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Photo: estonianworld.com
The Estonian Song Celebration every five years brings together a huge choir of up to 30,000 people for a weekend in July.

How do you get 30,000 people to sing together and hit the same note at the same time? It’s not easy. But if any group of people can do it, it’s the Estonians. They’ve had a lot of practice.

Writes Estonian World, “The Estonian Song Celebration is a unique event, which every five years brings together a huge choir of up to 30,000 people for a weekend in July. Approximately 100,000 spectators enjoy the concerts and sing along to the most popular songs.

“The first Song Celebration was initiated in 1869 by newspaper publisher Johann Voldemar Jannsen and celebrated freedom and the 50th anniversary of the end of Estonian serfdom at the hands of the Russian tsar in 1819. The first singing event was held in Tartu, with 878 male singers and brass musicians. All the songs were in Estonian and Estonians – mostly peasants and farmers at the time – discovered the value of their own language and cultural heritage through singing. …

“After the Second World War, during the Soviet occupation of Estonia, the song celebrations again helped keep the national identity alive. In the summer of 1988, several hundred thousand people gathered at the Tallinn Song Festival Grounds and sang for freedom for many days and nights. Dubbed ‘The Singing Revolution,’ it indirectly led to Estonia’s independence once again in 1991.

“The 27th Song Celebration [features] 1,020 choirs, which include over 35,000 singers. The youngest participant is Emma Kannik (5) from Musamari Koorikool (Tallinn) and the oldest is Aino (90) from the New York Estonian Choir.

“The smallest choir of 12 singers is Kauksi Primary School Choir and the largest is the European Estonian Choir, with 123 singers. The latter is not the only expat choir – 25 Estonian choirs from abroad and 17 foreign choirs are performing at the celebration.

“The emotional celebration kicked off with a traditional parade on 6 July, during which the performers walked along a five-kilometre route from the Tallinn city centre to the Song Festival Grounds, where 82,000 people later watched them perform old and new Estonian choral songs and other classical pieces. …

“Tickets sold out on Sunday as 95,000 people came to Tallinn’s Song Festival Grounds for the second day of the 150th anniversary of the Song Celebration, Minu Arm (My Love). … There were more singers, more choirs, more tickets sold, and there had been more dancers than ever before at dance festival earlier in the week. The festival organisers said there were 1,020 choirs, 35,000 singers, and 11,500 dancers. …

“[Song Celebration’s artistic director, Peeter Perens] noted his ideas for the song celebration had been built on the Finno-Ugric culture, which the Estonia language comes from, and the European culture which brought the singing festivals to Estonia more than 150 years ago. The programme was created three years ago and since then more than 300 rehearsals took place. …

“[Marju Lauristin, professor emeritus at the University of Tartu,] discussed her research that shows that 48% of the Estonian population has, at some time in their lives, taken part in the song celebration and is one of the remaining activities that is enjoyed by the whole of society.

“Discussing the history of the song celebration, she said, ‘Through 150 years these people have the same memories, coming together in winter, through snow, in times when there were no cars, no internet, walking 10-15 kilometres to school or place where they would gather and have a singing society, all over the country.’ …

“Lauristin added that the atmosphere of the song celebration had changed over the years from one of bitterness during the Soviet occupation, to one of joy today.

“[Composer Riho Esko Maimets said] that the experience of being at the celebration felt ‘very selfless, [like you are] existing as one little particle in a great mass of your nation.’  More here.

I’m impressed that so many people can sing together. I gave up on our town’s Christmas tree carol singing because the people on one side of the tree were always at a different place in the song than the people on the other side. And that leader was trying to keep together fewer than 100 people, not 30,000!

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idea_sized-cod-newsroom-38012019442_148f3964b4_oPhoto: CoD Newsroom/Flickr
Singers at the Illinois American Choral Directors Association conference. Research explores how people bond through singing together.

Sometimes when the grandkids were small and fighting, I would break out in a song they liked — “Mister Moon,” say, or “Baby Beluga” — and they would join in enthusiastically and forget to fight.

The bonding aspect of singing together is something that many other people have discovered on their own. Now researchers want to learn more.

Eiluned Pearce, a postdoc research associate in experimental psychology at the University of Oxford, writes at Aeon, “Singing is universal. It is found in all cultures and, despite protestations of tone deafness, the vast majority of people can sing. Singing also often occurs in collective contexts: think about sports stadiums, religious services and birthday celebrations. Given these two characteristics, my colleagues and I wondered whether singing is a behaviour that evolved to bond groups together.

