The Dilemma of a Latvian Composer

From Unearthing The Music

The Latvian Song Festival in 2008. Picture by Laima Gūtmane

The following article by Latvian composer and professor Ruta Paidere is republished here with the kind permission of "Mūzikas Saule" magazine.

From the Song Festival to an easy stage song

As we know, Latvian professional music originated and developed very late. Our first composers worked at a time when Latvians were electrified by the desire for an independent state. Composers captured this mood and virtually became “the people’s voice” in the most direct sense of the term. Parallel to nation building processes during the second half of the 19th century, national music schools with their typical focus on the idiosyncrasies of folk music sprouted up all over Europe. However, the major emphasis on joint singing, otherwise known as choral music, in the history of Latvian classical music is definitely an exception to the rule. For example, choral music does not hold a significant place in the list of works composed by Grieg, Dvořák, Smetana or Mussorgsky, and even less so in the compositions of Chopin or Shimanovsky. More often than not, it does not feature at all. And, although among Tchaikovsky and Sibelius’s opuses quite a lot was written for a choir, they are not associated with this. In contrast, the first phase of Latvian music was dominated and defined by the field of choral music with the decoration of the folk song – the basic element of musical innocence – at the centre, and this, of course, is related to the Song Festival movement.

Latvian classical music was born and developed in a very narrow and confined space, acquiring direct influences almost solely from Russian composers, under whose tutelage – through studies in Moscow or Saint Petersburg – the art of composition was mastered and from whom musical aesthetics were adopted to a large extent. Contacts with European musical life (by this I am referring to the realm of composition in particular; interaction in concert life took place much more intensively and openly) were negligible, and it is possible that this seclusion was also secretly desired by the composers themselves. The International Contemporary Music Society was founded in Salzburg in 1922, opening up various paths and opportunities to connect with the European music scene. Despite this, the Latvian Composers’ Group founded by Jāzeps Vītols in 1923 did not join it (the Latvian Composers’ Union only joined the Society of Contemporary Music in 2004), thus avoiding interaction with European contemporary trends during the first half of the 20th century, whose magnet was the Second Viennese School and Igor Stravinsky. A major role in nurturing and maintaining this quite conservative stance was played by Jāzeps Vītols himself. To describe his attitude towards contemporary "trends" as conservative would be an understatement to say the least.

The most socially and culturally significant event (and, initially, also the most important event in the professional music scene) was and remains the Song Festival, during which new and existing compositions written by Latvian composers for choir and orchestra "infused" the people, and composers such as Andrejs Jurjāns, Emīls Dārziņš, Emilis Melngailis and Jāzeps Vītols in particular became myths and national relics, a status they have held right through to the present day; frankly, it would be discourteous to constructively discuss their musical aesthetics in the context of the age. Viewed from this perspective, one of the future problems confronting Latvian composers could be the internal need to liberate themselves from this close symbiosis with the national spirit and to shatter the boundaries of the given context, which unfortunately was almost impossible in the vice-like grip of the Soviet system exemplified by Zhadanov’s anti-formalist decree (1948).

Once again, Latvian professional music could only develop within a local space. However, on this occasion, this was not a situation born of our own choosing. During the Soviet era, nothing seemed more distant and unreachable than Western Europe from both a geographical and cultural perspective. While European music had bid farewell to tonality quite some time beforehand and gradually – beginning with Claude Debussy and Richard Wagner – a new hierarchy of musical elements had taken shape and established itself, the Soviet powers-that-be accused so-called "formalists" of paying insufficient attention to melody, because in Zhdanov’s opinion, "Melody expresses the entire gamma of human feelings". Thus, recognised and crowned as the nucleus of Soviet music, melody continued its victory march – a tad cynically even, this naturally dovetailed with the aesthetic guidelines of national romanticism.

At the same time, through radical polemics and liberal fantasy, Western European contemporary music and art accompanied the difficult transformation of a society badly scarred by the Second World War, and thus blended into its cultural consciousness quite organically, regardless of the ability or inability of society to accept the new. However, in Soviet Latvia, the development of society, contemporary music and art was almost impossible, because people’s aesthetic inclinations were coordinated “from on high”, where an absolute repudiation of modern music and art and any kind of free and uncensored thought prevailed in the most extreme form of prohibition. And during this period what was or could be status of the composer? At the start of the century, the censor for the people’s longings was the classical composer, whereas during the Soviet era this role was played by the songwriter of popular songs, and this comes as no surprise – songs could not be accused of a lack of melody, multi-layered contents and symbols could be encoded into lyrics, songs were informal and could be sung by anyone, anywhere and anytime. Thus, Raimonds Pauls and Imants Kalniņš acquired the status of national cult composers. They are notable for their success in articulating the sense of Latvian life during the Soviet period, that mix of vibrant "anything goes" and cool melancholy. No matter how they are composed or subjected to genre-related interpretation, their songs travel through time locked in their own individual microcosm.

