The ten most important musical works of Latvia's centenary

We're publishing another piece which appeared on the Centenary Magazine - this one by music historian Armands Znotiņš examining what he sees to be the ten most important works of music made by Latvians in the past hundred years. 

Early 20th century

Since it’s the centenary, the list should start with a composition created during the birth of the new state, which will soon turn a hundred years old itself. Jānis Mediņš wrote the opera Fire and Night from 1913 to 1919 under the most extreme circumstances, including when he was one of the Latvian Riflemen in the Far East. Mediņš anticipated that this work will be staged as the first Latvian national opera piece. After an adventurous return to Latvia, it turned out that Alfrēds Kalniņš’ Baņuta had beaten him to it. Mediņš got even by writing the first Latvian ballet, Victory of Love, while Fire and Night has entered the Latvian cultural canon. Nevertheless, like all Latvian operas, it has been staged but a few times, and in an unchanged form only when it first appeared on stage in 1921. Mediņš wrote the opus, inspired by Rainis’ symbolic play, on a magnitude fitting for the dimensions of late romanticism, and it could be well seen as the composer’s reply to Richard Wagner, as an excellent testimony to his professional abilities and national self-confidence. It is widely accepted that Fire and Night is one of the few Latvian operas that would be worth staging at opera houses abroad. However, it seems we still have to bring ourselves to it and to a modern staging of the complete dilogy here in Latvia too. I would especially like to see a version by Viesturs Kairišs, but Michael Haneke will also do.




In contrast to Jānis Mediņš and others, Emilis Melngailis was a miniaturist. He concentrated on choral music and protractedly perfected pieces inspired by the themes and moods of folk song. He was a pronounced individualist as well, and his awful and depressingly egotistic character has entered the history of Latvian music. Nevertheless, it has been eclipsed by Melngailis’ fine, sensitive and nuanced work, which in addition has no trace of "standard" national romanticism. Melngailis was able to harness the code of the national mentality like no one else and create scores that bring together the archaic and the modern. Many of these are considered outstanding works of art, first and foremost Midsummer Night. Melngailis wrote it in 1926 for the ballet Maija, but in due time it was clear to all that it will be the same choral music after all, and Midsummer Night is consistently included in the Song Festival programme. Despite the fact that nowadays the numerous amateur choirs have turned into chamber choirs, for which it is not realistic to bring Melngailis’ score to life in sufficient colour, the jubilatory B major that concludes Midsummer Night is still exciting at the Song Festival. Of course, the same goes for professional choral performances. There’s an apocryphal story about thick folders of sheet music somewhere in the archives of the Latvian National Opera or the library, containing pages of the ballet Maija written in pencil. It may be true.


In 1932, Michael Chekhov visited the Latvian National Theatre and staged William Shakespeare’s Hamlet. He played the lead character and asked Jānis Kalniņš to write the score. At that time, the composer came up with the idea to make Hamlet into an opera. After trying his hand in writing the folktale opera Lolita’s Wonder Bird, in 1935 Jānis Kalniņš turned to a wildly different literary source. His Hamlet premiered in February 1936 with the composer himself acting as conductor, and Mariss Vētra playing the title role. The composer was 32 at the time, and professionals foresaw a bright future ahead of him. The promised career and wide appreciation did come at last, but in Canada instead of Latvia. Having become one of Canada’s most famous composers, he lived to the age of 96 and died in 2000, with memories about Latvia as a “lost paradise”. Four symphonies, a violin concerto, a string quartet, a piano quintet and many small form works are left to his name, and as a composer he meandered between modernism ideas and laconic post-romanticism but did not write any more operas, neither in Latvian nor in English, when he was in exile. Nowadays Hamlet is staged, time and again, in Latvia, and composer Volfgangs Dārziņš at one point said that this work is “likely to find its way across the border”. As is evident, this moment has not yet arrived for Jānis Kalniņš’ opera as well, even though it is safe to say it’s better than the Hamlet of Ambroise Thomas.




