The Latvian Song and Dance Festival - history5. July 2013 14:36 0 Print
Will We Let the Light Shine Forth?
By Orests Silabriedis
Changing – that means being alive. The very first Latvian Song Festival took place in 1873. The size and shape of the festivities have gone through considerable changes in keeping with the social and political circumstances of the times. These in turn have not only influenced but at times even attempted to dictate our lives. Thus political considerations have played their role in alloting the festivals certain functions and with very different goals in mind.
The Idea and First Steps
The original concept for a song festival is a Latvian adaptation of the German version as organized in various Baltic regions in early 19th century. At the summer solstice of 1836 a first occurs - a huge Daugava music festival. In 1861 male choirs from Latvian, Lithuanian, Estonian and Prussian communities meet and sing in Riga. And these are only a few examples of choir activities at this time. But, two distinctly parallel streams develop – Latvians and Baltic Germans do no collaborate at the song festival level.
While the latter bustle about and organize musical activities culminating in Baltic German song festivals in their respective regions, Latvians need time to ponder carefully before following suit. The first to grab the idea and run with it is the pastor Juris Neikens (1826-68). Thanks to him the first local Latvian male choir festival takes place in his parsonage park in Dīkļi in the spring of 1864. Once proven, the idea catches fire amongst teachers and pastors in other hamlets and towns in Livland. They become passionate choir masters and festival supporters. Nevertheless, our neighbors, the Estonians, forge ahead faster and their first Song Festival is in Tartu in 1869. This in turns spurs Jānis Bētiņš (1830-1912), a teacher at the Irlava Pedagogical Institute, into rallying regional choirs for the first Kurland Song Festival in Dobele in 1870. The newly founded Riga Latvian Society (1868) becomes active and under its auspices the idea of an all encompassing First Latvian Song Festival takes off. In 1873, just after the summer solstice, 1003 singers or 45 choirs sing in Riga in The First Latvian Song Festival. Almost 100 years later, Raimonds Pauls composes the song “For the Land of My Fathers”. From its opening beats and sacramental tone, the composer nimbly plays with the images of men in grey broadcloth frockcoats to call to mind exactly this event. The chief conductors then are Jānis Bētiņš (1830-1912) from Kurland and Indriķis Zīle (1841- 1919) from Livland.
At this time in our history there is neither a Latvia as such nor a distinctly Latvian musical repertoire. But, the choir singing spark has jumped and does its job beautifully. Enthusiasm spreads like wild fire to every corner of the countryside and Riga. It’s difficult for us to imagine the feelings generated by individual hopes and convictions which, when forged together, create a budding nation’s cultural structures and identity. What all did Juris Neikens envision before his untimely death? What all must have flashed through the mind of Juris Alunēns (1832- 1864), a wonderfully gifted and timely creator of new Latvian words? In one of his essays Alunēns writes: “… don’t spurn foreign languages,…but having learnt them, don’t feel ashamed of being a true Latvian. Only then will other Latvians stop looking askance at educated kinsmen but start feeling proud that an educated and commendable man stems from their midst. And the reverse will also come true – the educated man will no longer look down his nose at his fellow countryman but will attempt to enlighten him. Thus we Latvians will all gain and grow from the light brought into our lives.” (Let’s keep the word “light” in mind!)
Atis Kronvalds (1837-1875) follows in Alunēns’ footsteps. The current literary magazine Jaunā Gaita presents Kronvalds’ lesson of the day: ““Where God's sun first shone upon you, where the stars first twinkled for you, where lightning from heaven first revealed His might and power and where His storms thundered through your soul: there lies your love, there is your fatherland." (Pay attention to the word ”sun”.)
The political developments that give birth to the Latvian Song Festival also open up new horizons for the Latvian language. Latvia still has quite a way to go in developing confidence and conviction about gaining her independence. Let’s not forget that in 1917 even some of the most progressive and radically-minded of Latvian men have a hard time believing that the creation of such a state is at all realistic. The Latvian language, however, as well as developments in Latvian literature and a national music repertoire, all these have been quietly moving along and now start swelling and sprouting. It is the dawning of light.
Distinctly Latvian composers start surfacing and their numbers keep growing. A few who are also chief conductors at the Song Festivals of their day: Andrejs Jurjāns (1856-1922), a graduate of the Music Conservatory in Petersburg, composes the first Latvian symphony and collects and arranges Latvian folk music. Ernests Vīgners (1850-1933) studies at the Music Conservatory in Moscow, develops his own phonology method, is an active member of the Riga Latvian Society. Pauls Jozuus (1873-1937) is an organist and the choir master at the Latvian national opera of his day.
