How the Estonian Nation was born in a Swiss village

In a few weeks, on 6/7 July 2019, the Estonian Song Festival “Laulupidu” will celebrate its 150-year jubilee. It is the country’s major cultural event, gathering ten thousands of Estonians to sing together. Such public celebrations have a long tradition in German-speaking countries, too – who actually invented it? A search for traces in the 18th century. 

Wetzikon, in the year of our Lord 1754. Johannes Schmidlin, a young vicar born and raised in Zurich, is appointed to become pastor of the placid village’s parish in the Zurich Highlands. Not a year passed and Pastor Schmidlin – a student of Zurich Cathedral Cantor Johann Caspar Bachofen – has founded a choral society to improve the congregational singing. Nothing new under the sun, singing societies had been existing in this area since the Zwinglian music ban loosened in the 17th century, and vocal music had been cherished by the upper class. But Schmidlin had other plans; he wanted the people outside of church and salon walls to get to sing.

In 1769 – his society already numbered 200 members, a proud 10 % of the village’s population –Schmidlin published a collection of secular songs, some being patriotic and bloody, but some also sincere and forward-looking. He wrote them for all social strata, for women and children alike. Singing should not only draw people nearer to the Word of God, but also to education, liberty and prosperity – just like his famous compatriots Rousseau and Pestalozzi. 20 years short of the French Revolution and Schmidlin pioneered enlightenment at Lake Pfäffikon which inspired other skilled villagers. 

When Schmidlin suddenly died in 1772, Hans Jakob Nägeli took over as pastor and leader of the choral society, where also his youngest son Hans Georg sung as a boy. Hans Georg was a prodigy child, able to play difficult piano sonatas by the age of 8 and occasionally substituting his father at the weekly rehearsals. Not surprisingly, he decided to become a musician, and it were Schmidlin’s songs from his childhood days, which pushed him from now on to promote choral singing as a way to educate people.

Tirelessly, Nägeli travelled throughout the country, delivered countless lectures and gained fellow campaigners: Johann Heinrich Tobler, for example, who initiated the very first song festival in history in the Appenzell region in 1825 and contributed his “Ode to God”, a popular folksong to this day. And Franz Xaver Schnyder von Wartensee, who emigrated to Frankfurt to found the city’s first men’s choir in 1828, one year after Württemberger men’s choirs had organised the first song festival on German soil. These were the fruits of decades of work by Nägeli, which culminated in the “First All-German Song Festival” in Frankfurt in 1838 – with Schnyder von Wartensee serving as the festival’s chairman.

Now the expansion of mass singing took its way northwards; the concept of combining singing with demands for unity, liberty and civil rights appealed to the emerging national movements. In Latvia and Estonia, where German culture had been predominant since the conquest by Baltic Germans in the 12th century, Baltic German choral societies quickly formed. A first song festival is documented in Riga as early as 1836, and further festivals took place in Tallinn in 1857 and 1866. However, they were far from being genuine public celebrations, as only Baltic German noblemen and clergymen took part. But the Estonians, passing on runic Regilaul songs for centuries, were eager to have their own party. Thanks to clever marketing (they promoted it as a commemoration of the 50-year of the abolishment of serfdom), the Russian rulers gave their approval and 845 singers celebrated the first All-Estonian Song Festival in 1869 – including after all two Estonian songs on the programme.

By 1918, when Estonia became an independent republic, the number of participants had increased to over 10’000, and meanwhile, mixed, women’s and children’s choirs were allowed, too. Even during the Soviet occupation 1940–1991 the Singing Nation could not be silenced. Hans Georg Nägeli’s dream of a Single People of Singers became reality in Estonia. And back in Switzerland? Nägeli has been dubbed the “Godfather of Singers”, however, his merits fell into oblivion. History was too well-meaning towards Mother Helvetia, whom had not to be lauded a thousand times to retain liberty and unity like Eesti Ema, her enduring sister.

At least, Nägeli has been honoured by the great Estonian folksong composer Veljo Tormis, when in 1988, at the dawn of the Singing Revolution, he arranged a simple “Salute to the Fatherland” from 1817 and called it “Kodukeel” (Native Tongue). Soon after, it was sung by 300’000 Estonians at the Song Festival Grounds, amongst other forbidden songs. The biggest gathering of people in Estonian history was an exceptional mass protest against the tumbling regime, only surpassed by the 600-kilometre long human chain through the Baltic states in autumn 1989. On 20 August 1991, Estonia became independent again, thanks to a largely bloodless revolution. Estonia gathered in singing, as Schmidlin had preached unto his fellow parishioners: “Let us be a light on Earth; free as we are, so shall be others; until all nations have become one.”

David Rossel