Life in Tartu underwent a dramatic change in 1919 when, after Estonia gained independence, the then German-Russian alma mater was turned into an Estonian-language institution. In addition to lectures and seminars, students of the university took active part in various national-cultural activities, an integral part of which was singing in a choir.

At one of the student concert evenings in 1927, conductor Richard Ritsing came up with an idea of organizing a separate student song festival. “At the same time another student ball was being organized. At one of the meetings of the organizing committee, I proposed that all three student choirs: the academic male choir, the academic women’s choir, and student mixed choir would perform at the ball, to which the committee replied, that it would be a true student song festival”, recalls Ritsing in his memoirs. From that day onwards Ritsing started to promote the idea of a true student song festival.

Innovative ideas tend to come true. If not right away, then sometimes in the future. Even if it happens after several decades. This was the case with the student song festival, too. In 1920-1930s the singers of student choirs carried on the idea of student song festivals. In 1954 the male choir of Vilnius visited Tartu and the choirs decided to ask students of Riga to join them in organizing a concert of student choirs. However, at such a short notice it turned out to be impossible to get the approval of the rectors of all three universities. A year later, shortly before another Song Celebration in Tallinn, the Tartu Students’ Male Choir called for an extraordinary meeting at the main building of the Tartu University. Richard Ritsing proposed to organize a song festival of student choirs in Tartu in summer 1956. The then rector Feodor Klementi supported the idea and a decision was made in Tallinn on 21st of July 1955 to arrange the Student Song Festival. The tradition was about to be born.

July 7 – 8 1956 in Toomeoru, Tartu

The number of participants in the first Student Song Festival was 2500. Juhan Simm, the founder and first conductor of the Tartu Student Choir was elected as the honorary director of the festival. Artistic directors were Haralds Mednins from Latvia, Pranas Sližys from Lithuania, Grigori Sandler from Leningrad and Richard Ritsing from Tartu. The concert was hosted by prominent folk-dance authors and pedagogues Ullo Toomi and Helju Mikkel. Richard Ritsing was supported by Irene Maaroos, the secretary if the organizing committee, and by Roland Laasmäe and Helju Mikkel, the members of repertoire committee.

July 5 – 6 1958 in Riga

Two years later in Riga, the number of participating dancers and singers rose up to 3000 belonging to 59 choirs, dance ensembles, and orchestras. 19 groups were from Latvia, 13 from Lithuania, three from each Belorussia, Ukraine, and Tatarstan, one from Russia and the rest came from Estonia. The honorary conductor was Arturs Bobkovics, chief conductors were Paulis Kvelde, Pranas Sližys and Richard Ritsing.

July, 8 – 9 1967 in Tartu

While the interval between the first two festivals was two years only, the third festival was held after nine years. Which made it even more special. For the first time the Baltic Song and Dance Festival was named Gaudeamus. Tartu welcomed 53 groups with 3200 participants from Latvia, Lithuania, and Belorussia. The honorary conductor was Gustav Ernesaks, conductors Pranas Sližys, Richard Ritsing, Grigori Sandler, Aleksander Bilibin, Mihhail Hardajev, and Edgars Racevskis. At the opening day of the festival, participants marched in a festive procession from Vanemuine theatre to the recently opened Song Festival Grounds in Tähtvere suburb. The folk-art night following the festivities was hosted by Ullo Toomi and Helju Mikkel.

July 6 – 8 1968 in Vilnius

Only a year later Lithuanian capital Vilnius hosted 5000 participants from Moldova, Karelia, Belorussia, Estonia, Latvia, and Russia. The honorary conductor was Konradas Kaveckas, the honorary director of the dance festival was Juozas Lingys.

July 9 – 10, 1971 in Riga

Riga song and dance festival introduced a surprising water carnival in Ogre, some 20 kilometers from Riga. The festival was attended by 3000 dancers and singers from Estonia, Lithuania, Russia, Belorussia, Ukraine, Karelia, Moldova, and Novosibirsk.