“The Castle of Light”
Then there’s the grand old master Jāzeps Vītols (1863-1948). As a child Vītols speaks German at home and as a student converses mostly in Russian in Petersburg. He really learns Latvian as an adult around 1888, on his return to Riga. And he discovers the poetry of Auseklis. In his memoirs Vītols writes that this volume is exactly what he has been looking for – delicate and simple ballads in Latvian.
One might like to imagine Vītols writing his most famous choir opus “The Castle of Light” somewhere out in the gently rolling Latvian countryside, but he actually does so while visiting his brother Ansis in Russia. He claims the music simply came to him “amongst other things” and he’s dated it June 21, 1899. The Summer Solstice. Ligo! (Bear in mind the words “summer solstice”)
“The Castle of Light” has been sung at the Song Festival 16 times to date. On three occasions the composer conducts it himself – in 1910, 1931, 1933. It is not sung at the Song Festivals of 1960, 1965, and 1977. In 1980, when Vītols’ widow Annija arrives from exile in Germany to attend the Song Festival, “The Castle of Light” resounds three times under Haralds Mednis’ baton. It gets struck off the repertoire for the Song Festival in 1985. However, during the mass choir concert, the singers openly and publicly call for its immediate reinstatement. They force the hand of the then minister of culture Vladimirs Kaupužs. He has no choice but to allow them to sing it. The singers successfully demand and get the in disfavor fallen Haralds Mednis to conduct (1906-2000).
Development up to 1940
From its very beginnings the Song Festival goes through and survives several critical phases. During Tsarist Russian rule, the Song Festival grows in scope and magnitude but especially in 1880, 1888 and 1895 it has its work cut out for it. The organizers must deal with both the political developments in Russia and the tsarist censor’s ambitions.These Latvian festive occasions get misappropriated not only for the glories of the communist party or its proletariat leaders’ anniversary celebrations. Officially in 1880 it celebrates Tsar Alexander II silver jubilee, and IV Song Festival occurs under the banner of 100th anniversary of the annexation of Kurland by Russia.
Andrejs Jurjāns and Ernests Vīgners make their debuts as conductors at III Song Festival. Matiss Kaudzītis, one of Latvia’s first novelists, observes that the German inhabitants of Riga have finally come to accept these Latvian singing manifestations. In his eyes their contemptuous sneers have been replaced by politeness and courtesy. IV Song Festival has its venue in Jelgava. On this occasion it simply rains cats and dogs, as never before or ever since. The building, most likely, has been put up in a great hurry and so the rain pours down in buckets over the musicians and their instruments. The organizing committee’s chairman, Jānis Čakste, comes to the rescue. From his private pocket he covers the costs of repairs to the roof and within 12 hours the work gets done and the Song Festival is saved.
V Song Festival returns to Riga and Pāvuls Jurjāns (1866-1948), Pauls Jozuus and Jāzeps Vītols are the prominent chief conductors. A longer break follows. After WWI the newly proclaimed Republic of Latvia picks up the tradition and organizes the Song Festival for the Summer Solstice of 1926. A mass choir of 6500 voices performs in the Esplanade. Other Festivals follow. These are the hay days of such chief conductors as Emilis Melngailis (1874-1954), Alfrēds Kalniņš (1879-1951), Teodors Reiters (1884-1956) and Teodors Kalniņš (1890-1962). There are only 3-4 chief conductors at each festival, but the honorary old masters are present. The number of singers keeps growing and reaches the grand total of almost 15,000. From our perspective, an extra-ordinarily dramatic climax to developments is the Latgale Song Festival in Daugavpils on June 15-16, 1940. Kārlis Ulmanis, the ruling head of state, is present as a voice over the radio and does not appear in person. Only a day after the last chords of music have died out, Soviet tanks roll into Latvia.
The Song Festival in Soviet Latvia
The third phase of the Song Festival development starts after WWII. The first change is the numeration of the Song Festivals. Soviet Latvia’s I Song and Dance Festival occurs in 1948. Although folk dance groups successfully participate in various festivities before the war, now they not only officially become part of the festival program but also get included in its name. Pēteris Barisons (1904-1947) composes the song “It’s a Great Day for Singing!” but passes away without ever hearing its fanfare proclamation at the Song Festival in the Esplanade – which now is called Communard Square. In the summer of 1955 the pine trees in Mežaparks tremble for the first time to the sounds emanating from a newly built pavilion filled with an 11,000 voice mass choir.