“Being part of a group is essential to human survival. In our hunter-gatherer past, having supportive social relationships would have enabled people to get the resources they needed to defend them against outsiders, to benefit from collective childrearing, and to share and develop cultural knowledge about their environment and about useful technological inventions. We now also know that feeling sufficiently socially connected guards against physical and mental illness, and increases longevity. …

“Whereas monkeys and apes create social bonds through one-to-one grooming sessions, human groups are too large to be able to do that and still have enough time to eat and sleep. We needed a more efficient mechanism of creating social cohesion, a way to bond larger numbers of individuals together simultaneously.

“To find out whether singing might fill this role, we needed to find out if this activity was capable of making large groups of individuals feel closer to each other. To help us answer this question, we teamed up with Popchoir, a British organisation that runs local choirs across London and beyond. What is great about Popchoir is that these different local choirs of a few dozen members periodically come together to create a unified ‘Megachoir’ of several hundred members.

“Our research team went along to some rehearsals to collect data before and after they sang together, either in their local choir or in the amalgamated Megachoir. … On average, people showed a significantly bigger increase in how close they felt to the Megachoir over the course of singing with them, compared with when they were singing with their local choir. …

“So singing can create cohesion in large groups of several hundred individuals, supporting the idea that this behaviour might have evolved to create community cohesion in humans.

“What we still didn’t know, however, was whether singing itself is special, or whether any activity that provided opportunities for social engagement could have similar bonding effects. To tackle this issue, we collaborated with the Workers’ Educational Association (WEA), a national adult-education charity in the UK. We predicted that singing classes would become more closely bonded than other types of classes (either creative writing or crafts). We were wrong: at the end of the seven-month courses, all the classes were equally bonded.

“But as we looked more closely at the data, we saw something that surprised us. Singing seemed to bond the newly formed groups much more quickly than the comparison activities. It was the most effective. So singing is special: it has an ice-breaker effect.”

More at Aeon, here. Even when groups of singers are competing, the researchers found, bonding occurs among opposing groups.

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Photo: Musica Secreta
A new effort to bring back the choral music of Renaissance nuns is getting attention in classical circles. Composer and princess Leonora d’Este is the focus of this research.

Like other achievements of women centuries ago, the music of nuns in the Renaissance has been mostly lost to time. Until now.

At Bachtrack, Laura Volpi reports on a gifted daughter of Lucrezia Borgia.

“In 16th-century Italy – and across Europe – convents were the backbones of the economic and spiritual well-being of a city. At their core were expertly run choirs of nuns, so talented and so popular that they were considered tourist attractions. … During this vibrant yet under-explored chapter in Renaissance musical history, a princess nun was composing for her convent in Ferrara, and her anonymously published motets lay unsung and unloved for 500 years.

“To find out more, I spoke to Dr Laurie Stras, Professor of Music at the University of Huddersfield, author of the recently published book Women and Music in Sixteenth-Century Ferrara, musicologist and co-director of two early music female-voice ensembles – Musica Secreta and Celestial Sirens. …

” ‘Most families couldn’t afford to pay a marriage dowry for more than one daughter,’ explains Stras. … ‘So families who wanted the best for their daughter would get her into a convent with plenty of income. But a comfortable convent might have had quite a high dowry in itself, so one of the ways to get a reduction was by bringing a skill to it, such as music.’

“Music was really profitable for convents: it brought in money from the community, donating to hear mass on their behalf, while a great musical reputation brought in girls of higher status and wealth. Music also kept the nuns entertained and helped develop and maintain community harmony. …

“Music composed for convents would only be for the choirs’ consumption, so to find some published was unusual. Yet princess Leonora d’Este is strongly believed to be the author of 23 motets. …

“Leonora D’Este was the daughter of Lucrezia Borgia and Alfonso I, the Duke of Ferrara. She became Mother Superior at Corpus Domini when she was 18 and several of her contemporaries write of her exceptional musical abilities. We know that her family supported her musical activities up to her death.

“Despite the limitations of a life of enclosure, for many women life in a convent was a passport to freedom.

‘Some women chose a monastic life because they were creatively driven and felt that they had more space to develop as creative or intellectuals in the convent than they would outside.’ …

“ ‘Leonora sent these motets for publication to see them preserved for posterity. Hers are incredible works, so far beyond what was already in print in the 1540s. Technically they are an amazing achievement. All these motets are written for five, equal voices, voci pari, all of which are more or less in the same compass. You get some very interesting dissonance treatment when you have five parts moving in such a confined space. … One of the most outlandish pieces is a setting of the Mass Gradual for Easter Sunday, Haec dies, in which the voices imitate the sounds of all the bells of the city going off.’ …

“It is important to bring this music back to choral ensembles today. ‘We know about the Sistine Chapel, we know about Palestrina and we know about Josquin des Prez only because of the way history has been written and the things that have been given value,’ says Stras. ‘By recovering this wonderful music, we bring the balance back. The English choral tradition has given prominence to boys’ voices as more appropriate for Renaissance music, but the sound of women singing is the sound of the Renaissance. It’s not something that is unusual or that should be suppressed: this is part of our heritage.’ ”

More at Bachtrack, here.