Jānis Ivanovs too has left a mark in Latvia’s collective memory as being a rough and scary character; and monumental too, in the broadest sense of the word. He lived for 77 years and penned 21 symphonies. This music, which makes short work of countless other master composers in terms of quantity, has an excellent quality to it as well. Jānis Ivanovs’ No. 5 in C major is ranked among his best scores. Composed in 1945, it marks a departure from the aesthetics of national romanticism in the early works, and the colourful, impressionistic and programmatic No. 4 Atlantis. In its stead, there is clear, absolute music that is drawn with dramatic characters and powerful, expressive lines. The symphony No. 5 premiered in Moscow in 1946. Critics praised it highly, but two years later there was a dictate to condemn “formalism” and “cosmopolitanism”, and this time the reviews were the exact opposite. After another five years, there was, again, political change and the exact same people called the symphony No. 5 one of the most valuable exemplars of Latvian music. In May 2017 the Latvian National Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Andris Poga, performed the symphony again, reminding everyone that the piece is excellent even outside its historical context. When the most desolate years of the totalitarian regime had passed, Jānis Ivanovs’ work took on a more and more enigmatic aspect, probing the secrets of human existence until the composer’s death. He takes up a unique place in Latvian music to this day.




For all of her life, Lūcija Garūta favoured the romantically heightened spectre of emotions, and the harmonic trouvailles of impressionism gave it extra colour, intensity and depth. Therefore she was able to create, with equal measure of success, both refined miniatures and dramatic large-scale opuses. Garūta’s piano concerto belongs in the second grouping. Grieving the death of her adolescent daughter, the composer expressed these emotions with a piercing artistic power, in concert with her aesthetic and existential views that, despite everything, did not see absolute darkness and the victory of evil to be possible. The last bar lines of the piano concerto were written in 1951. The Composers’ Union of Soviet Latvia told Garūta that at a time when, according to the theory of non-conflict, there is only the battle between what’s good and what’s even better, there’s no place for such emotionally reactionary works decrying the socialist reality. The false jubilancy gradually subsided with the death of Stalin, and in 1956 the symphony premiered publically with pianist Hermanis Brauns and conductor Leonīds Vīgners. Over the course of the past few years, everyone had forgotten that tragic narratives exist in art, and the result was shattering. Concert witnesses say that after it ended they felt as if cold water had been thrown onto them. From this time, the leading Latvian pianists of every generation perform this work. The last to do so was Reinis Zariņš, and his performance approaches perfection.




When characterising Pēteris Plakidis’ oeuvre, Music for Piano, String Orchestra and Timpani is often named among the first among his works. And it is also Plakidis’ first symphony score, written in 1969 when the author was aged 22. It premiered on November 14, 1970, with Romualds Kalsons conducting the Latvian National Symphony Orchestra, Elhonons Jofe playing the timpani, and the composer himself at the piano. Plakidis’ contemporaries say that Music for Piano, String Orchestra and Timpani is an absolute chef d’oeuvre. The younger generation agree, and this musical score is a constant presence in the repertoire of young pianists, conductors and orchestra artists who see and hear something fundamentally important inside these lines. The message of Plakidis’ piece is evidently timeless. It evokes a suggestive sense of freedom, a plastic and brittle sensitivity, metaphysical and emotional protests, tragic dimensions and more, and more. It is clear that this music expresses something that cannot be put into words, and this non-formable and inexpressible is at the same time very, very personal. Things like that are not forgotten and do not go unnoticed. Plakidis lived for a further fifty years after Music for Piano, String Orchestra and Timpani, and kept writing many wonderful musical scores until his activity ceased in the late 90s. But this opus of his youth still remains something unique.




Judging by purely professional criteria, one should name the following composers as having produced the best music of the 70s: Tālivaldis Ķeniņš, Marģeris Zariņš, Romualds Kalsons. One should also name Romualds Grīnblats, Ādolfs Skulte, Artūrs Grīnups. A choice like this, favouring the forgotten or widely acclaimed classics, would be seen as self-evident. Nevertheless, there is a piece that, even though its four-part cycle is far from perfect, still sparks an incessant interest among performers and listeners alike, attracting them with the openly pronounced credo of a creative and free personality. It’s Imants Kalniņš Symphony No. 4. This was the same dilemma that the creators of the Latvian Culture Canon faced. The Symphony No. 5 would have been more monolithic; the Symphony No. 3 more professionally worked, but nevertheless the Symphony No. 4 remains that Kalniņš work which challenges the totalitarian regime with the expressiveness of a rock musician and the experience, refinement and the range of symbols available to an academic musician. The regime accepted this challenge, and the original mezzo-soprano singing in English had to be changed to a completely instrumental version when the piece premiered in 1973. The symphony was first performed according to the original intention in Detroit in 1997, but the latest reading of this opus with the conductor Kaspars Ādamsons and the Swiss trio VEIN proved that nobody really knows the way a canonical version should sound like. Imants Kalniņš is silent about it, and everyone has to find their own true answer themselves.




