It is not easy to find a crowd in a country as small as Estonia. The population of the whole country is only 1.4 million and there is the general solitariness of the Estonian character to be taken into account. Yet, every five years the whole country gathers together with a common purpose: to sing.
The Song festivals of the Baltic countries are an astonishing spectacle. Not only do people gather together on an epic scale, but the singing that emerges from choirs of twenty or thirty thousand people is glorious, with subtle harmonies and counterpoint.
These performances of beloved and ancient tunes are watched by a substantial fraction of the rest of the country. Yesterday a choir of 25,000 at the Tallinn song festival was watched by well over 120,000 in the audience. As a spectacle it was impressive, but it was the emotional impact that soared above all else. The songs were mostly gentle evocations of the land and people of Estonia- patriotic yes, but celebrating the light, the land and the homespun Estonian language itself.
Songs, once banned under the dreadful years of the Soviet occupation, were sung out with a joy that rose at times to a kind of glee- an emotion that one rarely associates with the stolid and serious Estonian character. Ten years ago I attended my first song festival, but that was on a far smaller scale, Yesterday the choir even kept on singing after the conductors had left the podium as if to prolong the five-yearly gathering just a little longer.
This year is also the anniversary of the first display of the Estonian flag in 1884, and there have been a whole series of events to celebrate- and in truth I have never seen such a spectacular display of flags as at this song festival. The choirs and indeed the whole crowd were a waving sea of the Estonian blue-black-white national colours.
The simple happiness of being able to sing, the pride and sheer delight in the music was palpable. The music underlined the sense that -at last- this much abused nation has finally found her freedom and self respect after the dark years of terror and then stagnation. As the huge choir launched into one of the most beautiful, calm and serene of the songs, Mu Isamaa on minu arm- My homeland is my delight- joined by many in the audience, I found my heart was singing and my cheeks were wet with tears.
I was hardly alone.