Rhinegold Photo credit: © Ilmars Znotins, Song And Dance Celebration Office

Maggie Hamilton

‘We should know who we are’

10:57, 15th May 2018

Twenty years ago, Martin Anderson was bowled over by the national song festival in Latvia. As the Baltic States celebrate 100 years of independence, he explores how music became crucial in their sense of identity

If you’ve not been to one of the quinquennial song festivals in one of the three Baltic republics, put it on your bucket list without delay. The Missa solemnis? That paragraph of paroxysm, ‘Quando corpus morietur’, at the end of the Dvořák Stabat Mater? The waves of choral sound in Brian’s Gothic Symphony? The great monuments of western choral music would be hard pushed to beat the visceral emotional impact of these astonishing – and wholly amateur – events. My initiation came in Latvia in 1998. A series of concerts and folkdance competitions earlier in the week had filled virtually every large venue in Riga and gradually grew in size as the days went by. The main classical event was a concert in the restored opera house, with music by Latvian composers and an honorary Latvian: Wagner, whose third professional position, from 1837 to 1839, was as the first conductor of the new Riga opera.

But everything is dwarfed by the leviathan scale of the final day’s activity. It began with a five-hour procession in which the near-16,000 participants set out from central Riga to march the eight kilometres to a huge stadium in the woods behind the town. The sight that met the audience which trekked and trammed out behind them was breathtaking: 13,000 singers banked high behind an army of 1,000 dancers and 2,000 windband players, all in the traditional costumes of their own parts of Latvia.

The concert itself lasted some six hours and offered a range of music calculated to maximise the identification of the audience with the material: Latvian folksongs, wellkent choruses from Latvian operas, choral songs by contemporary composers such as Pēteris Vasks and Pēteris Plakidis, a medley or two of songs by Raimonds Pauls (the local Lloyd Webber and one-time Minister of Culture) and national hymns, all taken up by the 30,000-plus listeners and pushed with fervour into the night sky. When a hundred thousand lungs all around you start on one of these national songs, it feels as if the music is coming out of the very earth: your body vibrates in sympathy and a physical reaction is inevitable. The hair stood up on my arms and I burst into tears: I have never been so profoundly moved and so elated at the same time.

Tallinn Song Festival grounds, where the Estonian Song Festival is held every five years
Tallinn Song Festival grounds, where the Estonian Song Festival is held every five years

The song festivals themselves began in Switzerland in 1843 – a modest affair of just over 2,000 voices; two years later it was repeated in Würzburg, and in 1869 the Baltic Germans, the ruling class in what are now the three Baltic republics, imported the idea to Estonia – part of a tide of rising ethnic awareness that also discovered a national epic, the Kalevipoeg, in folk poetry. Four years later Latvia followed suit, and Lithuania caught up in 1924. They were very soon a vital means of expressing national identity and now occur on fiveyear cycles.

This year and last have seen a fervour of diplomatic and PR activity across the Baltic states as one country after another lights the touchpaper under its centenary celebrations: Finland in 2017, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland in 2018. It may seem rather odd that some of the most ancient peoples in Europe should be marking so recent an establishment of nationhood, but these activities mark the century since a seismic tectonic shift in the political landscape of Europe: the collapse of not one but two empires – the Russian and the Austro-Hungarian – in the wake of World War 1. How the Baltic peoples were able to respond to this dramatic change of circumstances depended as much on their past as their present. And, indeed, it conditioned their response to the failure of a third empire – the Soviet – in the late 1980s and early 1990s: the ‘Singing Revolution’ that alerted most of the rest of the world to the rich musical traditions of the Baltic republics.

The nationalist aspirations in eastern Europe that had been kept under imperial thumbs for decades, sometimes centuries, had begun to find musical voice in the course of the 19th century, not least with Smetana, Dvořák and others in the Czech lands, Erkel in Hungary, Moniuszko in Poland. But plants need soil for their roots to take hold: without a court – royal, imperial, ducal – or, more latterly, a seat of democratic government, the institutions that sustained artistic activity elsewhere (not least the growing importance and prosperity of the middle class) found it difficult to develop.

If one extends that logic to our five Baltic countries, one can easily see how the political past of each conditioned its musical history. Although in 1795 Poland was carved up between Russia, Prussia and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, a confederation of the two countries under a single monarch, had known two centuries of power before that date, and had developed the church and court systems to support the arts. On the other side of the Gulf of Finland, Finland itself had been treated as a vassal state under the Swedish Empire until the Great Northern War (1700–21) saw control of most of the country pass to Russia, and Finland eventually became a Grand Duchy of Russia. The major political institutions over which artistic ones might drape themselves were never allowed to develop there: some 90 per cent of the population were yeoman farmers – peasants – whose most frequent contact with the state took the form of visits from tax collectors.

Estonian composer Veljo Tormis made extensive use of folk music regilaul
Estonian composer Veljo Tormis made extensive use of folk music regilaul

The two smallest Baltic countries today, Estonia and Latvia, have populations which reflect their historical status as ethnic groups squeezed between larger neighbours: there are currently some 1.3 million Estonians and 1.9 million Latvians (and 2.8 million Lithuanians, by way of comparison). Although these are peoples whose ancestry we can now trace back for thousands of years, for most of modern history they had to sit back and watch as warring super-powers used their territory as a battle-ground for local domination.

It was into this institution-free ground that the song festivals – and amateur choral singing in general – were able to sink their roots. Initially, there were (if I may continue the metaphor) two plants. The German-speaking bourgeoisie favoured Mendelssohnian Liedertafel compositions: vocal duos, quartets and the like, for domestic performance. The locals sang in the fields as they worked, at weddings, in the transmission of local legend and myth: regilaul, runic song, in Estonia, dainos in Latvia and Lithuania (including the polyphonic sutartinės, sung by women in northern and eastern Lithuania). The intellectuals energised by the ‘National Awakening’, as it is called, were alert to the riches all around them: by 1914, for example, the Estonian Student Union (mainly the composers Cyrillus Kreek, Mart Saar, Peeter Süda, Juhan Aavik and others) had collected no fewer than 13,226 folk tunes, and the archives in Tartu now hold over 30,000 folk melodies.

The two decades of independence that followed World War 1 allowed the three Baltic republics to begin to develop their own cultural institutions, but when the Nazi invasion of 1941 was followed by a half-century of Soviet stagnation and aggressive Russification, the song festivals in particular came into their own once again: the Russians, with their cynical emphasis on popular culture, could hardly ban them outright, and instead closely controlled the content – but the locals, of course, sang the subtexts. Liberation from the Soviet yoke in 1991 has naturally allowed Baltic composers to go their own ways, some embracing western modernism, others using elements of their musical heritage to extend it into the new century. They may still be nervously looking over their shoulders at the bear growling next door, but they are, once again, free – at least for the moment.

The most prolific – and certainly the finest – composer of choral music in the Baltic region, the late Veljo Tormis (1930–2017), tapped into regilaul in a series of some 300 choral works of astonishing vitality, often articulating a sense of national identity under the noses of the Soviet thought-police. Tormis was a wonderful man, warm and wise and universally adored in Estonia, one of those people who can articulate complex ideas in a simple phrase or two, as he did in the booklet essay of a 1996 Finlandia recording: ‘Selfapprehension and self-cognition is vital for maintaining balance and viability. We should know who we are and where our roots lie. Then it is easier to set up goals for the future’.

Martin Anderson has been writing on music for four decades, for newspapers and magazines across Europe and North America. He is the founder of the recording label Toccata Classics and the book publisher Toccata Press, both specialising in the music of unfamiliar composers.

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