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The tradition of the song festival was born along with Estonian national awakening. The first national song festival was held in Tartu in the summer of 1869. One of the organisers of the first song festival was Johann Voldemar Jannsen. In the first three festivals only men's choirs and brass orchestras participated. 822 singers and 56 brass players participated in the first festival. Starting with the fourth festival, mixed choirs were also participating. Starting with the sixth festival in 1896, the festival tradition moved to Tallinn.
Starting from 1947, the Soviet authorities forced foreign songs into the repertoire. Every event was to include the State Anthem of the Estonian SSR, The Internationale, and the National Anthem of the Soviet Union. Because of the inclusion of children's and boys' choirs the total number of participants rose to 25,000 – 30,000 people. The Dance and Gymnastic Festival of the First Estonian Games started in 1934 became predecessors of later National Dance Festivals accompanying the song festival.