A wealth of evidence exists suggesting that the vocal oeuvre of Raimonds Pauls, Imants Kalniņš, as well as Mārtiņš Brauns, Zigmars Liepiņš and Uldis Stabulnieks represents Latvians’ appreciation of classical values much more potently than the symphonic works of Jānis Ivanovs, Ādolfs Skulte, Lūcija Garūta and Romualds Kalsons or the chamber music of Pēteris Vasks. One has to conclude that the central fields of (Latvian) professional or "high" musical art – symphonic and chamber music – most likely took root in the cultural life of Latvian music from a position deep in the background, while the amateur movement with the Song Festival at its centre has been the subject of continual glorification. Eventually, even the Soviet powers-that-be got around to encouraging the organization of regular festivals, because their functionaries knew only too well how to use these major festivals to serve their interests and how to "correctly" harness the energy that had accumulated within the people.

Latvian professional music was given a very brief moment to freely develop, attract and educate a stable public, and, seemingly, right up to the present period of our history, the circumstances have never been truly conducive for its deeper integration into society. At the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, Riga experienced a major influx of Latvians from the countryside, who brought with them their specific cultural experience. However, the process by which they became city dwellers with the typical lifestyle that goes with this status, which traditionally included attending classical music concerts, could not occur automatically, only gradually over the course of time. However, they were not given this time – the terror of "formalism" and isolation wrought by the Soviet powers-that-be ensued, resulting in the automatic elevation of the easy stage song to priority status in the realm of the free arts together with its inherently unifying effects.

Moreover, one must also keep the fact in mind that over the centuries in Latvia, a culture of highly refined professional music, whose fruits would have been plucked sooner or later by Latvians themselves, neither existed in churches nor in German feudal houses. It is entirely logical that, as a result of all this, an internally recognised consensus has not been able to take root within our society, whereby keeping track of the developmental processes of “haute” musique or – more pertinently – encouraging them through philanthropic activity would have been important and valuable. Even judging from a linguistic perspective, "professional" and "academic" or "high" art, in particular, are concepts whose use in Latvian elicits insecurity, because they are often used in contrast to what "folks" want to hear, that which is simple and "necessary", in other words, art favoured by the people. In all likelihood, only the “national” artist is accepted publicly and nationally, because all things “national” remain an untouchable myth.

The national composer

But what is it that really typifies a "national" Latvian composer if one can safely assert that he is not simply a Latvian who writes music? Turning one’s attention from typically Latvian genres – choir songs and interpretations of folk songs, it is very difficult to find objective and typical compositional approaches and stylistic manifestations characteristic of Latvian music. Therefore, in all probability, a "national" composer is one, who focuses on vocal music with specific Latvian subject matter and whose choir songs are played at Song Festivals, if possible fitting into the overall sound of their repertoire and patriotic emotional timbre, or alternatively he is embodied in the way the seismographer accurately interprets the national temperament with its typical nostalgic desire for distant and good times, incorporating this into "Latvian" melodies. In any case, a national composer will typically openly emphasise his close connection to the listener, and this connection serves as a powerful argument supporting the quality of the music.

In turn, non-nationally composed Latvian music is absolutely alien to the majority of society. With few exceptions, its authors are unknown or little known and live more or less confined within their work and environment. Even if their names are occasionally heard, one does not connect them to anything in particular. In itself, this situation is nothing unusual, because contemporary art does not have a large audience anywhere. Moreover, everything new in art and in other fields develops on the periphery, not in the epicentre.

However, it should be noted that the reasons for the low ability [… of the public] to accept contemporary Latvian music significantly differ from those in Western Europe, where modern art was born parallel to historical and public changes, responding to them independently and critically. Ultimately, to a considerable extent, even the idea of the avant-garde itself is a response to the horrors of the Second World War as if this was the end of history, which could only be followed by a new start from zero. However, in Latvia, right up to the 1990s it was almost impossible to obtain the experience of listening to modern music – it was neither played, nor broadcast on the radio, and, with the exception of Juris Ābols, Romualds Grīnblats and Pēteris Vasks, nobody wrote it. In Latvia, contemporary music has simply "begun", as opposed to “evolving” from something, transitioning from one phase into another. A quite explosive clash between two essentially mutually remove aesthetics – romance and Western European contemporary music. This is an extraordinary clash with undeniable potential, because in the development of the arts it is not compulsory for a developmental chronology to exist as in fields of science, in which progress is not possible, bypassing or ignoring relevant facts. But this epochal jump also has its negative consequences – contemporary music arrived in Latvia suddenly and seemingly from nowhere, and therefore the meaning of its existence is quietly but discernibly questioned, because it does not conform to any parameters, which have crystallised in relation to classical – melodious and harmonious – music, let along national music in the course of Latvia’s specific history.