July 6 – 7, 1974 in Tartu

In 1974, the festival was arranged in Tartu for the third time, gathering 40 choirs, 20 dance ensembles, and 10 orchestras. The honorary director was Gustav Ernesaks as seven years before, he was supported by Ullo Toomi. Artistic directors were Ants Üleoja, Helju Mikkel, Elmar Peäske, Uno Uiga, Konradas Kaveckas and Eduardas Brazauskas. In spite of the active russification policy of the Soviet authorities, the repertoire included some songs and dances close students’ hearts. The beloved song “My Fatherland is My Love” by Gustav Ernesaks was always performed, regardless whether it was permitted to be in an official repertoire or not. So strong was the urge to express love for our countries and recall the years of lost independence.

July 7 – 9, 1978 in Vilnius

6000 students arrived in the capital of Lithuania. The festival’s honorary conductor was Konradas Kaveckas and artistic director Antanas Jozenas. Chief conductors were Imants Kokars, Viktor Rovdo, Grigori Sandler, Vladislav Sokolov, and Ants Üleoja.

July 10-12, 1981 in Riga and Ogre

The festival was attended by 6000 singers, dancers, and musicians from the Baltic states, Georgia, Moldova, Ukraine, Belorussia, and Russia. Honorary conductors were Vladislav Tšernušenko, V. Sokolov and V. Rovdo; general directors were Antanas Jozenas, Juozas Gudavicius, Eduardas Brazauskas, Imats Kokars, U. Šteins, H. Eglitis, K. Auškas, Arvo Ratassepp, Mait Agu, and Vello Loogna. Estonia was represented by 19 groups, out of which eight were from the two high education establishments in Tartu.

July 6 – 8, 1984 in Tallinn

Gaudeamus was hosted for the very first time by Tallinn. This historical event gathered together 6000 participants from 36 higher education institutions from Lithuania, Latvia, Russia, Ukraine, Belorussia, Georgia, Moldova, and Estonia. Lithuania was represented by as much as 43 music collectives with 2,400 singers and dancers. Altogether, 53 choirs, 26 folk dance groups, and 20 brass orchestras presented their music and dances. The festival began with concerts in various locations all over Estonia. Festival’s honorary directors were Vladislav Sokolov, Gustav Ernesaks and Richard Ritsing. The performance of Estonian orchestras and dance groups was prepared by honorary director Elmar Peäske and general directors Arvo Ratassepp, Mait Agu, Lia Palmse, and Ahti Rääst.

July 1 – 3, 1988 in Vilnius

This festival was truly revolutionary – for the first time, despite of the occupation power, people gathered at the song festival grounds and concert venues carrying national flags. The festival was attended by representatives of 66 higher education institutions from Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, Russia, Ukraine, Belorussia, and Moldova. The total number of choirs, dance ensembles, and orchestras was 135, comprising of 7000 participants. Honorary directors were Harrijs Suna, Richard Ritsing, Konradas Kaveckas and Vladislav Tšernušenko.

July 27-30, 1991 in Latvia.

Due to Soviet censorship, Gaudeamus had never before had an opportunity to choose songs and dances everybody loved and design venue with symbolic to our liking. Now it became possible. 4500 participants came from Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. The honor of directing the first free Gaudeamus Festival was entrusted to Edgars Racevskis, a longtime promoter of student song festivals.

July 7 – 9, 1995 in Tartu

Gaudeamus, that had had previously drawn together diverse participants from various Soviet republics, became now truly international. In addition to participants from Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania Tartu hosted also singers and dancers from Belgium, Great Britain, and Austria. More than 10 000 spectators attended the concerts of more than 4000 singers and dancers. The chief conductor was Alo Ritsing, the artistic director of the song festival. A monument to Richard Ritsing, the conductor of student choirs and founder of Gaudeamus Festival was officially opened.

July 25-27, 1999 in Vilnius

154 music collectives with up to 5700 students. The Song Festival was held at Vingis park in Vilnius, the Dance Festival at Kalnu park.

July 9 – 11, 2004 in Riga

The first festival of the new millennium took place in Riga, gathering 4246 participants, including 2214 Lithuanians, 1008 Estonians, and 1024 Latvians. Amongst participating collectives, there were 78 choirs, 23 dance groups, 12 brass orchestras, and 13 folk-music groups. The festival was directed by Janis Silins, the chief conductor of choirs was Juris Klavins, chief conductor of dance groups Rolands Jurasevskis, and chief conductor of brass orchestras Maris Martinsons.

