Estonian immigration to Canada began about 1900, when a few families settled around Stettler, Alta. By 1939 some 1000 Estonians had moved to Canada and by 1986 there were approximately 20,000.
Choral singing and song festivals have played a large role in Estonian musical life. The first choral festival was held in Estonia in 1869 and has been repeated every four years thereafter - barring international crises. The festival in the capital city Tallinn in the summer of 1990 brought together some 30,000 singers; Canada was represented by such musicians as composer and conductor Roman Toi and composer Kaljo Raid.
This choral tradition has been brought to Canada along with other Estonian cultural activities. Song festivals began in 1957 and in 1969 a massed choir of 2000 voices commemorated the centennial of Estonian song festivals at Varsity Stadium, Toronto. In 1991 some 25 Estonian choirs were active in Canada. These include church choirs and such secular choirs as the Estonian Male Choir of Toronto; the Estonian Mixed Choir of Toronto and Estonia Choir, the first to participate at the 1990 Song Festival at Tallinn. There are also choirs in Montreal, Hamilton, Ont, St Catharine's, Ont, and Vancouver.
Conductors of Estonian choirs have included Toi, Udo Kasemets, August Kiilaspea, Erich Kokker, Uno Kook (who also has conducted and developed the Estonian Concert Band), Olaf Kopvillem, Adolf Scheller, Eugen Ruus, Erik Purje, and Harri Toi.
The younger generation of choral conductors in the Estonian tradition includes Asta Ballstadt, Enn Kiilaspea, Charles Kipper, Rosemarie Lindau, and Margit Viia-Maiste. Youngest of them is a recent graduate from Estonia, Kristel Anupold.
Organizations concerned with Estonian music in Canada include the Estonian Arts Centre, Toronto and Estonian Concert Management, both founded in 1972 under the leadership of Stella Kerson. Estonian Concert Management organizes subscription concerts at the professional level, and musical competitions and scholarships for young Estonians. The Estonian Choral Federation, a continent-wide organization whose Canadian activities are based in Estonian House, Toronto, has been instrumental in organizing song festivals. The chamber orchestra Lyra Borealis, active 1980-90, directed by Norman Reintamm and Paavo Järvi, through its programming and hiring, was a strong promoter of Estonian interpretative and creative musical art.
Many Canadians of Estonian descent work in the Canadian musical community. Teaching at the university level are the bass-baritone Ingemar Korjus at the University of Ottawa; the composer Kristi Allik at Queen's U; the pianist Tiiu Haamer at Grande Prairie Regional College, Alberta; and the pianist and composer Omar Daniel at the University of Toronto. The teaching faculty of the RCMT includes Aino Waldin, piano; Stella Kerson, piano and vocal coaching; Armas Maiste, jazz and improvisation; Tiina Mitt-Kreem, piano; Aago Rääts, flute; Peeter Tammearu, piano and composition; and Roman Toi, composition and conducting. A number of Estonians also teach music in schools or privately. Toi began lecturing on hymnology and church music at the Estonian Theological Institute of Toronto when it was founded in 1978.
The list of active professional instrumentalists in addition to the teachers mentioned above includes Avo Kittask, baritone; Linda Küttis, pianist; Tina Kiik, accordionist; Eero Voitk and Jan Jarvlepp, cellists; and Jaak Liivoja-Lorius and Lembi Veskimets, violists. Liivoja runs a Toronto string instrument repair shop.
Composers in Canada of Estonian descent include Kaljo Raid, a successful symphonist, Lembit Avesson, acclaimed through many serious sacred works, and Roman Toi. Raid and Toi have both had concerts devoted to their music performed in Tallinn. Canada's foremost representative of the New York Action School of avant-garde music - Udo Kasemets - is one of the founders of the CLComp. Younger composers include Kristi Allik, Omar Daniel, Jan Jarvlepp, Charles Kipper, Elma Miller, and Peeter Tammearu.
Paul Tammeveski, a singer with the Estonian State Opera, moved to Toronto in the 1970s and became popular in the Estonian-Canadian community as a composer of light music.
In 1991 Paavo Järvi became conductor of the Chamber Players of Toronto, and Norman Reintamm was conductor of the Toronto Pops Orchestra. Reintamm was also Senior Resident Conductor at the Estonia National Opera and head of the opera department at the Estonian Academy of Music.
Estonian music and other arts were celebrated in the Estonian World Festival held in Toronto in 1984. In 1987 the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra performed a program including works by three major Estonian composers, Rudolf Tobias, Eduard Tubin, and Arvo Part, under the direction of Taavo Virkhaus. In 1989 two Estonian groups toured Canada, the Estonian Philharmonic Boys' Choir and the blues-rock group Ultima Thule.