The Gaudeamus festival, passed down from father to son, will return to its birth place of Tartu after 12 years


On June 22–24, the biggest university students’ song and dance festival Gaudeamus will take place, where more than 4000 performers from Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania will perform. The festival was founded by maestro Alo Ritsing’s father Richard Ritsing, and after a 12-year period, the event now returns to its place of birth.

The event, which is part of the EV100 programme, will join light arts, music, choral music and dance into a spectacular performance. The thematic artistic idea behind the Midsummer’s Gaudeamus festival is the Midsummer’s tradition, the legends, youth and love of the three Baltic States. The festival will start with a procession and a free opening ceremony along the banks of the River Emajõgi, followed by the dance performance “The Mystery of Midsummer Eve” and the concert and song festival “The Songs of Midsummer”.

A profession and festival passed from father to son

The idea to organise the common celebration with the best in Baltic choral music was already born in the 1920s, but the first Gaudeamus festival wasn’t held until after the war and the death of Stalin. At the initiative of maestro Richard Ritsing, choirs from Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania came together in Tartu’s Tammeorg for the first time for the big celebration in 1956. To this day, Gaudeamus is alternately held in the three Baltic States, and generally every four years. The last big university celebration was held in Estonia in 2006, and the festivities drew about 30 000 spectators.

Alo Ritsing, son of the festival’s founder Richard Ritsing, carried on his father’s tradition and participated at the very first festival as a singer in the University of Tartu men’s choir. He also affirms that Gaudeamus is not like a regular song and dance festival, because it is constantly looking for something new.

Alo Ritsing Author: Meelika Hirmo

“It is not just singing, playing instruments and dancing. Gaudeamus is not an academic concert either. At the festival, there have always been exciting elements and innovation, and it has at times even been playful or mischievous. Gaudeamus is different than other regular Estonian choral type celebrations,” commented Ritsing.

A closed nation needed liberation

“The first Gaudeamus was special because we were a closed state, after all, and that needed to be broken through. During the festival, it felt like it was a family reunion, where people do know about each other, but they just have never met. Of course, Estonian, Latvian and Lithuanian people are not related peoples, but we do have a lot to learn from each other, and there is a lot going on in all the countries in culture and elsewhere, and keeping abreast with those elements just enriches us,” opines Ritsing.

Gaudeamus performers during a moment of rest. 1967. In Tartu. Author: archive of the Tartu Academic Men’s Choir

Ritsing also remembers celebrations, where political moods and tensions were much stronger. “People were so used to Soviet symbolism that eventually they didn’t even noticed it, or if they did, they just sarcastically joked about these symbols. For example, at the 1971 celebration in Riga and Ogre, everyone at the festival was given pins with the image of Lenin and the name of the city of Ogre. Some wisecracked that the word ‘ogre’ means a monster or a scary person in English. The rumour spread like wildfire and soon enough all pins were quickly collected.”

A time of awakening and a choir of protest

The end of the 1980s was a breakthrough period. In 1988, the Estonians participating at the celebration in Vilnius were allowed to take the blue, black and white national flag with them, but everyone was warned ahead of time to not provoke or aggravate southern neighbours in any way. Latvians and Lithuanians were not yet allowed to wave their flags in public, but when the Estonians were seen with theirs on the first day, Latvians and Lithuanians were out with their national flags the next day too.

“These were quickly found from hiding places in homes or sew quickly especially for the occasion,” recalled Ritsing.

Even though it was customary during the occupation times to perform mandatory Russian language pieces composed by Soviet Union authors, at the 1988 Gaudeamus, a conductor who had come from Leningrad was shocked – the choirs booed him off the stage. “It was complete mutiny. The conductor tried three or four times, and the singers just didn’t follow his directions. In the end, the organisers succeeded in convincing the choirs not to boycott the performance, however, when it was time for the Russian song, only the Russians sang. Estonians, Latvians, and Lithuanians were silent for practically the entire performance,” Ritsing described the mindset of the singers during the turning times.

The 1984 Gaudeamus festival in Tallinn, with participants from Lithuania, Latvia, Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Georgia and Moldavia. Author: archive of the Tartu Academic Men’s Choir

Do choral music and folk dance even have a place anymore?

“Sometimes, when I get asked, I do think whether we need a festival like Gaudeamus. After all, borders are open and cultural relations are possible. In the end, I always reach the conclusion that it is needed. Students are a set of people that always offer something new and exciting. That is how music and dance will develop through time and keep abreast with the times. Also, the Lithuanian and Latvian cultures have so much to offer us that if there weren’t relations like these, we as a nation would be poorer for it,” mused Ritsing. 

“Every time they have surprised me with something new. If the festival has stood the test of time, it must have its role. This time the festival will also be unique, and I do believe that it will speak to people,” added Ritsing.

Header image: The first Gaudeamus festival in Tartu in 1956. Author/source: archive of the Tartu Academic Men’s Choir

The story was published by ERR Menu on June 4th, 2018.