Welcome to web page of Estonian traditional music and instruments
Eesti keeles   In English  
by Krista and Raivo Sildoja, 2004

The concept

Traditional music has evolved in oral transmission, it is characterised by continuity between past and present, by variation based on the creative impulse of an individual or a group, and by social choice defining the musical form. It is the living communicative tradition of a community.

Instrumental music

Based on harmony, rhythm and structural analysis, traditional instrumental music falls into two: older and modern.

Older instrumental music. This category is defined by modal musical thinking, narrow ambitus in melody, monophony, short compositions (mainly motif structure), variation.

The repertoire includes older bagpipe, jew's harp, hornpipe music and bagpipe imitations on fiddle. That kind of music (alteration of two majors, mainly first and fourth degrees produced by muffling) was probably played also on small kannel.

Modern instrumental music. This style is defined by functional harmony (including basic functions: tonic, subdominant, dominant), a relatively wide compass, monophony and polyphony,  simple and complex squares. The introduction of more modern instruments (fiddle, modern kannel, lõõts) expanded the repertoire with fashion dances of the 19th century: waltzes, polkas, schottisch.

Lõõts and its repertoire made popular the music in three majors.

Till the early 20th century the playing of musical instruments was not considered a proper behaviour for women, being men's domain.

Popular forms of spiritual music

The pietist movements starting from the late 18th century initiated popular choral singing, so-called melismatic singing. The same style of performing Lutheran chorals disseminated in Finland and Sweden, so that abundant melismas and variation changed the melody considerably.

This repertoire and performance style has been revived today, while such performance of choral tunes on musical instruments is a completely modern phenomenon.

The influence of neighbouring cultures

Musical instruments reflect relations between different cultures, and travel relatively easily while being more international than song repertoire. Instrumental and dance repertoire in North Estonia show ancient common features with Votic neighbours in the east. Also Finnish influence is observable, particularly in coastal areas. West Estonia shows some impact of Swedish culture; southeast and northeast regions feature East Slavonic (Russian) influence. Music in South Estonia shows common characteristics with Latvians, while Estonian traditional music has in general been influenced by Germans.

Instrumental music in the early 20th century

Traditional music was a common element of daily life.

Instrumental music in the Soviet period

First folk music bands were formed at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries after the model of brass bands and stringed orchestras. The promoting of collective music making launched particularly after the Second World War, guided already by new cultural politics. After the campaign of the 1950s followed a decade of relapse, because these orchestras of folk music instruments were not successful in copying symphony orchestras and did not last. The 1970 national dance festival introduced a simpler popular style of music making, and consequently started a new phase of village music bands, külakapell.

Since 1978 gather regularly a large folk music festivity, where such village bands perform in a joint orchestra. This type of performance requires coordinated conducting, joint repertoire and printed music sheets. But the necessity to read music has also warded off some village musicians.

Those bands could include besides traditional instruments also more modern ones. An important role fell on various instruments for providing rhythm (like jauram or pingipill), and thus also those less talented to perform as soloists could enjoy music making and vernacular repertoire in such large orchestras.

The past 50 years of such collective music making has formed a tradition of its own, but the 21st century has brought along a decline in the numbers of village bands.

Another parallel movement in the Soviet period was forming of the so-called folklore groups (Leegajus, Leigarid) who aimed at reproducing and reviving the original traditional sound, singing and instrumental performance styles.

Instrumental traditional music on stage

Today traditional music has reached the performing stage while it has lost most of its original functions.

The organised reviving of traditional music started already at the beginning of the 20th century, promoted by August Pulst who took village musicians on concert stage. In hundreds of concert halls all over Estonia performed with great success Torupilli Juss (aka Juhan Maaker on bagpipes), Kandle Juss (Johannes Rosenstrauch on kannel), fiddlers Mihkel Toom and Mart Männimets, singers Mari Kilu and Anne Vabarna, and others.

In the Soviet period traditional music was arranged to be performed mainly on stage. Some folklore groups demonstrated also ancient rituals and customary practices.

With the introduction professional education in traditional music, music in concert environment has become more personalised, and is often combined with other musical styles.

Instruction of traditional music in college

Traditional music has been taught in several colleges, but an independent programme is available only in Viljandi Cultural College since 1989.

This programme prepares individual musicians and music teachers. Each performer in a larger group needs to master solo performance, as do music teachers. The programme was initially inspired and assisted by the folk music department of Sibelius Academy in Finland. Students worked also closely with kannel and lõõts musicians, and listened to older archived material.

Inspired by practices in the Nordic countries, students of the programme have started annual instructive youth camps of traditional music, and launched the most largest and popular folk music event in Estonia, Viljandi Folk Music Festival (Viljandi Pärimusmuusika Festival).

College instruction in traditional music has resulted in a number of young people for whom traditional music is part of daily life, and who preserve their musical mother tongue and culture al roots.

Translated by Kristin Kuutma
Krista and Raivo Sildoja, Virbel MTÜ, Kose küla, 87610 Vändra vald, Pärnumaa, Estonia