Pēteris Vasks, a composer whose biography epitomises the fate of many artists in the Baltic States, says:
“I need my music to survive. Composing music was my intellectual battle against an idiotic system. Only music allowed me to be free.”
Born in 1946 in Aizpute, western Latvia, to a Baptist priest, Pēteris Vasks experienced the repercussions of repression first-hand. His grandfather brought him to Riga in 1959. There, he attended a string class at the municipal music school and met Gidon Kremer, who is almost the same age, whom he befriended. Decades later, he wrote two pieces for him for solo violin and string orchestra, bearing melodious names such as Tālā gaisma (Distant Light) in 1996/97 and Vientuaļais eņğelis (Lonely Angel) ten years later. Vasks played in various orchestras in Riga even though he was initially prevented from studying at the conservatoire, which led him to move to Lithuania, a more liberal country.
When asked about influences on his compositional art, Vasks comments,
“I got it all from my father. His language and his movements were so expressive when he preached! He prepared his sermon very thoroughly. However, when he preached his sermon, it felt as if it had arisen simply out of the moment and intuitively. It is all about ideals, about faith and love. This is the message of my music which I need to communicate to people. The way I do this, that is me – that is my character.”
Pēteris Vasks is a composer with ethical principles and spiritual convictions – yet in his music he rarely addresses his spirituality in an openly religious context. The power Vasks always mentions is his conviction that music is able to evoke something in people. Against this backdrop, composing becomes a sort of individual confession of faith without pursuing specific religious elements; instead, it is more about appealing to the fundamental human impulses of the listeners. At this very point, Pēteris Vasks’ religious and spiritual attitude meets his strong ties to nature and home.
He is fascinated by the possibility of “endless chants”. His reasoning finds its expression in audible contrasts and clear statements:
“In my works, fast movements embody aggressiveness, brutality, and the dark side of humankind. The ideal comes slowly, piano, as vocals. Only very few of my works end in fortissimo. For me this has to do with the sincerity of music. The music is with us for a while, and then there is silence. It recedes again. Music emerges from silence and goes off into the silence again.”