Five years ago, and in another life, I wrote about Laulupidu, the Estonian music festival held every five years, and guess what, we’ve just returned from the 2019 celebration in Tallinn – even more significant than normal as it is the 150th anniversary of the first ever festival in 1869, put together by a group of intellectuals who (along with their counterparts all over Europe) had begun to reclaim the minority or ‘peasant’ languages of their own countries.
Other examples can be found in the revival of Cornish, Welsh, Lallans, Scots Gaelic, Erse, Breton and Basque, to name but a few. But in the case of Estonian, the language was never in serious danger of dying out, but ‘merely’ of remaining the language of small farmers and house servants, whose alien masters at various stages spoke Danish, Swedish, German, Russian, and of course French, the language of politesse across Europe in the nineteenth century. (For the social structure at this time, see Lady Eastlake‘s fascinating account.)
The history of Estonia is one of conquest and oppression for most of the last thousand years, from the medieval crusades led by bishops who were happy to convert the pagans by mass slaughter to the Soviet Russian occupation from 1944 to 1991, during which 2.5% of the entire population was sent to Siberia, and immigrants were shipped from Russia with the deliberate intention of ‘diluting’ the native population, suppressing the language and providing a supportive base for Soviet rule. In this context, it was therefore even more embarrassing than usual in these times to be British, while a mad and disrespectful old bat was haranguing the European Parliament about the oppression the British have been suffering under the jackboot of the EU.
Before the festival, we spent time in churches and museums. Among other nuggets was this unfortunate hedgehog in the display in the oldest still-functioning pharmacy in Europe (first mentioned in 1422): it is not clear what a dose of scorched hedgehog would cure.
Another thing which got me very excited was a spectacular tomb in the Tallinna toomkirik, the great church inside the walls of the fortified Toompea, the castle and seat of government. We were fortunate to arrive just as an organ recital was beginning, and were able to contemplate the whitewashed walls, which resembled a ‘Scottish baronial’ hall in the way that the elaborate funerary hatchments of the Baltic German nobility were displayed on the walls like so many mounted stags’ heads.
But wandering round after the music, we found this:
Samuel Greig (1735–88) was the father-in-law of the great Victorian interpreter of science, Mary Somerville. Having joined the British navy straight from school in Scotland, he was promoted rapidly to the rank of master’s mate, but having no ‘interest’ which would help him obtain an officer’s commission, he resigned and joined the Russian navy, where his intelligence and innovatory tactics caused him to advance rapidly, under the patronage of Admiral Alexei Orlov (brother of Catherine the Great’s lover Grigori), who may or may not have murdered Tsar Peter III, but who freely admitted that he knew nothing about the navy and left it all to Greig.
Achieving the rank of rear-admiral, Greig married and had at least five children, one of whom married his Scots cousin Mary Fairfax in 1804 (though sadly he died shortly afterwards and his widow married another cousin, William Somerville). He spent much time in the naval port of Kronstadt, improving the fleet’s function with Western technology and tactics. He saved St Petersburg from a naval attack by the Swedes in 1788, for which Catherine made him a knight of the orders of St Vladimir and St Andrew, but he died of a fever on board his ship in the harbour in Tallinn a few months later, the grateful empress making sure that he had an appropriate memorial.
We spent a lot of time in St Nicholas’ church, Niguliste. Founded in the mid thirteenth century, and rebuilt in the fifteenth, it benefited from the immense prosperity brought to Tallinn by its position as a leading port in the Hanseatic League, trading to the south with Lübeck and to the east with Russian cities such as Novgorod. Although some of its treasures had been evacuated during the Second World War, bombing by the USSR in March 1944 almost totally destroyed the interior, of which the rebuilding began in 1953. (A fire in 1982 caused the new spire to fall, and further restoration began.)
A deliberate decision was taken to restore the church as a museum, part of the Art Museum of Estonia, and to imitate what was though to be its appearance in the fifteenth century, stripping away later accretions, like the famous sixteenth-century carved pews, of which only one small fragment survived the bombing.
As a result, it is a huge, light space, in which some of the most remarkable features are the enormous stone grave slabs of Baltic German merchants such as Alexander von Essen and his wife.
There are a few funerary hatchments which survived, including that of Alexander
and this rather nice pair of owls on the coat of arms of Jurgen von Essen, presumably a relation (or perhaps just another guy from Essen?).
But the great glories of the place are the paintings. The retable of the high altar of the church (saved from the bombing) is displayed closed – which is quite spectacular enough.
Opening the front doors (which happens at All Saints and on St Nicholas’ day, apparently; but a nearby digital display enables you to get the idea) reveals polychrome statues of forty biblical figures and saints. The whole masterpiece (the restoration of which was interrupted by independence in 1991 and finally completed between 2013 and 2018) was created by Hermen Rode of Lübeck and his workshop between 1478 and 1481.
The other real wonder of the place is a Dance of Death, also created in Lübeck, by Bernt Notke (c. 1440–c. 1509), whose workshop produced paintings and carvings – it is not clear whether Notke himself was an artist, or the entrepreneur who assembled a group of talented craftsmen around him.
Two of his danses macabres are known: the one in Tallinn, which is a fragment measuring only (sic!) 7 metres, and containing six figures as well as the skeletons; and the other in St Mary’s church, Lübeck, which was at least 26 metres long. (The original has vanished: a copy was made in 1701, which was itself destroyed in 1942 by Allied bombing.)
The Tallinn version begins on the left with a preacher in a pulpit warning the viewer to take heed of the of the lesson it contains – that Death can strike at any moment. Next come two skeltons, one playing the bagpipes and another carrying a coffin on his shoulder. Then the great dignitaries of the world are drawn into the dance, from the pope, through the emperor and empress to a cardinal and a king. The next human figure is known to have been a bishop, and the complete work would presumably have led on, like the Lübeck one, through aristocrats and merchants, to farmers, peasants and beggars.
Along the bottom of the Tallinn canvas, which is 157 cm high, runs a scroll describing the dialogue between Death and his various appalled victims. The painting is superb, especially the handling of the robes of the great and good, and the details of the flowery mead through which they are drawn to the dance.
There is much more to see: this weary St Christopher from 1624, carrying the globe on his shoulders rather than the Christ Child:
and the altarpiece of the Brotherhood of the Black Heads, painted in Bruges, with its gorgeous details:
and as you exit via the gift shop, you can take away your very own empress, wrapped round a chocolate bar. (She has since gone to a good home.)
The next song festival is in another five years, but the temptation to go back before then and look at all this wonderful Stuff again, is strong …