Sunday 17 April 2016

A salutary comparison

Anu Tali, Leho Karin and the Estonan National Symphony Orchestra at the Estonian Music Days
Anu Tali, Leho Karin and the Estonan National Symphony Orchestra at the Estonian Music Days
We have been attending the 2015 Estonian Music Days, an annual festival organised by the Estonian Composers Union when Tallinn explodes with contemporary music. For this year’s festival, artistic directors Helena Tulve and Timo Steiner presented an overview of the state of Estonian music with many of the pieces being written specially for the festival. The Estonian Composers Union, whose membership includes composers and musicologists, has 120 members. To put this in perspective Estonia has a population of 1.3 million (compared to the UK’s 64.7 million). In fact the population of Estonia is only fractionally more than that of the city of Birmingham (1.1 million) and rather less than the population of the entire West Midlands conurbation.

Estonia has a lively and thriving contemporary music scene. In the UK, the best known Estonian composer remains Arvo Pärt and to a certain extent the recognition which Estonian music receives in the UK country reflects his huge influence as well as that of his contemporary Veljo Tormis. But this is to hide the fact that there are a large number of younger composers in Estonia, all busily producing music. To produce them requires an infrastructure too, composers rarely grow on trees. They need training. Which requires a conservatoire, as well as adequate music tuition for school-age children.

I doubt that being in the arts in Estonia is a complete paradise, but the numbers seem to suggest that the arts are rather healthier then they seem in the UK. All this artistic infrastructure costs money, and needs a government willing to spend on the arts. This raises a number of interesting points.

Perhaps the first is that, in the UK, there seems to be a fundamental distrust of the arts from people in government. This isn’t a new thing, governments of various colours have proved less than supportive to the basics needed to support a healthy artistic infrastructure, and too often where help is forthcoming it can seem rather grudging. I am not talking about grands projets and follies like the new London concert hall, but the nitty gritty of making sure that every child has access to musical and artistic teaching. The British attitude does not seem to have evolved that much from the 19th century when being a professional composer or musician was not regarded as a proper career.

The second point is that countries like Estonia recognise that the arts enable a small country to punch above its weight internationally. Having internationally recognised composers, artists, orchestras, choirs and so on provide both a highly visible cultural high-point, and also significant invisible earnings. A lively artistic culture makes a city far more worth visiting, and re-visiting thus generating valuable income, as well as the possibility for artistic export overseas.

As a final point, I had better admit that the role of music and particularly singing in Estonia has a special place. In the mid to late 19th century many Scandinavian and Baltic countries were developing a sense of nationalism, and various tools were used to feed this particularly in countries such as Estonia and Finland which were ruled by a foreign power. The development of museums devoted to folk-culture and to regional buildings owes its origins in the period, ways of asserting identity without being overtly political. Music was another tool, and singing festivals in Estonia played a large part. These started on a formal basis in Tallinn in 1869 when the Estonian Song Festival was founded. This event continues and is now held every 5 years, and the song festival achieved international significance in 1988 when over 300,000 people gathered there during what is known as the Singing Revolution.

I am not sure that music will ever play such a significant role on the British psyche, but you can’t help wondering what would happen in the UK if only a little of the attitude rubbed off.
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