June 30 – July 2, 2006 in Tartu

Gaudeamus, which returned to Tartu after ten years, lasted for the first time three days comprising of student culture, folk culture and song festival days. Approximately 5,500 singers, dancers and musicians from Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania took part in the celebrations. In addition to the Baltic states, participants also came from Denmark and the United States.

The venue of the Festival was not only the Song Festival Grounds – festivities spread all over Tartu and concerts were held in St. John’s church, university hall and open-air. On Saturday, the second day of the festival, festivities in the heart of the city lasted long beyond midnight. It was a true day of folk culture, and for the time of the festivities, the main street of the old town was renamed the Gaudeamus street. Students really could make use of this opportunity and express themselves. This new arrangement gave the whole city a very special aura for three days.

July 24-26, 2011 in Vilnius

The number of participating singers, dancers, and musicians at the Vilnius Gaudeamus festival was 4500. Estonia was represented by 900 participants from 28 music collectives from Tartu, Viljandi, and Tallinn. The motto of the Festival was “Upstream.” One of the gems of the Estonian program was the oratorio by Tauno Aints “The Story of Creation.” The oratorio is based on folk tradition, myths, and folk music and speaks about the formation of Estonians as a nation. Oratorio consists of seven parts: „The Sea“, „The Island and an Apple Tree“, „Wind and Bird“, „Home and Eggs“, “Sons, Daughters“, „Blacksmith“, and „Singer“, performed by choir, dancers and folk-jazz ensemble Paabel. On the open-air stage at Kalnu park, joint songs of Baltic nations were sung in all three languages. “The Thoughts of a Viru Singer” by Ester Mägi was sung jointly in the Estonian language.

July 27-29, 2014 in Daugavpils

The so far last, 17th Gaudeamus was held in Daugavpils, Latvia, and attended by 800 singers, dancers, and musicians from Estonia, belonging to 26 music collectives. Altogether, the Daugavpils song stage hosted 4600 participants. Three festival days were filled with concerts and performances. On the opening day of the festival, the rectors of the musical academies of all three Baltic states, Peep Lassmann, Zbignevas Ibelhauptas, and Artis Simanis met to perform a joint concert of symphonic music.

Late at the same night, an opening concert of the Gaudeamus festival took place with the participation of student orchestras from all three Baltic states. The program of Estonian orchestras was prepared by conductor Tarmo Kivisilla. At the Mark Rotko Art Centre of Daugavpils an exhibition of Signe Kivi, Aleksejs Naumiovs, and Audrius Klimas, the rectors of Estonian, Latvian and Lithuanian art academies was opened.

On 28th of July the program consisted of national programs of the Baltic States. The Estonian program “Wedding Games” by Janne Fridolin, which was inspired by relationships between young people, was emotional and warm. The rehearsal of the program started a day earlier in Pärnu and culminated in the ring ceremony staged by Indrek Sammul, during which all the participants, i.e. wedding guests were tied together with the rings of Wedding Game. Jewelry artist Kersti Teder ensured the manufacturing of 800 rings with the image of a snake – a symbol of wisdom. The concert ended with the performance of popular ensemble Curly Strings. At the end of the second day, a concert “Grand Folk Dance” was held in Daugavpils, in which students from the Baltic States danced together. The Estonian dance program was compiled by Aveli Asber, the artistic director of dance ensembles.

The festival ended with a big gala concert with 4600 participants at the Daugavpils Song Festival Grounds. Amongst others, the program included Estonian songs “Men’s Song” by Veljo Tormis, “The Most Beautiful Songs” by Friedrich August Saebelmann, and “Dawn” by Tõnis Mägi. The latter was also the last song of the Estonian program to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Baltic Chain it was performed by the songwriter himself.

Estonian conductors participating both in the opening concert, the Wedding game, and the gala concert were Alo Ritsing, Jüri Rent, Aivar Lestsinski, Peeter Perens, Triin Koch, Janne Fridolin, Sander Tamm, Mart Kivi, Tarmo Kivisilla and Reet Brauer.