A cornerstone of that sense of nationhood has been a thriving musical culture, symbolised by the longstanding tradition of national song festivals in which up to 30,000 singers perform before crowds numbered in the hundreds of thousands. Not for nothing was the transition from Soviet rule dubbed "The Singing Revolution". Music continues to play a vital part in forming Estonian culture, even though many Estonian musicians emigrated to escape the straitjacket of Soviet musical policy, or the horrors of Nazism.
In 1980 the conductor Neeme Jarvi left with his family, including his son Paavo; the composer Arvo Part followed within days. Now that Estonia has reclaimed its freedom, some of those emigres are, in their turn, reclaiming their heritage or, as a new CD of Estonian music titles itself, "searching for roots". The collection presents one emigre, Paavo Jarvi, conducting music by two others: the 11th Symphony which Eduard Tubin left unfinished at his death in 1982; and two early works from the Sixties by Arvo Part, Nekrolog and the First Symphony, both of which offended Soviet orthodoxy with their "decadent" espousal of serialism.
If these works look to the past, Jarvi's anthology hints at the future by including three other pieces by Erkki-Sven Tuur, a younger composer (born 1959) who has lived in Estonia all his life, and whose Searching for Roots give the CD its title. For Jarvi, there's a thread - "a sort of spiritual connection" - uniting all three men: "Tubin was a great symphonist," he explains, "a godfather for Estonian music of this century. Part was influenced by him; they were in a way spiritual brothers, which Part acknowledged by dedicating one of his series of pieces called Fratres to Tubin after his death. Part himself became a kind of guru to the next generation, including Erkki-Sven Tuur. So there is an obvious line of succession."
Tuur acknowledges that legacy, but is not bound by it: "Tubin and Part had the same teacher, Heino Eller, who also taught both my composition professors, Lepo Sumera and Jaan Raats. So you might treat the music on this CD as the output of one 'school'. But I dislike these umbrellas, and I'm going, absolutely consciously, along my own way. Part certainly prepared the way for contemporary Estonian music, and in the late 1970s his magnificent Tabula rasa influenced many of us, and I include myself. Now, though, a younger generation has emerged, and there is a variety of different styles, so we can't say that the Part style dominates."
Shortly after recording the CD last year with the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic (of which he is principal guest conductor), Paavo Jarvi returned to Estonia to conduct an Estonian orchestra for the very first time. It was also the first time he'd ever worked with an orchestra in Estonian. "It was an important moment for me. I felt anxious and nervous. These musicians had known me since I was five - I grew up watching them rehearse with my father. But the orchestra was very good, and I felt good, physically and mentally. That trip was the first of what I hope will be frequent visits there."
More recently, Jarvi took up the post of principal guest conductor with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. One of the first pieces he conducted with them was Tuur's Zeitraum (the closing item on his new CD) and there is a liberal scattering of Nordic composers in his repertoire: his CBSO concert tomorrow night includes pieces by Nielsen, Berwald and Stenhammar. This is clearly a point of policy: "People outside the Nordic countries simply don't consider them a real part of Europe. At best they're distant provinces: I'm still asked if there is ever any summer there. Now they're making a strong effort to have a more European, a more international presence. In terms of music, it helps that there are so many Nordic artists making a name for themselves: composers, conductors, performers - they command attention. And it's not superficially created, as can happen in France, Britain or Germany, where there is the geographical muscle to create that kind of national presence."
At the same time, Jarvi won't be pigeonholed: "I have nothing against being considered a Nordic musician. In fact, I'm very proud of it. But I will not restrict myself to Nordic repertoire. Arvo Part is Estonian, but to call his music Nordic is misleading, nor should we look for anything particularly Estonian in his music. I hear it simply as Arvo Part. Yet Estonia has always had a strong musical culture. Perhaps it's because a certain cultural heritage was carried over from the Germans, the Swedes, the Danes, the Russians. In any case, Estonian musical life has always looked westwards, even during the Soviet era."
It's a point echoed by Tuur: "My first musical experience was with a group I set up in 1979, In Spe, playing what I called 'chamber rock'. That was a good laboratory for a beginning composer, to have an idea one evening, and take it into rehearsal the next day, to test how it really worked. Then I went to the Tallinn Conservatory, where I had good teachers who were very open to Western musical culture, insofar as they could find out about it: it was hard to see scores, but it was possible to get recordings. So in the early 1980s I was influenced by Ligeti and Xenakis as well as by Reich and Glass. I'm still keen on remaining open to all possibilities as a way towards a personal style: I enjoy moving between simpler, more tonal structures, and complex atonal passages, sometimes gradually, sometimes abruptly, but consistently."
With commissions coming in from all sides (David Geringas recently premiered his Cello Concerto in Lausanne), and his music recorded on several labels (ECM as well as EMI), Tuur has benefited from Estonian music's higher visibility in the West: "If economic structures change, then so does cultural life. Nobody in the West can understand the absurdity we had to live with in Soviet times. For one thing, we couldn't invite foreign artists: all that was controlled from Moscow. Now, in an open society, the arts are developing in another way: artists find they are responsible to quite different criteria. Although there are always problems in getting money, there are more possibilities for financial support. Our government understands that, with a population of only a million or so, such a small nation can only be great through its culture. That's a real national value."
Jarvi, meanwhile, draws a parallel between Estonia's "Singing Revolution" and Czechoslovakia's "Velvet Revolution". "They were both bloodless, a smooth transition, people showing their will in a way that was nationalistic and cultural yet without confrontation. I read that the Czech Republic and Estonia are now the fastest growing, most dynamic of the ex-Soviet satellite states. That's an interesting similarity. Even so, nobody is going to be amazed by Estonia's business, the volume of its industrial production: there simply aren't the human resources. What will put the Baltic countries on the map are the arts." And he's clearly very happy about thatn
Paavo Jarvi conducts the CBSO 7pm tomorrow, Symphony Hall, Birmingham (0121-212 3333). 'Searching for Roots' is on Virgin Classics 7243 5 45212 2