‘You Until Death’: how one man’s music freed Estonia from Soviet rule

After The Fall

It is 11 September 1988. The crowd gathered at Tallinn’s Song Festival grounds stretches as far as the eye can see, masses of people on the slopes of this vast, open-air arena. People raise Estonian flags or simply hold hands, their cheers reaching a crescendo as a figure on stage sings: “Eestlane olen ja eestlaseks jään” (“I am Estonian and will remain Estonian”).

The voice behind the microphone is Ivo Linna, the frontman for Estonian band Rock Hotel. Behind him stands the song’s young composer, Alo Mattiisen, and his prog-rock band In Spe. Their music embraces the lyrics of this slow, sentimental track, adding soft drums, synths, and electric guitar runs. Part way through the song, the band falls silent and Mattiisen steps forward to conduct the crowd a cappella.

Over the last few months, the song has become an anthem for a nation dreaming of an independent Estonia. It is a fitting end to Eestimaa Laul, a night of music, demonstrations, and political speeches. Later, the event would be celebrated as the height of Estonia’s “Singing Revolution”. Coined by activist Heinz Valk, the term describes the series of peaceful demonstrations and musical events that swept through Estonia in the late 1980s, setting the country on its path to independence from the Soviet Union.

At the heart of the movement was Alo Mattiisen, the composer behind the five “Fatherland” tracks that captured the country’s newly-rejuvenated patriotic feeling. Mattiisen’s songs galvanised and united the crowds rallying for independence. But three decades on, his legacy has been somewhat diminished after Mattiisen suffered an untimely death.

Born in Jõgeva, a small town in central Estonia, Mattiisen moved to Tallinn in the late 1970s where he graduated from the state conservatory in choral conducting and composition. Mattiisen’s early work saw his eclectic creativity stretch across multiple genres, taking in choral music, oratorios, and film and TV soundtracks. Then, in 1983, he replaced Erkki-Sven Tüür — now a world-renowned classical composer — as the leader of the already respected prog rock band In Spe. The following year, the band released their celebrated “Typewriter Concerto in D Major”: a four-part experimental opus where virtuoso guitars and synths are layered alongside the percussive taps of typewriter keys.

The musical landscape of 1980s Estonia was already being shaped by Western influences. Finnish TV, Radio Luxembourg, and records sent from abroad all reached audiences in Estonia, inspiring the country’s own prog rock, electronic, jazz, and pop scene.

Although artists who displeased the Soviet authorities were still forced to find their audiences underground, trade records in markets, and play in the cellars of Tallinn’s Old Town, censorship in Estonia was not as strict as that elsewhere in the USSR. Even music released through official channels was more versatile and experimental than its Russian counterpart. Then, in 1985, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev came to power, unleashing a policy of glasnost that allowed for increased freedom of expression. Although the proclamation had less impact in already lenient Estonia, it still sent shockwaves through the country’s cultural scene, allowing marginalised musical genres like punk to gain a greater following than ever before.

It’s against this backdrop, in 1987, that Mattiisen would first harness the power of music to spur peaceful protest. Demonstrations had erupted to oppose the creation of phosphorite mines in the north-eastern Virumaa region. In support of the protesters, he wrote “Ei ole üksi ükski maa” (No Land is Alone), a Band Aid-like supergroup ballad featuring famous singers from across Estonia. Poet Jüri Leesment, who would go on to collaborate with Mattiisen’s Fatherland Songs, penned verses to go alongside the heartfelt track, where synth chords and electric guitar guide the eclectic timbres of the singers’ voices. Together, they called for national solidarity with Virumaa.

Eventually, the Estonian authorities abandoned the project; for the first time under Soviet rule, Estonian people witnessed the potential of peaceful demonstrations. The “phosphorite war” became the trigger for the Singing Revolution — and Alo Mattiisen would write its soundtrack.

Composed in early 1988, the five Fatherland songs captured the growing aspiration for an Estonian national identity and created a unified national spirit. Comprising both heavy, heroic rock anthems or soft ballads, they conveyed a wide spectrum of emotions: wistfulness for an independent Estonia, anger at the occupying forces, courage, and determination to stand up for the beloved fatherland.