There’s something uniquely strange about each of the Song Festivals during the Soviet era. On the one hand, in all the urban and rural cultural centers of the Soviet republic there is ceaseless promotion of amateur group activities to encourage huge participation in the Song Festival. Ilma Grauzdiņa writes in The Song Festival Small Encyclopedia that “without the constant support of the state and its stimulating and categorical approach, characteristic of the first post-war decade, the mass choir movement would have been endangered, not to say the very existence of the Song Festival itself.” However, a thick layer of foreign folk music from other Soviet republics gets inserted into the program, songs for mass consumption no matter the quality, the army’s marching bands have to parade and flower wreaths laid at the feet of the statue of the proletariat’s leader at the corner of Lenin and Kirova streets. In 1950 the two honorary chief conductors of the Festival, Emīlis Melngailis and Alfrēds Kalniņš, simply do not show up at the Esplanade.
The Song and Dance Festival of 1965 is dedicated to Soviet Latvia’s silver anniversary. The one in 1970 is to celebrate Lenin’s 100th birthday. The festival in 1973 is an exception to the rule as it’s now 100th anniversary of the Song Festival itself. But it gets coupled with the slightly belated golden anniversary of the founding of USSR. Although the song “For the Land of My Fathers” has composed by the ever popular Raimonds Pauls, it does not find favor. It gets premiered in the Song Festival of 1977 commemorating 60th anniversary of the October Revolution. The size of the mass choir keeps growing. By mid-1960s it’s already around 13,000 and increasing. By 1980 more than 17,450 voices make up the mass choir.
But it’s still strange on these occasions. Soviet hits such as David Tuhmanovs’ “Victory Day” are sung alongside well-beloved Latvian folk songs arranged by Emilis Melngailis such as “Summer Solstice Eve” and the already discussed Vītols’ “The Castle of Light”. No matter how wrong it may seem, the controversial “Song for Lenin” (words by Imants Ziedonis and music composed by Imants Kalniņš) has a powerful impact. The mass choir singers like it. Imants Ziedonis cannot refrain from smirking about this in later interviews by referring to it as the birth of a “white piglet”. The inherent power of words! At the end of the song the name of the proletariat’s leader gets evoked three times, as if in imitation of the Trinity. At the 1977 Song Festival Valters Kaminskis’ latest composition “Forever and Ever a Song” with Imants Ziedonis’ lyrics is performed by the mass male choir - an instant hit. His cantata with Ojars Vacietis’ text (“as long as there’s a Latvia, I am still alive”!) is Kaminskis present to the centenary celebration. Remarkable how he succeeds in getting it past the censor’s eagle eye.
The centenary turn out to be the height of strangeness. The festivities are rain-soaked and lots of empty seats – can we even get a handle on that fact these days? Party functionaries and government officials in the first rows. Legendary top chief conductors of the decade take turns showing off their superb mastery of their craft. What cracks and sparkles in the minds of the singers as they give voice to Emīlis Melngailis’ arrangement of a folk song and bring to life “The night is dark, the grass green”? What happens when eternal light starts streaming at the conclusion of Emils Dārziņš’ miniature vocal masterpiece “Playing on Moonbeams”.
1990 and Afterwards
The climax of the 3rd Song Festival phase in 1990 can just as well be described as the beginning of the 4th one. At this Song Festival everything explodes that has been growing to a head during the whole period of Soviet rule. No one even dreams of asking: what is a Song Festival, who’s it for, who needs it, what are we supposed to do with it, what will the future hold? The choirs from Latvia are joined by compatriot choirs of exile Latvians from abroad. The return home has begun.
As the mass choir’s rendition of Lucija Garuta’s composition “Our Father Who Art in Heaven” fills the air, conductor Edgars Račevskis’ arms appear symbolically instrumental in tearing open all the clogged up fountainheads within us. During the prayer, the singers croon, whisper, even shout out what has been collecting and festering in every one of us over the years. At the end, the singers light the candles in their hands, wave them and thus weave a carpet of light. At that moment we have only got May 4, 1990 under our belts. January and August 1991 are still before us. What luck that at that moment we cannot even fathom what will happen to and in Latvia once she regains her independence and believes herself intelligent and capable enough to take it all on. The long suppressed prayer and the woven net of light heighten the momentary sense of grace that holds us in its awe.
