important cultural influencer of the region. For example, as early as 1680 the first opera to be composed and performed here, Johann Valentin Meder’s ‘Die beständige Argenia’, was released in Tallinn.

Tallinn did not lose its openness even in the most difficult of times. With the founding of St Petersburg, the economic and cultural significance of Tallinn decreased significantly, while the Soviet era severed the majority of Tallinn’s cultural ties with the west. However, while it was behind the Iron Curtain, Tallinn was the only place in the entire former Soviet Union in which it was possible to watch Finnish television. Tallinn was referred to as the Soviet West (Sovestki zapad), and people from all over the Soviet Union came to experience a western atmosphere and way of life as much as was possible in the then-Soviet Union. The foundation of more recent reintegration between Estonia, Tallinn, and the west was laid during the late Soviet years. As political conditions changed, people in Estonia were already ready for them.

The diversity of Tallinn manifests itself in various places which have musical connections. Here is, for example, the Theater and Music Museum with its unique collection. Tallinn is also rich in terms of its various concert halls. There are several halls in Tallinn which can hold symphonic music concerts. One of these is the large Concert and Performing Arts Centre concert hall which is operated by the Estonian Academy of Music and Theatre. This is one of the most modern and original in the world in terms of its built-in technology. There are numerous chamber halls, many of which are located in the historic Old Town and which have a unique atmosphere. The city’s many historic churches are also used as concert halls, some of which are outstanding representatives of the late Gothic style in the Baltic Sea region. Historic castles and manor houses are also used as concert halls, some of which are located within the city while others are in its immediate vicinity. When speaking of the future, Tallinn plans to expand the Estonia Opera House, fully modernising the building in terms of built-in technology. When it was erected, this building was one of the most important monuments to Estonian national self-consciousness.

In addition in recent decades, several historical industrial buildings and complexes have been adapted as cultural and music centres, such as Tallinn’s earliest Electricity Central Station (today’s Creative Hub), which was built in 1913 and was the magical place in which the cult film ‘Stalker’ was filmed in 1977 by its director, Andrei Tarkovski. However, within the context of industrial buildings, mention should also be made of the Baltic Railway infrastructure which was built in 1870, and the later Soviet-era electrical engineering factory where, among other things, the details of the first interplanetary walker were created, and which today has become a unique creative city and ideas incubator for several creative collectives (being known as Telliskivi Creative City). More and more examples can be found of the transformation of historic industrial architecture into cultural centres. One of these is the Noblessner Foundry where, in 2015, the powerful ‘Adam’s Passion’ by Arvo Pärt and Robert Wilson was performed, which later also reached the Berlin Konzerthaus.

And, of course, the colours of Tallinn’s music life are enriched by numerous clubs, many of which have taken on the mission of educating the audience in its musical tastes. Eesti Rahvusringhääling (Estonian Public Broadcasting) also uses its studios as public concert venues. In summer, music life moves outside the city centre to such exotic locations as, for example, the ruins of the historical Pirita monastery, but also to the small Naissaar Island near Tallinn.

City of countless musical gatherings. Tallinn is a city which connects people through music. The ‘Singing Revolution’ grew out of pop music and protest movements: in 1988-1991, a series of mass demonstrations took place in Tallinn (such as the Estonian Song Festival and various night song festivals), with patriotic songs being sung by massed singers. The Singing Revolution made it possible for people to demonstrate their views in a peaceful way, and it helped to legitimise political decisions through which it was finally possible to restore Estonia’s national independence without any casualties or violence. Thanks to this it can be said that Estonia sang itself free.

The process of song festivals uniting all Estonian people also take place in Tallinn. The tradition of song festivals began more than 150 years ago against the backdrop of a process of national awakening which swept across Europe at the time. The Song Festival is the largest music festival in Estonia, with tens of thousands of singers and even more spectators, along with choirs and orchestras from all over Estonia, but often also from other parts of the world. Song festivals take place over two years (alternating between general and youth song festivals), and then a powerful ‘river of music’ passes through Tallinn, a procession of choirs which walks the route from the city centre to the singing stage.