But Mattiisen and Leesment’s real stroke of genius was using poems and songs from the 19th century, when Estonia was under the control of the Russian Empire, to inspire their own 20th-century pop hits. Termed the Great National Awakening, the decades between the 1850s and 1918 had seen a burning desire for Estonian national identity erupt into a new wave of nationalist poems and songs. The movement saw the foundation of the Laulupidu Song Celebration, where even today, tens of thousands of Estonians gather to sing and celebrate their culture and language. For the first festival in 1869, poet Lydia Koidula — widely considered to be Estonia’s first female poet— wrote “Mu isamaa on minu arm” (“Land of My Fathers, Land that I Love”), and “Sind Surmani (“You until Death”), two odes to Estonia. The latter would inspire Mattiisen’s Fatherland song of the same name.

By using elements of the Great Awakening in their songs, Mattiisen and Leesment were reconnecting the Estonian people with their wider heritage, building a cultural bridge between the 19th century and the “Great National Reawakening” of their own time. In their reworked version of “Sind Surmani”, the pair’s lyrics questioned whether Lydia Koidula’s verses could still “hold us together”, while “Eestlane olen ja eestlaseks jään” (I am Estonian) looked back at centuries of foreign occupation.

Alo Mattiisen with Ivo Linna at ESTO '88 Austraalias

The success of Mattiisen’s songs were also rooted in Estonia’s long tradition of communal singing, where song is used to unite people at events such as weddings and funerals, as well as in daily life. The familiarity of many Estonian songs, a national repertoire kept alive by the Laulupidu Song Celebrations, and the catchiness of Mattiisen’s melodies, all created musical opportunities for people to unite. “Isamaa ilu hoieldes” (“Cherishing the Beauty of the Fatherland”), one of the most popular Fatherland songs, also used a call and response format. Inspired by Estonian’s traditional runosong — a form of folk song where eight-syllable verses are sung by a solo vocalist, then repeated by the choir — it organically created crowd participation.

The five Fatherland songs premiered at Tartu Music Days in May 1988, and quickly entered Estonia’s common repertoire. In Spe and Ivo Linna, with choral group Kiigelaulukuuik, all performed the tracks extensively. They became the soundtrack to a host of spontaneous festivals and events that were becoming increasingly political. Crowds at the Tallinn Song Festival and Rock Summer, a music festival co-headlined by John Lydon’s Public Image Limited (PiL) could be seen flying Estonia’s blue, black, and white flags, which had been officially banned since the Soviet Union took control of the country.

The Singing Revolution reached its peak in September at the Eestimaa Laul. Traditional choirs and rock acts like as Tõnis Magi and Rock Hotel played between political speeches to a crowd that some estimate topped 300,000. Ivo Linna, dressed in the colours of the Estonian flag, joined In Spe once again to perform during the festival’s frantic crescendo: the Fatherland songs.

Music alone did not restore Estonia’s independence. Other events played a crucial role: the Hirve Park meeting in 1987, where protesters rallied for the full disclosure of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact; the foundation of the Estonian Heritage Society, which rallied to celebrate the country’s pre-communist heritage, and the Estonian National Independence Party, the first non-communist political party in Soviet Estonia, all shook the country and the wider Soviet Union. Regional solidarity was also important, cumulating in the famous Baltic Chain, where two million people joined hands from Tallinn to Vilnius via Riga to demand the independence of Baltic States.

But the term Singing Revolution is nonetheless incredibly fitting. The Fatherland Songs restored the memory of national identity, uniting a society and very literally giving them a voice at a key turning point of Estonian history. Of Mattiisen’s 200 compositions, the Fatherland series remain his most awe-inspiring achievement.

Today, all five tracks continue to resonate in Estonia. They are often performed by large choirs at Estonia’s enduring song festivals, and by the man who vocalised them three decades ago, Ivo Linna. But new generations often credit Linna with penning the songs himself, perhaps forgetting the composer behind the notes.

Alo Mattiisen himself died of a heart attack in 1996 at the age of just 35. He is remembered in his birth town of Jõgeva at the small Betti Alver museum where a space is dedicated to photos of the artist, sheet music, and other archives of his work. In 1997, a year after his premature death, the town launched the Jõgeva Music Days, a yearly music festival dedicated to the artist. Today, it sees school ensembles from across Estonia present their own compositions, as well as concerts from renowned Estonian musicians. Mattiisen’s songs are also played, a touchstone to younger generations born in a time of independence.

Alo Mattiisen and the Singing Revolution and are now a part of history. But the Fatherland songs continue to serve as reminders of the incredible power of music in effecting positive change. That’s a wonderful legacy and, in times and places where freedom and democracy are in peril, a shining glimmer of hope.

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