Koidula and 100 years of theatre (1)
Archived Articles 01 Sep 2006 Hilary BirdEWR
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Bird droppings from Estonia

In June I went to see a play called simply Koidula, about Lydia Koidula [nee Lydia Emilie Florentine Jannsen but named Koidula, 'of the dawn', by fellow awakener C.R. Jakobson], a major figure of the 19c National Awakening. She co wrote the first Estonian newspaper, corresponded with the writer of the national epic, published extremely influential poetry central, even today, to the forging of Estonian identity, and wrote and directed the first plays in Estonian, thus founding the national theatre. Lydia is sometimes portrayed as being a sensitive Biedermeier plant writing delicate verses about nature. This she certainly does to perfection. But there is more to Lydia than flower arranging. What about Mõtted Toomemäel (Thoughts on Toomemägi, 1867)?

War, in a long, bloody robe drives in a chariot with wheels of fire over you, Estonia!

After it, comes disease and slavery hoists its chains waving the crucifix.

Hardly stuff for the weak kneed. And there are some very sensual, subtly sexy love poems too, so, is the stereotype justified? And the woman was a regular workhorse. As well as translating turgid moralistic German tales for dad's newspaper Eesti Postimees (The Estonian Courier) Lydia was the manager of the office as well as looking after five younger siblings at home, and, later, children of her own. 'The Courier' was hugely popular and the administrative workload was enormous. Merely writing over 2000 addresses (the newspaper was delivered by mail and each copy had a wrapper) took days, and demanded punctuality. Lydia's admin tasks included addressing mail, proofreading, accounting and corresponding with subscribers. After moving to Tartu in 1864, the great woman tells us in her diaries that she had not been to town for three weeks. Knowing that the Jannsens lived very near to the centre, on Tiigi street, this fact is significant. 'Lydia's Oak' is actually just around the corner from my flat. The wooden house is long gone - all of Tiigi was destroyed during WW II - but the Jannsen plot has been identified and the oak is certainly old enough to have been there when they lived there. I go there sometimes when I need inspiration.

The play Koidula, celebrated 100 years of professional Estonian theatre, along with several other events. On August 12 a statue of Karl Menning, the director of the first professional troupe was unveiled outside the Shakespeare café next to the Vanemuine theatre. The first theatre, a beautiful Art Nouveau building, was paid for by public subscription; it was destroyed during WW II and the current building dates from 1967. Estonian theatre generally dates from 1870 when Superwoman Lydia put on a play that she had translated (from the German), edited, directed and produced herself at the Vanemuine Society for singing and dancing, an organisation created by her and her father.

The venue for the 'Koidula' play was the old Vanemuine Society headquarters, across the river in the garden where the Estonian great and good actually trod. Lydia was played by diminutive Elina Reinhold who had an attractive husky voice, as if she'd just polished off a packet of French fags (the minced up old socks Gauloise sort with no tip). I have to confess I didn't hear much due to both deafness and my Estonian not being up to it but it was a lovely balmy night in a leafy garden in the open air, there were lots of visual jokes and the singing in the Song Festival sequence was good. A good warm up for my pal Loone Ots' play, 'Koidula Veri' (the Blood of Koidula) that premieres at the Vanemuine in Spring 2007. Plug, plug...

The roaring horn

After Gaudeamus (see last Droppings, EL #28, July 14) there have been various festivals, the biggest of which was 'The Roaring Horn', a brass band festival with beer tents and international bands. I am not greatly enamoured of brass bands, although they remind me of my childhood when many of the people in the working class street I Iived in used to come out onto their door steps to watch and listen to the Sally Anns (Salvation Army) or Boys Brigade (a Christian Youth Organisation) as they paraded past on Sunday. Later there was a 3-day Christian 'modern' music festival in the car park opposite my flat staged by American evangelists. This went on for 3 days starting at 08.45 every day (on a weekend !!) with a programme that consisted of either sickly ballads or loud and totally lifeless rock. Give me the Sally Anns and a stirring chorus of 'Onward Christian Soldiers' any old day!

All July old medieval St John's resounded with a concert every other night and there were free public concerts in the Town Hall Square, in the parks and gardens and on the porch of the Vanemuine theatre by bands and choirs large and small, young and old and playing music of all sorts. Activity has decreased in August but a brass band playing 'Rock Around the Clock' and some rather good rock music and swing have wafted my way during the last few days. There's a lot of promising noise from the rehearsal rooms of the Vanemuine in preparation for the new season in September. Roll on!

Finally, thanks to the wonders of technology, I am hugely enjoying the BBC programmes over the ether from a distance of 1,700 miles. Finno-Ugric music is, in my opinion, second to none (Sibelius, Bartók and Pärt are all huge favourites of mine) and the Finns gave a magnificent rendering of Bartók 's 1944 'Concerto for Orchestra', written after the composer had fled to the USA from his beloved Hungary. It was his last work - the elegy surely one of the most beautiful ever written and a moving testament to a lost world.

And I leave you on a sad note. Soon the time must come to report back on changes and the developing pathologies of 21st century Estonia. But not just yet. Enjoy what's left of summer - head suve lõppu!
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