Latvia's Musical History: Both Ancient And Kind Of New

Mar 22, 2018

The 2008 Latvian Song Festival in Riga, Latvia (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/legalcode)
Credit Dainis Matisons

As part of the 100th anniversary celebration of Latvian independence, Western Michigan University is hosting two days of Latvian music and art this weekend. 


One of the guest speakers and performers will be Juris “George” Ķeniņš, a Latvian cellist, conductor, and composer in Canada. Ķeniņš is also the Vice President of Canada’s Latvian National Federation and helps organize the Latvian Song Festival in Canada. 

“As you may have been told Latvians have about one million — I’m not misspeaking that — one million verses of text set to about 30 thousand tunes or folk tunes,” he said.

These folk verses are usually four lines long with two couplets — meaning the end of the lines rhyme. Ķeniņš says they will often be strung together to make long songs. While these verses have been around for quite some time, singing together in a choir wasn’t really popularized in Latvia until a teacher, Jānis Cimze, was training in Germany. 

“He noticed how wonderful the choral singing was in Germany and what a unifying force it was when enormous choirs would get together," said Ķeniņš. "He wondered whether he could take Latvia’s wealth of folk song and the love of folk song singing and he could help turn that into a choral tradition.”

So, Ķeniņš says Cimze did just that — and in 1873, before Latvia was even officially a country, Latvians organized their first song festival.

“It became a great way for Latvians who really didn’t have any identity or any power to themselves, that they could be a people. Of course, in singing you share a language and you share culture,” said Ķeniņš.

Ķeniņš says the Soviets allowed Latvians to keep that power — they were permitted to sing in choirs, which kept that tradition going even to this day.

While these folk songs are ancient, Latvian classical music is relatively new. That’s because Latvian classical composers weren’t recognized until after independence.

“Latvian composers never had their Baroque and Classical time period. They were thrust full grown into the Romantic period," said Ķeniņš.

“Even to this day, it’s rare to find composers who really experiment with the abstract or the avant garde.”

Ķeniņš says being a classical musician under Soviet rule had its ups and downs: 

“So there really was no choice about what they would do, what they would play, where they would go, where they would work. It was all prescribed for them. On the other hand, one thing that no one denies is that Soviet training in the arts — whether be it ballet or visual art or music — was and continues to be outstanding. Musicians who were identified already as having gifts from a very early age were given every opportunity to excel.”

Ķeniņš says though Latvian musicians have a lot more choices today, Latvia never lost those Soviet arts programs and many institutions are still heavily funded by the Latvian government — like the Latvian National Opera.

“Latvia has produced so many incredible artists. I can speak for musicians specifically that are principle players in the world’s orchestras. There’s a half a dozen of them who appear regularly on the Metropolitan Opera stage," he said.

"So they certainly have been very, very successful.”

Juris “George” Ķeniņš will perform multiple times during this weekend’s events. He’ll also give two talks on Sunday — one entitled “You Probably Know a Latvian Musician” and another before the university’s concert at 3 p.m. on March 25th.