Unfortunately, after 1990, we do not continue in the spirit that was prevalent in the 1920s as the fledgling Republic of Latvia was on its first legs but held clear and well-defined positions. Should not we have met and celebrated with strong, young voices and a new repertoire? Instead we head off looking for new roads to take. And the path we have been following these past 25 years while trying to define Latvia’s current identity has become a very thorny one indeed. Cosmopolitan liberalism and national conservatism – these can be seen as the opposite ends of the scale. Unavoidably we confront each other with widely differing world views, understanding of ethics and philosophy.
Constantly wrapped in mourning shrouds we make the past an ever harder burden to bear. That’s surely a mockery of history. True history consists of our knowledge and conceptions about it. Saying out loud what hasn’t been expressed so far or has been given a wrong twist. A different question – what about false and even artificial imitations of the joy of being alive. What’s happened to our expressing and living out the true and vital?
Whenever we start thinking of the next Song Festival talk of the need to renew a Latvian cultural identity becomes a central issue. These discussions go step by step together with forgetfulness. Where is today’s Juris Alunāns, Atis Kronvalds, his sincere opponent Augusts Bīlenšteins, as well as all the others who paved the way to the founding of the Republic of Latvia in 2nd half of 19th century? Where are the priests of Latgale who believed in the realization of statehood? Where are the hands to build the nation? Is anything left of the original dream? If we lose our Song Festival will we lose our language as well? Where are the investments for innovation and education? Which direction is the youth of our nation looking these days? What do we really know about them? What can we trust them with? And the power of our convictions – is it rooted in people or governance?
The modern contemporary composer and Latvian, Gundaris Pone, spends his life living in New York and Venice. After reading the memoirs of Fēliks Cielēns, he comments in a letter: “This book proved to me that dictator and his henchmen not withstanding, we did once have men who looked far beyond their present day and our narrow borders. Their work and aspirations were based on broad western European ideas and concepts. They wore tailcoats as if born in them instead of appearing to have tortuously squeezed themselves into them to attend some official festivity or other.” Our present leaders lack an essential sense of inner grace and noblesse. This exhilarating experience of joy, strength and faith will have to come from the people themselves.
The Song Festivals always occur around the time of the summer solstice. And everyone arrives at its urban venue. But maybe it should be the other way around. Shouldn’t we leave asphalt behind and renew our roots in the fresh furrows of plowed earth? Shouldn’t we say that virtual participation just isn’t good enough? That clicking enter does not move one’s soul. That when “The Castle of Light” is being sung, everyone should rise to their feet.
But it’s all beside the point – there’s no way of describing or explaining the real thing. But it is present at the epicenter of the Song Festival. Then even the most skeptical experience the inexplicable sensation of our being united in an absolute wholeness. For a short moment in time, time no longer exists. All of Latvia is filled with light.
The Song Festival in 2013
According to legend, the idea of creating a unique flag for the Song Festival stems from the author of the Latvian national anthem Kārlis Baumanis. Oddly enough this flag has been acceptable to any and every power that has ruled in Latvia. Even during Soviet rule it has proudly waved at the head of every parade. It presents all the characteristic motifs of the “golden age” – an ancient sage, an oak branch, a consecrated birch grove, and the mystic motif word Lihgo. A different legend claims that the word in the ancient Liiv language means: “Let it grow/happen!” With that in mind that’s how the Song Festival of 2013 will end – after the concert everyone can spend the rest of the night singing folk songs together until dawn breaks.
After a long absence, many old traditions will return to the repertoire of the final concert. Not only will the mixed mass choir sing, but a part of the program will be filled with songs composed solely for male or female choirs. An orchestra and dance groups will perform. And all this will be in a natural, self-regulating flow. No time limits or cut offs will be imposed to keep within a given time frame. This means that if the audience and choir so desires, a song could be repeated several times. At the major final concert of the Song Festival Kaspars Ādamsons, Gints Ceplinieks, Roberts Liepiņš, Māra Marnauza, Andrejs Mūrnieks, Mārtiņš Ozoliņš, Ārijs Šķepasts, Jevgeņijs Ustinskovs and Ilze Valce will make their debut as chief conductors. And Raimonds Tiguls,a young composer will premiere his rendition of a traditional folk song.