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Photo: Marc Royce/Los Angeles Times
Conductor Eric Whitacre (above), the Los Angeles Master Chorale, and a 2,200-person audience at Walt Disney Concert Hall participated in “the largest free group singing event in California history” on July 21.

Kudos to creative thinkers who keep coming up with new ideas to engage people in the arts! In July, the conductor of the Los Angeles Master Chorale led an exceptionally large audience of interested Californians in a free singing event that must have warmed the cockles of a lot of hearts. This went well beyond the annual singing of the “Hallelujah Chorus,” which many other choral groups invite the public to join.

Jessica Gelt of the Los Angeles Times reports, “Eric Whitacre, the Los Angeles Master Chorale’s Swan family artist-in-residence, says he’s like that old cola commercial — he wants to teach the world to sing. The whole world. And he’s not joking. But he’ll start with a statewide singing event, ‘Big Sing California.’ …

“The massive project, years in the making, [featured] the 100-voice Master Chorale onstage singing along with 2,200 audience members to a program of songs selected and conducted by Whitacre and Master Chorale Artistic Director Grant Gershon, along with guest conductors Moira Smiley and Rollo Dilworth.

“Those proceedings [were] simulcast to five venues all over the state packed with additional audience members [also] singing along. Each venue [rehearsed] with its audience for a few hours before the event. …

“ ‘If you’ve never experienced a couple thousand people singing together, it just brings chills. … It’s the best of human experience … the best of who we are distilled together.’

“Whitacre began singing when he was 18, and it changed his life. He has been singing and composing since then, traveling the world in the process, establishing a massive social media following and creating a series of online ‘virtual choirs,’ which are edited together after participants upload videos of themselves all singing the same song. …

“Gershon adds that Whitacre has ‘single-handedly gotten more people excited about singing together than anyone else on the planet. He confirms that the choral experience is transcendent and transformative.’ ”

More at the Los Angeles Times, here. The list of songs are here.

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In April, singer Will McMillan read a post at Suzanne’s Mom’s Blog, here, about research on why people feel joyful when singing with others.

Having dug into the physiological research and found that heartbeats often synchronize, Will wrote a blog post of his own and included an MP3 of singing “Blue Moon” with his frequent collaborator, Bobbi Carrey. “(They perform at Scullers in Cambridge this coming Thursday.)

It was in the comments at Will’s blog, here, that I found this YouTube recommendation — a deeply empathetic baby listening to a sad song. You see what music can do.

I hasten to add that for me, there are fewer happier moments than crying to a sad song. Don’t know how old you have to be to feel  happy-sad. I hope the baby feels good.

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The holiday concert last Saturday deserves its own post.

I learned about the Melrose Symphony Orchestra, the oldest continuous volunteer orchestra in the country, because my friend Alden began playing the oboe there a year or so ago and loves it. Saturday was the first time we got to a performance, and we were amazed by the whole scene.

Memorial Hall, remarkable for its size and its caryatid-supported honorary box, must have had a thousand people in it. It seemed like everyone of every age in Melrose had come, and a look at the program suggested that every business in town was a supporter.

The website says that “the mission of the Melrose Symphony is to give the citizens of Melrose and surrounding area an opportunity to participate in the joy of music.”

The conductor, Yoichi Udagawa, is determined to make classical music fun and accessible to all. He is not only an excellent musician but a real showman, drawing applause from audience members who have attended before as soon as he said he was going to tell a joke.

Alden told us the orchestra provides scholarships for high school students who often join up again after college. And he explained that the kids who were walking around before the performance and in the intermissions selling tickets were raising money by giving audience members a chance to conduct the last number, a jingle bell sing-along.

We also had music from Grieg and Vaughn Williams, so it wasn’t 100% holiday. But the guest star, Renese King, sang Gospel music with two talented nieces, a backup group, and a lovely young woman who danced sign language — and that really got everyone in the spirit of the season.

I have to say, I have lived in New England 30 years and have never seen a whole community rally around a cultural institution to this extent. Melrose must have a secret formula. I’d like to know what’s in the water.

Photograph: Melrose Symphony Orchestra

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