‘I was born and grew up singing, I live my life singing.’ These are the words of one of Latvia’s most popular folk songs. The Latvians are a people who sing, and Latvia is ‘the land that sings’, according to a slogan coined 10 years or more ago. But this slogan goes far beyond a short-lived marketing phrase. In Latvia, singing is part of daily life; the people’s voice is one that sings. A survey on singing habits carried out by the newspaper Ir in summer 2013 revealed that 22 per cent of all Latvians sing ‘everywhere’ and only 13 per cent ‘nowhere’.
Choirs are at the heart of these singing activities. This country of only 2 million people is home to four professional choirs, 390 amateur choirs and some 900 school choirs. Until the 1980s choral singing was a compulsory part of the school curriculum. Today, it has to be reported, sadly, that choral singing has become only an optional subject.
Insiders of the Latvian music scene such as Inara Jakubone, Director of the Latvian Music Information Centre, regret this change of direction: ‘Singing at school is no longer the strong and secure basis for the song festival tradition, as it once was’. All the same, life without the song and dance celebrations cannot be imagined – now a fixed institution in the country’s calendar. The song and dance celebrations mentioned by Inara Jakubone have been held every five years since 1873 and more recently, in 2005, they became protected under a special law (Dziesmu un deju svētku likums). This ensures, at least officially, that the song festival tradition can develop and be passed on to future generations.
In 2003, the song festivals were recognised by UNESCO as intangible cultural heritage and five years later were entered on its Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
These festivals are the highlight in the life of every choral singer. Choirs of every possible formation perform before an international jury, participating at the highest level of choral competition, before uniting as a visually and acoustically stunning superchoir for a mass final concert. In July 1993, at the first national song and dance celebration following Latvia’s independence, this choir comprised some 15,400 voices. In the years prior to independence, with the country firmly controlled by various occupying powers, most recently the Soviet Union, it was only in their choral tradition that people were able to say: ‘we are Latvians’. Nowhere else could they do this. Here the Latvians lived their folklore traditions, sang their own language and danced their own dances in traditional costume – as the words of another folk song have it: ‘I placed my worries under a stone and, singing, I strode over this stone.’
And, although times have changed, it is still considered cool amongst young people in Latvia to sing in a choir. The song festivals reflect the country’s love of music and the importance of musical culture. This is noticeably different from the cultural attitude in western Europe.
According to Pēteris Vasks, the country’s best-known contemporary composer,
“in other countries, choral music is marginalised somewhat”. In contrast, he continues, “Latvia’s choirs are amongst the best in the world. And choral music is the genre through which the Latvian soul is capable of expressing itself on a very high professional level. Song is very important in my music, also in my instrumental music. My ideals in music always involve song, a cantabile or a cantus. That’s something central for me.”
An important feature of the country’s musical culture, prominent in shaping Latvian identity, is the far-reaching significance of its folk songs, with both their melody and lyrics allowing glimpses of a playful melancholy. The underlying aesthetic of the folk song is revealed. It is characterised by a tolerant wisdom, a marked perception, almost an instinctive knowledge, of esoteric primordial connections. There are no extremes of unbridled emotion. There is hardly a single Latvian folk song that directly expresses a feeling of hate. Songs operate instead through multiple layers of irony.
Joy is never exhibited in extravagant exuberance. It always remains within playful boundaries, within the framework of an amusement that is intellectually controlled. Sorrow, frequently mentioned in song, retains a composure that is personally distanced, never appearing to lose trust in religious connections. The best way to capture the country’s cultural attitude might be to explain this as a religious or philosophical belief that souls are immortal in another world. In terms of style, it tends to favour a certain healthy abstraction, disabling of intimacy, and expressed in the work’s retiring and hymnic character.
Does this deeply-rooted tradition of confronting the gravitas of life through song and music explain why Latvians do not appear to experience any difficulty in accessing innovative and experimental music? This is indeed a question worth asking. Ojar Spartitis, President of the Latvian Academy of the Sciences, provides a particularly vivid answer, referring to the country’s compositional talent.
“A Latvian composer experiments until he gets the feeling of being an astronaut – that is, when he becomes weightless and has the sensation of floating amongst celestial matter.”
Musical education – so it would seem – is a way of slipping into imaginary worlds, in which the earth’s gravitational pull no longer applies.
Dr Ingrid Allwardt