We will all honor Roberts Zuika who, having just turned 100 in January, will conduct our singing of the national anthem. He is the very man to whom Jāzeps Vītols handed over his last composition from his death bed. The work, titled “The Blacksmith”, is included in the male choir program.
The climax of the Song Festival will be a summer solstice fireworks/singing/music happening that will be performed by all the various musicians, singers and artists present. Instead of formal speeches, only short vocal greetings will be sung in different regional dialects to proudly reveal the richness of our Latvian language and its multiple tones and variations.
The mass folk-dancing program will be performed as the idea: “Our Fathers’ Foot-bridges”. These dances are based on three major cornerstones: the golden archives of Latvian folk dance, newly created ones in 2nd half of 20th century and especially choreographed interludes for this particular event. The latter will present the whole scope of Latvian folk-dancing, going back as far as 1888.The artistic director Uģis Prauliņš has composed and arranged all the music for the interludes. His is also the music for the prologue and the epilogue. Only with the dedication and hard-work of numberless folk-dance group leaders and choreographers can this kind of dance performance take place. It is thanks to them and the tried and true old-guard as well as the zeal of newcomers as chief leaders of dance performances that enthusiasm and participation in folk-dance groups is on the rise everywhere. And not only amongst young people. At times it appears as if we are changing from being a singing nation to a dancing one. There are now around 40,000 participants in the whole week’s program.
Brass bands from various regions in Latvia will performance in a mass concert at the Dome Square. Their new and young conductors and even fledgling composers will present their treasures and reveal their Latvian roots. But the center of our attention will be focused on honoring our grand old master, composer Jāzeps Vītols whose 150th anniversary is this year. In the special concert dedicated to him, his magnificent choir music will dominate but small symphonic pieces and solo compositions will reveal his talent and scope and lasting influence on Latvian music. Fragments from his memoirs and animated drawings will add to one’s impressions of this great man.
The vocal symphonic concert in the “Arena Riga” will present a very wide scope of music for different tastes and even honor the bicentennial anniversary of Richard Wagner and Giuseppe Verdi. Young and up-and-coming Latvian musicians and conductors with their versatile gifts, interests and experience - and already making a name for themselves in the international music world - will participate along with diverse Latvian orchestras and choirs.
The sacral music concert with the compositions of many of Latvia’s now famous contemporary composers, presented in an unusual form, will have a special and unique touch to it. The live performance will be interspersed with recordings from all the diverse districts of the Latvian countryside. We will hear the singing of the truly faithful - their simple and direct conversation with their Maker.
And lots of light will shine at other performances and concerts as well. The Latvian zither or “kokle” concert will evoke the deep-seated associations and symbolic attachment that Latvians – and not only in Latvia – have with the “sun” and its movement and presence in our lives and culture since time immemorial. Here narrative musical tales stemming from children’s vocal groups will be retold by experienced story tellers. A search for the source of light and enlightenment is the conceptual basis of the Ethnic Minorities Day. And a lot of energy and the joy of living will emanate from all the seniors participating in their dance and singing concert. With their powerful voices and unique singing style women’s voices from folklore groups will resound throughout the center of Riga. A Folklore Day at the Song Festival is another first. At the same time, traditional Latvian name-giving rituals, or christenings as they were later called, will be performed at the Open-Air Museum and everyone is welcome.
At the Folk-song Concert called “Signs” the participants will vocally investigate the mysteries of all the signs at our disposal from the past and the present for the understanding of the rhythms of a 24-hour day. A “Psalm Festival” is promised by Psalm singers who will weave their voices through melodies from the Middle Ages to the Psalm singing of Latgale to the latest current compositions by modern composers - and all done in several different languages, accompanied by either Latvian bagpipes or an organ.
The Modern Vocal Ensembles at the Song Festival in their contemporary music concert hope to discover “the bird with the silk tail” – their way of honoring the late Latvian poet Ojārs Vācietis on his 80th anniversary. It will be challenging for the many different Latvian contemporary composers involved to get their act together and build a forest of sound as complex as the poet their dealing with.
The opportunities offered by this glorious week of the Latvian Song and Dance Festival are more challenging and complex than ever before. Where to go, what to see and hear, that’s left up to each individual visitor. But the most important thing is to catch the moment when all the different flashes lock together into a whole shaft of light. We will have to find it suffice for quite some time to come. But surely it will shed its light on us and keep us going in appreciation of the truly worthwhile.