VEMU Collection Campaign “Music in Estonian Life”

September 9, 2016

2014 was a Song Festival year in Estonia. Eight song and dance collectives from Canada flew to Tallinn to join in the party and to participate in the powerful experience of creating music together. As if to continue these empowering emotions, 2015 was announced as the Year of Music in Estonia. The intent was to draw the diverse Estonian music scene to the centre of attention, introduce singers, songwriters and performers, initiate interest in music and increase the role of music in people’s lives. The motto for the year was “Kõlab hästi!” (“Sounds good”).

Music not only sounds good to our ears, but also reassures the spirit and invigorates the soul. Music has played a central role in the development of Estonians as cultural folk and the preservation of Estonians as a people. Both the national movement at the end of the 19th century and the restoration of independence at the end of the 20th century were greatly supported by the people’s love of music and dedication to musical activities. Famous composers and musicians have become our ambassadors of Estonian culture in the world and a source of national pride. We have recently been celebrating one of these famous composer’s, Roman Toi’s, 100th birthday. Music has continued to connect us, as a people, as communities and as subcultures.

Music holds a special place for Estonians. Each one of us has their own personal and intimate connection to music. What kind of connection exactly? What role does music play in the lives of Estonians abroad? To find out, VEMU announced a collection campaign for 2015 “Music in Estonian Life.” The deadline for submissions was in the spring of 2016.

A total of 22 essay submissions and archival donations were received for the campaign, almost half of them were from the Estonian Supplementary School students. We received audio recordings from Väino Einola and Karin Kimmel as well as an abundant collection of photo material of the 2014 Song Festival from the doctor turned photographer, Peeter Põldre. Elle Rosenberg gave us the Toronto Estonian school choir’s song festival books, which included memories from many different Song Festival experiences. Õnne Laikve donated “Arien – Album,” which originally belonged to Helmi Betlem, and other sheet music and notes. Filmmaker, Helga Merits from The Netherlands, donated a very unique historical document – a copy of Ernst Öpik’s “A Hymn to Humanity,” the Baltic University hymn. Helga is hoping that one of our choirs will record the hymn, so she can use it in her film “The Story of the Baltic University.” On many occasions, Mall Puhm donated the Ööbik choir’s archival material, in addition to performance costumes from the Toronto Estonian choirs amongst many other items. Mall is one of the best closet cleaners in Toronto, we always receive interesting material from her! We received Lembit Avesson’s large sheet music collection and the DVD “Oreliga” (“Postludes”) from Marta Kivik.

We would like to thank the Estonian School and especially teacher Kai Kiilaspea, who has continuously been able to convince her students to participate in our collection campaign. We received a total of 10 submissions from the school. Understandably, the students wrote about their experience at the Song Festival (Genevieve Perron, Lief Kolga, Seliina McConville, Katariina Järve, Natalie Jenkins). Participating in the Song Festival is a serious rite of initiation for Toronto Estonian youth; those who are able to take part once, are no longer cold towards their Estonian heritage. To quote Lief Kolga: “This Song Festival was very impressive and touched my heart. I will always remember it.”

However, the students also wrote about other topics. For example, Linda Jürimäe discussed the role of Estonian music in her life. We also find out that in addition to the Song Festival repertoire, she keeps up with other kinds of music. Some of Linda’s favourites are Elina Born, Stig Rästa, Kristel Aaslaid, and Cartoon. Andrus Käärid wrote about the Estonian band that won all of our hearts when they came to visit in the fall of 2015 – Curly Strings. He writes about their song “Kauges külas”: “It reminds me of my grandmother’s cottage in Magnetawan. When we spend time there during the summer, it’s all quiet. There is a small town a couple kilometres away and you have to walk or ride your bike there.” Mari Käärid wrote about her personal encounter with the famous singer Tõnis Mägi. She even had the chance to take a photo with him, but: “I had the chance to take a photo with him, but unfortunately I sneezed…” The photo that concludes her project is proof of this historical event. Sylvi Oja is a true admirer of Ewert and the Two Dragons. Liivi Sermat Cooke’s project, “Our Shared Soundtrack” discusses songs that have played important roles in her life and that of her family, such as “Tuljak,” “Ta elagu,” Christmas and national songs. Liivi’s project includes beautiful photos with examples of lyrics from the abovementioned songs.

We also received essays written in memoir format from adults. Anne Remmel remembers Aino Waldin’s piano studio, the musical life led by Kaljo Raid at the Baptist church and also Helmi Betlem’s singing studio, Estonian School and much more. Her essay is a beautiful overview of a Toronto Estonian’s musical life story. We also received sheet music and photos from Anne.

The two next submissions go farther back in history. Aino Müllerbeck begins her work with a memory from 1929 in Estonia when she was sitting on the floor of the Viljandi Defence League house as a 4 year old listening to Ms. Lillakas and Bishop Jaan Lattik singing a duet. Aino’s first piano lessons also took place around that time. Later, she remembers participating in musical activities at the Viljandi Education Society’s High School for Girls and at Valga’s II Elementary School, as well as being a member of the Iigaste choir in Valgamaa during the war. Aino continued to pursue music in exile: in a German DP Camp, in Stockholm (under Juhan Aavik’s conducting baton), in Montreal, and in Toronto. Aino also gave us a photo album with detailed descriptions and concert programs.

Elna Libe is a singer, who gave her heart to Estonian music, as the title of her work puts it. Similar to Aino, Elna’s singing career began very early, at the age of 3-4, when she earned a little money for performing and quickly spent it all on candy at the store. Elna is from a musical family, so it is not surprising that her own life has been filled with music. She did not abandon singing on her journey from Estonia through Finland and Sweden to Toronto. She even met her husband, Viktor, through singing in the Göteborg Estonian Choir. Elna was a recognized soloist and in addition to singing in Estonian choirs, also sang in the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir for some time. Elna and Viktor sang together in the Cantate Domino Choir at St. Peter’s Church in Toronto for 50 years.

Scoutmaster, Enno Agur’s compiled book “Jämesääre. Translations and songs” is the product of 10 years of work. It was actually already completed in 2005, but upon the encouragement of his friends, Enno finally brought his work to the archive just this year. Jämesäär is well known among Canadian Estonians; it is the scout name of late Heino Jõe. Jämesäär was a man of many talents, as Enno writes, and his singing talent was one of many. Jämesäär wrote Estonian scout songs for the scout groups to sing. If a new song was needed, he picked a well known tune and wrote lyrics to go along with it. Enno collected these tunes, wrote the music and compiled them all into a large manuscript, which includes 63 songs and their translations. “I guess I became interested and was inspired by the songs over the 4 and half years I had the opportunity to work with Heino in the noolepoiste (arrow boys) group, writes Enno. “During this short time, I learnt a lot from him about scouting, but also about many other things. I am thankful to Heino and the directors of the Lembitu scout group to have had the chance to be a part of it.” We are thankful to Enno for completing such a great work.

Appreciation letters and flowers were given to all participants. Monetary prizes were awarded by the Estonian Studies Centre by judges Prof. Jüri Kivimäe from the Chair of Estonian Studies at the University of Toronto, VicePresident of the Bibliography Club, Asta Lokk and Chief Archivist of VEMU, Piret Noorhani. 2.-3. prize went to Elna Libe and Aino Müllerbeck, and Enno Agur received 1st prize.

The deadline for the new collection campaign “Estonia 100. My Life and Love,” in collaboration with the Estonian Life Stories Association and the Estonian Literary Museum, is December 1st, 2016.

Piret Noorhani