Gundars Pone belonged to that particular generation of the exiled diaspora which found the conservative aesthetics of the exile and the many warring factions of society to be utterly boring. At the same time, these artists understood the fact that the corrupted cultural environment of occupied Latvia is no place for them. Furthermore, Pone did not want to follow previously established formulae, no matter if they came from the avant-garde. He looked for new ideas on his own and had splendid success. Among Gundars Pone’s long form works, the symphonic score Avanti! is usually mentioned, but as we have come to the 80s it’s high time to bring up the opus Titzarin, which was at one time performed by the Liepāja Symphony Orchestra in a single program with Imants Kalniņš’ October Oratory. The composition Titzarin brilliantly represents Pone’s aesthetics and the hallmarks of his worldview, where multi-level compositional thinking co-exists with filigree nuance, while a rational architecture does not preclude a direct emotional effect on the listener. The concert programs testify that Latvian musicians and listeners need both Pone’s chamber music and symphonic and vocally symphonic works, but the heritage of his oeuvre has certainly not been fully accounted for, and the composer’s late works such as Monumentum pro Galileo, Requiem, and the opera Roza Luksemburga still await their interpreters.




Pēteris Vasks’ violin concerto Distant Light, like many other scores by this composer, is performed often and regularly in concert halls across Latvia and the globe. But the musical lifetime of this opus began at the 1997 Salzburg festival, when Gidons Krēmers performed the violin concerto with the chamber orchestra Kremerata Baltica and Saulius Sondeckis at the podium. Since 1997 Pēteris Vasks has more and more often turned to sacral topics, and a harmonious and contemplative sound is found in his scores, with the modernist ways of expression leaving openly existential dramatics in the past. Nevertheless, Distant Light is from the point in the composer’s work where the opposites of light and darkness still wrestle in open confrontation. One is lead to think that Distant Light owes part of it success not only to the illuminated pages of the violin concerto and the striving towards an emotional purification, a catharsis, but also to the fusion of a personal and a universal narrative. It is, without a doubt, a story about Gidons Krēmers’ childhood, but it is also the story of the childhood and youth of any artist in a socially, politically and psychologically hateful environment, reflecting as it does the fragility and loneliness of a creative personality along with the experiences of the composer. Like any work that carries multiple meanings, of course, Pēteris Vasks’ Distant Light leaves many questions open – is the dramatic culmination of the violin concerto the triumph of the banality of evil, or is there another key to it?


The 21st century


Upon choosing a composition to represent the eighteen years that have passed in the 21st century, without a doubt I would like to point out if not Alise Rancāne or Līva Blūma, then at least Platons Buravickis or Krists Auznieks. I will however abstain from such an eccentric step, and this means there’s a safe choice to be found among the generation of the 70s, which, as the supporters and realisers of the avant-garde, conscientiously opposed itself against the earlier authors. Andris Dzenītis is one of the most prominent among them, and his works too deserve international recognition and the attention of foreign interpreters. Again, if the 90s weren’t allotted to Pēteris Vasks, I would have chosen one of the ravishingly saturated works of Dzenītis’ early years, like the piano quarter Lacrimae, but now I am tempted to bring up the opera Dauka or at least Latvian Cookbook. However, looking at Dzenītis’ oeuvre, one would stop, in the end, at E(GO), a concerto for saxophone and orchestra. This work of the year 2012 won the Great Music Award, and it is worth listening not only because of this accolade and the great performance by Arvydas Kazlauskas; exciting musical ideas are included here in a masterful and multi-dimensional form. The structural aspects and the emotional gamma of the composition leave a fascinating impression, and, yes, it seems a personal message is at play here too. It seems that it only serves the noble art of composing well.

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