Anthology of Estonian Traditional Music

Recordings from the Estonian Folklore Archive
compiled by Herbert Tampere, Erna Tampere and Ottilie Kõiva

Eesti Kirjandusmuuseum EKMCD 005 (ISSN 1736-0528)

The aim of the collection of field and studio recordings is to document the older, alliterative form of Estonian folksong.  And the first thing to say about this Anthology is that the documentation is certainly comprehensive.  Cover pictureFor your money you get 3 CDs (a total of 98 recordings) and a 228-page 'booklet' (in both English and Estonian), which represents exceedingly good value.

The recordings date from mostly from the decade 1957-1967, having been made as part of collection activities by folklorists from the national folklore archive and also by Estonian Radio.  Some recordings date from the late 1930's, and a few go back to 1912 phonograph recordings.  The fact that only 17 of the recordings are of instrumental music gives rise to the feeling that they were only included because of their great age - they do not have any musical overlap with the so-called 'regi-songs' that make up the remaining 81 tracks.  The regi-songs themselves are a very interesting form.  With their restricted ambit (often of only 4-5 notes) and with their stichic, alliterative lyrics, they (together with the related traditions of songs in 'Kalevala metre' from Finland and neighbouring parts of the Russian Federation) possess their own unique magic.  Their overall effect has been very well described by John Dover Wilson as “a monotonous chant but not wearying in the slightest.”Cited by Tauno Mustanoja in his article, 'The Presentation of Ancient Germanic Poetry - Looking For Parallels', Neuphilogische Mitteilungen, vol.  60, (1959), 1-11.1  If one is looking for suggestions as to how Old English alliterative songs might have been performed, then there is plenty of food for thought here.

In terms of comprehensiveness, this Anthology lies somewhere between A Century of Song and The Voice of the People.  But the documentation these recordings receive exceeds anything I have seen elsewhere.  Besides the introductory essay on the singing tradition, there are notes on the singers and musicians.  The melody of each song is transcribed (using x-heads where necessary) and supplied with an approximate metronome marking, and the lyrics for each song are provided in Estonian together with a line-to-line English translation.  The translations are both faithful and readable, and odd mistakes, such as 'I pierced his continence so ruddy', are thankfully rare.  All in all, the documentation accompanying the CDs is of a high quality, and I certainly don't know any other CD booklet with an index and a 38-item bibliography.  The musicologists there seem to have found an interesting way round the problem that Rod Stradling touched on in his transcriptions of the Sussex singers in Another Saturday Night - namely how to represent the initial aspiration that appears at the start of some singers words.  If you add h's everywhere, the effect could be thought comic, but if you ignore it, you are suppressing a characteristic and local performance detail.  H's are added sometimes in Estonian traditional singing, and the folklorists there have come up with the idea of using a superscript h to represent added h's in such contexts.  So, following such practice, we could represent a typical pronunciation found in 'Bold General Wolfe' as 'Ye lads of honour'.  To me this would seem to be a good compromise.

The recordings on the three CDs are ordered according to genre, thus on the first CD we find work songs, songs for calendar and feast days, lullabies and children's songs, and 'songs of family events' (mainly laments).  On the second CD we find 'lyrical songs' and 'lyroepic' songs, and on the third, game songs and the instrumental tunes.  This ordering of the material is a choice that is more redolent of the archive than of listening pleasure.  A better use might have been found for the instrumental tunes if they had been scattered between the songs, adding variety.  And the compilers could also have included more of the few personal testimonies singers made before or after their songs.  Those they include, and which always add interest to the song they are about, are unfortunately few in number.

The songs in the Anthology may prove a bit of a shock at first, being significantly different from contemporary western European traditional singing (though some of the herding calls which open the collection are reminiscent of Scandinavian calls).  Perhaps the closest point to our tradition is provided by the 'lyroepic' songs which, in subject matter at least, sometimes come close to traditional ballads - songs such as Mehetapja having something in common with Edward, and Ema haual being reminiscent of Cold Blows the Wind.

The weakest point of the Anthology is the somewhat misrepresentative character of the recordings.  Generally (given exceptions for special genres such as children's songs, charms, funeral laments), the regi-songs were a group singing tradition - a line of the song would be sung by the 'fore-singer' and it would then be repeated by a second singer or by a group of singers.  But the majority of the recordings made by the archivists do not represent this performance practice; most consist of a lone singer and with the repetitions omitted.  No doubt much of this is due to exigencies of recording a vanishing tradition with limited technology, but it is nevertheless somewhat unfortunate.

Now, just as this Anthology is analogous to other national collections of traditional song, such as the Cædmon and the Voice of the People series here, or the Swedish Caprice series, or the forthcoming Dutch series due out in May, so also is the fact that most of the singers are old.  Of the singers, only four are under sixty - and upon investigation, two of these younger singers turn out in fact to be folklorists, repeating songs they have learnt in the field!  This means that the quality of the singing is not always the smoothest.  But it is unavoidable.  Although some of the previous generation of folklorists here and elsewhere have poured scorn on the notion of salvaging the last traces of given traditions, for many forms and genres (including Estonian regi-songs) such salvage operations were absolutely necessary if we were to be left with any documentary sound-recordings at all.  For nowadays no-one sings these regi-songs, except of course revival singers, much of whose repertoire will derive from field recordings.  Some of the voices on the CDs are affecting despite (or because of?) their age, particularly those of Liisa Kümmel, Marie Sepp and Hindrek Tamm.

It is interesting to note that the best-represented geographical areas in the compilation are mostly borderland areas.  For example, in Kuusalu and Jõelähtme there were strong contacts with Finland, the Seto area borders Russia, and Karksi borders Latvia.  The number of 'heartland' areas such as Kolga Jaani, with a strong representation of the older songs, is few.  But whether this is a result of older songs surviving longer in backwaters, or whether it is rather a case of the intensification of traditionality among those who are continually rubbing up against speakers of other languages and singers of other songs, is not, sadly, one the compilers of this Anthology address.

All in all, this set makes accessible an interesting, little known singing tradition to an English-speaking audience with an exemplary degree of documentation.  Copies of this fine collection can be ordered for the very reasonable price of 16 Euro plus postage (an extra 9 Euros to the UK, an extra 15 to the USA) by e-mailing the Estonian Folklore Archives: .  See also:

Jonathan Roper - 20.1.05

Note:1 - Cited by Tauno Mustanoja in his article, 'The Presentation of Ancient Germanic Poetry - Looking For Parallels', Neuphilogische Mitteilungen, vol.60, (1959), 1-11.

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