Building harmony amid the discord

  • 2005-04-20
  • By Ben Nimmo
RIGA - The first thing that any visitor learns about the Baltics is that they are very different in character. Estonians maintain that they are part of Scandinavia. Lithuanians are equally adamant that they live in Central Europe. Latvians are proud of their history as the most Westernized country in the East. Separated by religion, language and orientation, with Baltic politicians more often arguing than agreeing, the very idea of trying to find common cultural ground almost seems vain.

But that ground exists. Different though they may be in practically every other way, the Baltic states have a tradition of choral music which is unrivaled in Europe. Scratch a Balt, and you'll find a chorister, whether on the Gulf of Finland or the Polish border.

My experience with Baltic music began two years ago on a winter visit to Rapla, south of Tallinn. A conversation with the manager of the town's tourist center revealed that we were both singers. Those who believe in the frigidity of Estonians may be surprised at her next words: "We're rehearsing tonight, would you like to join us?"

Never Mind the Words

That evening I accompanied her to Rapla's impressive double-spired church. There was a definite lack of heating inside, which made me feel at home; icy churches are what the English choral tradition is all about. Huddled around a piano were 20 well-wrapped Estonians, sucking throat pastilles. They greeted me cheerfully, asked what voice I sang, shuffled over to make room and plunged into song.

It was a daunting experience. They were singing a chorale that I'd never heard before. The music by J.S. Bach, with the combination of an unfamiliar melody and fifteen-syllabled Estonian lyrics made my head spin. We followed with what had to be a song about Estonia: the word "Eesti" was in the title, "Hoia Jumal Eestit," which kind friends have since translated as "God save Estonia." At the time I was too busy trying to get my epiglottis round phrases such as "Onnistame rahvast saada kosumist" to worry about anything as trivial as what it meant.

What was splendid about the evening was the rest of the choir's attitude. Every time I got lost 's often 's a hand reached over my shoulder and indicated where on the page everybody else was. Every time I was ambushed by an improbable vowel-cluster and ended up in the wrong key - almost as often - my neighbor tactfully leaned closer to me and gave me the right note. Each time we reached the end of a piece, the whole choir would grin at me and say "Well done!" As far as they were concerned, I deserved credit just for taking part.

This broad-minded attitude is not restricted to Estonia. Last Christmas, in Riga, I was invited to join a Latvian choir. (Every Latvian to whom I tell this story asks, "Which one?" 's the best choirs here are as well-known as major European soccer teams.) Not having sung since my Rapla experience, I was a little nervous, but the chance was too good to miss. This time the venue was a music room in a Riga school, complete with graffiti'd desks, inefficient heating and a piano which needed tuning. Music is an international language, and so is the state of most school music rooms.

The venue and language may have been different, but the rehearsal's pattern was exactly the same as in Rapla. Every choir the world over warms up by singing ridiculous words: "crusty bloomers" was the favorite of my conductor at university, "signora" seemed in favor here. After the warm-up we sang a couple of the conductor's most loved, and then began dissecting a new piece. Looking at the text 's "mezus parklaj sniegs, laciem ziemas miegs" 's my heart sank. It looked more like a tongue-twister than anything singable. It wasn't until we started that I realized it was a Latvian translation of "Jingle Bells." At least this meant I knew the tune, and could concentrate on the words.

In one sense, at least, this rehearsal was easier than the Estonian one: many of the singers were Latvians who had been raised overseas, so my neighbor was able to translate the conductor's comments in the broadest Yorkshire accent I've ever heard east of Grimsby. But in the most essential sense, it was Rapla all over again.

There were some pieces that nobody liked except the conductor. (A nor mal situation in choirs.) There were some pieces that everybody liked, and whose titles were loudly suggested during pauses. There was a large number of pieces which they'd clearly sung so often that they no longer needed to look at the notes. Above all, there were the singers, who put up with standing around in a drafty classroom because they thoroughly enjoyed singing. It was exactly the spirit of Rapla. The language may have been different, but any one of the singers could have joined the rehearsal in Estonia and felt at home.

I have not yet joined a choir in Lithuania; invitations would be welcome. However, one of my current students 's a Lithuanian marketing specialist 's is a former opera singer. Another sings in a ladies' choir in Kaunas, so while I'm unlikely to ever sing with them, I do at least have contacts. Choral singing in Lithuania, if not yet registered on the UNESCO World Heritage list, is thriving, with the Vilnius Song Festival being one of the region's top attractions, and Baltic and international choirs regularly feature on its program.

International Language

It is not just the Baltics that can find common ground in music. I saw the proof of this at a recent party hosted by my wife's company in Vilnius. It was a pan-Baltic affair, with Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland all represented. As part of the evening's entertainment, the emcee challenged each table to sing a national song. This caused some concern at our table, labeled "Finance department and other foreigners": we were two Latvians, a Pole, an Estonian, two Lithuanians and your correspondent. Finding a song everyone knew was a challenge.

Then one of the Latvians suggested the Russian song "Ochy chorny," (Black Eyes). It seemed risky, in the week when the Russian ambassador to Lithuania was lambasting the country's morals; but it was a hit. Not only did everyone on our table know the song, so did everyone else in the building, and within a few minutes Estonians, Lithuanians, Latvians and Poles had established an impromptu karaoke featuring all the greatest hits of the Soviet '70s and '80s. Cultural differences were forgotten in a shared musical nostalgia, and the evening is remembered in the company as one of the most memorable on record.

This is not to say that the Baltics would be more united if everyone began singing in Russian. Rather, it is a welcome reminder that national differences in the region, while important, are not the only feature of life here.

The Baltics do have a shared history, shared cultural experiences, and shared values, and their common devotion to music is one way of expressing it. The basic unit of music is the chord: three different notes working in harmony. The region's politicians might find it an example worth following. o