Bird Droppings from Estonia: Gaudeamus (1)
Archived Articles 07 Jul 2006 Hilary BirdEWR
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The song and dance festival season is here. There was a Women's Song Festival last month on Naissaar (Women's Island) that looked a bit avant-garde to me. I'm getting old. Give me a full skirt, scratchy woolly stockings and a nice, colourful headband any old day. Just as long as I don't have to wear 'em, of course. The first all-Men's dancing festival, with 2,000 chaps took place in Rakvere. This coincided with the start of the World footie championship and a witty newspaper cartoon depicted the boys in national costume waving their legs in the air with the caption 'Where's the ball?'.

Last weekend the 15th Gaudeamus student music festival of Latvian, Lithuanian and Estonian folk song and dance was celebrated in Tartu. I started with a concert in Jaanikirik, St John's, our lovely, patched up medieval church, by the orchestra and choir of Jazeps Vîtols Latvian Academy of Music playing Beethoven, Mozart, Karlson and Rossini. The latter's piece was 'Introductions and Variations for clarinettist and orchestra', a cheerful, tricky piece played by a cheerful soloist who got several calls back and played an encore of something equally tricky and cheerful.

St John's, nearly seven centuries old and battered by the ravishes of innumerable wars, not to mention being an 18c fashion victim, has been beautifully refurbished. The church is all that remains of affluent Hanseatic, fat-cat medieval German Dorpat. Gillibert de Lannoy, (1386-1462), Flemish diplomat and chamberlain to the Duke of Burgundy, travelling by sled down the frozen Ema in 1413 on his return from Pskov, noted that 'Dorpat is a very beautiful town and well defended; here is a town beside a river with it's own see that has no peer in Old Livonia.' Much of the old town was destroyed in the 17c as the great powers of Sweden, Poland-Lithuania and Russia struggled for ascendancy in the Baltic area. Peter the Great dealt the coup de grace in 1708, when Dorpat was razed. Sic transit Gloria mundi.

The Gaudeamus celebrations kicked off at the Ema River at 23.00. There was a short concert of (especially composed) music and the festival was launched with some wonderful firework 'sculpture' - three chunks of bars of music. Then, just like the end of Walt Disney's 'Fantasia', a long procession of fire torchlights came from the darkness and converged on the bridge. To the tune of the 'Tartu March' by Raymond Valgre (a famous Estonian popular composer of the 1930's) the students took their places on the pedestrian walk way of the bridge, and another, intrepid stream climbed up to take their place on the actual arch of the bridge. This is surely something that would have the average Health & Safety Officer in the UK soiling their underpants! Especially as more braziers were ignited at intervals on the arch and the girls were wearing heavy, long swinging traditional skirts! But the effect was wonderful. The lady next to me linked arms as we all sang (or hummed in my case) along to Valgre's march, the crowd having a thoroughly fine time and bursting with civic pride. When the upper and lower processions were all in place on the Arch Bridge a string of fire 'waterfalls' was lit underneath and 'Gaudeamus XV' and a battery of rockets and Catherine wheels went off on the shore. Fabulous!!!

As the fireworks died away the young people descended from the Arch, still carrying their torches, and we followed them up through the town hall square, many singing, up under the Angel's bridge (sometimes called 'the Otium bridge' after it's Latin inscription Otium reficit vires - Rest Refreshes All), past the ruins of the cathedral, and over into Kassitoome (Cat Hill, no prizes for guessing the origin of the name when I tell you it was, before the park was created in the late 19c, a very large sand pit).

Kassitoome was where the first Gaudeamus was held in 1956, in the dark days of Stalinism and the festival then must have truly been a light in the spiritual darkness. The students took their place around a stone that was unveiled as they sang the student hymn Gaudeamus Igitur (Let us Rejoice!). Although the text has been translated into most of the languages of the world it is usually sung in the Latin text of 1781 that has become the standard used by most Universities today. And so it was in Tartu.

On Saturday night I went to a second concert in St John's, this time Lithuanian music by Lithuanian choirs accompanied by the brass band of the Lithuanian Academy of Music and Theatre. I knew none of the composers. My general impression was of great drama but a tad too much like Hollywood film music.

Day three and the sun was still doing all the right things! Off I strolled to the Song Festival grounds, about a 15-minute walk away, leaving the car as I had no intention of entertaining an evening devoid of the national tipple. I love going to song festivals and I especially love going to song festivals in Tartu.

Some solemn moments ensued while we all stood for the three national anthems, and I have to say that, in my opinion, the Latvians have the nicest tune. As soon as the last note of Lithuania, My Homeland died away, I was off to one of the many beer stalls for a pint of chilled amber liquid and just got back in time for the combined choirs and companies of dancers to sock across to the cheery tune of a great favourite - 'Kungla rahvas, the March of the Kungla People' from Karl A. Hermann's gorgeous late 19c song-spiel 'Uku and Vanemuine'. Smashing.

Songs and dances came in all shapes and sizes but the general impression is one of tremendous vitality and a great splash of sound and colour and, of course, all the Baltic peoples are still a whisker away from the pantheism of the ancient religion. I watched the united choirs and dancing companies come together for the Lithuanian 'Where the wood grows', the Latvian 'I'll bury my sorrow' and Miina Härma's frisky Tuljak (an Estonian folk dance) that ended the dancing in a great rush of speed. Then, the festival fire was handed over to a deputation of youngsters and escorted out of the singing ground, followed by the flags of the Baltic nations and the dancing companies to the singing of Lydia Koidula's incomparably beautiful patriotic song Mu isamaa on minu arm. It really is virtually impossible to translate the title (or the rest!) literally and preserve the musicality of the verse but it is best, in my opinion, rendered in modern English as 'My native land, my dearest love' because each of the lines have eight beats in both Estonian and English. The tune was that of Gustav Ernesaks, for many years the prime mover of the song festivals and it was first heard at the all-Estonian song festival of 1957, another small, beautiful and potent flame in the Stalinist darkness. Finally a repetition, three times, of the Tartu March and we all wended our way out of the grounds and off to the pub. It only remains for me to laud a wonderful weekend.

Vivat Gaudeamus! Vivat, vivat Tartu!
 
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