Both a repository and a showcase for the region’s tradition of performing folk art, this cultural expression culminates in large-scale festivals every fifth year in Estonia and Latvia and every fourth year in Lithuania. These grand events, held over several days, assemble as many as 40,000 singers and dancers.
For the most part, the participants belong to amateur choirs and dance groups. Their repertories reflect the wide range of musical traditions in the Baltic States, from the most ancient folk songs to contemporary compositions.
Directed by professional choir conductors, bandleaders, and dance instructors, many singers and dancers practise throughout the year in community centres and local cultural institutions.
Choirs and musical ensembles first became institutionalized in Estonia during the eighteenth century. Subsequently, choir singing spread throughout rural and urban areas, spurred by the growing popularity of choral music, singing societies and song festivals in Western Europe.
With the participation of the most active choirs from various regions of these States, the Baltic Song and Dance Celebrations were initially organized in Estonia in 1869 and in Latvia in 1873.
Lithuania hosted its first celebration in 1924. Once the Baltic States gained independence from Russia after the First World War, the celebrations acquired widespread popularity as a means of asserting Baltic cultural identity.
In the three countries, special venues and festival sites were constructed to host the events. After the incorporation of the Baltic States into the Soviet Union at the end of the Second World War, the celebrations adapted to the prevailing communist ideology.
Since regaining independence in 1991, the Baltic States have undertaken various measures to ensure the protection of this tradition, yet the major economic and social changes taking place in the region raise serious concerns for the future. Today’s principal threats stem from the rural exodus and the resulting break-up of local amateur groups.