Tallinn has also witnessed other spectacular music events. In the late 1980s, as the late Soviet-era world started to open up, one of the most important festivals was ‘Rock Summer’, thanks to which several top artists came to perform in Tallinn such as Blur, Iggy Pop, Bob Geldof, Jethro Tull, Faith No More, Mercury Rev, Public Image Ltd, The Jesus and Mary Chain, and many more. Since the 1990s, Tallinn has witnessed stage shows of unprecedented proportions. Michael Jackson, Metallica, Lady Gaga, Madonna, Tina Turner, Guns’n’Roses, and others have also enjoyed a huge audience in Tallinn.

The International Music Day on 1 October, which is celebrated every year through hundreds of concerts held all over the city, has an important place in Tallinn’s cultural life and that of the whole of Estonia. It is also widely covered in the cultural media, and the most important events are broadcast by Eesti Rahvusringhääling.

Tallinn has long been attractive to jazz musicians, and even during the Soviet era when engaging in jazz music acquired something of a dissident connotation. The reason why the Tallinn Jazz Festival no longer took place after 1967 was Charles Lloyd Quartet, who miraculously managed to make it over from the USA, and whose performance had a huge impact on local musicians and audiences. Upon seeing this, the authorities banned the festival as an event which represented the harmful ideology of the western world. Today, Tallinn is known for one of the most important jazz festivals in Northern Europe: Jazzkaar. In addition, Tallinn is home to the two most important performance festivals in Estonian music life: Tallinn Music Week and the Estonian Music Days, which introduce contemporary Estonian music, top collectives, and various leading performers. The latter is the oldest continuously-held festival in Estonia which, in 2021, will celebrate its forty-second anniversary. As all three festivals take place almost at the same time, in March and April, Tallinn becomes a real international festival city every spring.

City of composers and new music. Tallinn has witnessed the emergence of several unique music styles. It was while working in Tallinn that Arvo Pärt achieved his own personal style (tintinnabuli), which has made the composer the world’s most widely-performed living classical music composer. The renaissance of the runic song was also begun in Tallinn, especially thanks to the composer, Veljo Tormis, who gave this dying tradition fresh form with a relation to art music. Today, the runic song has influenced various musical styles, from classical to pop and rock. Tallinn is also one of the most important centres in the region when it comes to experimental music, such as, for example, people who come here to study modern improvisation based on original tradition.

City of excellent music education. Estonia is one of the few countries in the world where musical education is a compulsory part of general education. In Estonia it is considered natural for every child to sing, and that thousands of children sing in choirs and participate in music studios. It is this educational peculiarity that has made song festivals possible, with them being attended by tens of thousands of amateur singers, and with a repertoire which often does not lag behind that of a professional choir. It was in Tallinn that experimental music classes were established in general education schools, with innovative musical teaching methods being used and where the work which has been undertaken has raised Estonia’s general choir culture to such a high level.

However, Tallinn and Estonia are not just places with a highly-developed choral and song culture. Here the initiative was born which is known as ‘Every child has their own instrument’, with the aim to purchase all of those musical instruments which are necessary so that children and young people can learn music with the help of the state and various entrepreneurs.

Professional music education, the flagship of which is the Estonian Academy of Music and Theatre (EAMT), one of Estonia’s six public universities, stands on the powerful foundations which have been described above. Due to the high reputation of Estonian music - Estonia is the homeland of the conductors Paavo and Neeme Järvi, and the composers Arvo Pärt and Veljo Tormis - studying at EAMT has become attractive to many international students, with an attendance ratio there which is higher than in other Estonian universities. EAMT is innovative as a university: in recent decades early music, jazz music, traditional music, contemporary music interpretation, music and cultural management, interpretive pedagogy, and much more have been taught here. And, of course, the EAMT continues to train music teachers for general education schools, whose activities are the guarantee that the Estonian musical culture will continue to be strong.

Last modified 28.06.2021