Despite this, outside Latvia, it is often argued that a peculiar and unique sound exists that is exclusively characteristic of Latvian or Baltic music, and that, based on all the evidence, this is occurring for the first time in the history of Latvian music. The seismic clash between romanticism and the contemporary idiosyncratically manifests itself in the partitures of contemporary Latvian composers – rarely does one find the harsh strokes or even touches of the Western avant-garde in them or any kind of radicalness or political messages. Instead, they are sooner characterized by an abstractly philosophical background, multi-layered and finely honed timbre, and although it cannot be defined as such immediately, one can undeniably detect the sense of the life of an individual farmer. Conceivably, these aspects allow listeners to refer to "Baltic music". In any case, contemporary music created by Latvian and outstanding interpreters of contemporary music could be one of the cornerstones on which to base the country’s self-image as a modern cultural nation, because in this regard, the Song Festival alone will not suffice. However, in this regard, a powerful contradiction and discrepancy starts to manifest itself – historically, an imbalance has taken root in Latvia between the public and national perception of popular and professional music.

Picture of the 1950 Soviet Latvian Song Festival

In regard to the intangible, the attitude of the people, i.e. that amateur cultural state, is unequivocal and gallant. The continuity and regularity of festivals is guaranteed by a national law, emphasising the uniqueness of the Song Festival, its deepest roots in the consciousness of each Latvian and in the gene code of the people as a whole. However, the tradition of the Song Festival and even the song wars have been appropriated from the German amateur choir movement and are not an original Latvian phenomenon at all.

The creative industries

What is the nation’s true attitude towards professional intangible culture? How is this manifested, not outwardly in the form of "pride", but in Latvia itself, directly influencing the existence of the musicians and composers living there, who have to subsist from the income from their work?

There are grounds for thinking that the category of “necessity” has already taken root in Latvian cultural policy, i.e. a belief in the industrial nature of culture, which proves its "necessity" by generating a profit or at least covering costs. The short-term and long-term cultural vision of the Latvian State, which we can read on the Ministry of Culture’s homepage is available in the work document "Creative Latvia", is interwoven with the term "creative industries", signifying earning through creativity. This same document emphasises the importance of culture within economic growth, along with its strategic importance in raising welfare. Also mentioned are the “services” of Latvia’ “outstanding cultural representatives abroad” and the wonderful “human resource” – the chosen terminology alone alludes to the origins of these subjects and defines culture not as an asset in itself, but merely as one of the components of the market economy. After studying the foundation stones of “Creative Latvia”, it is not hard to conclude that in the mind of the Latvian State in relation to the future of culture, professional art has barely discernible contours, which disappear like a mirage, when they are approached, because authentic art definitely does not correspond to the format of creative industries.

The concept of "creative industries" is not new. It is derived from Kulturindustrie, a term introduced by Theodore Adorno and Max Horkheimer in a volume of essays published in 1944 entitled "Dialectic of Enlightenment", which denoted the commercialization and mass reproduction of culture and its evolution into one of the branches of industry in which all efforts are concentrated on economic successes with the goal of securing maximum financial benefit. Simply put, the cultural industry supplies a product, and the consumer consumes it with a minimal of intellectual effort. In his recently published volume of essays Civilization of the Spectacle (La civilizacion del espectaculo, published by Barcelona publishing house Alfaguara in 2012), the globally renowned Peruvian writer, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, Mario Vargas Llosa writes that, "What matters to this new culture is industrial mass production and commercial accomplishments. Choosing between price and value is a thing of the past and means one and the same.... Whoever is successful and whatever is sold is good, and whatever is rejected by the public is bad. The only criterion of value that still exists nowadays is the market."

The idea of the functional importance of creativity in raising competitiveness, as well as that of creativity as one of the branches of industry is nothing original. Its origins can be found in the USA, where culture is not financed by the state at all, and therefore the only survivors are those who can cover their costs or who can find long-term benefactors. This position is also familiar within Western European cultural policy, but it is certainly not pivotal and instead plays a role in realms of life subordinate to culture like urban planning, where rental charges are lowered in up and coming parts of a city in order to attract an influx of students and creative professionals, whose lifestyle makes this place attractive and draws in retailers and tourists. However, inanely, oftentimes the opposite movement subsequently occurs – when the district has become attractive and reputable, it is invaded by representatives of other social strata, causing rental charges to climb rapidly, forcing students and creative folks to relocate, turning what was once a dynamic and colourful environment into a pseudo-artistic ghost of its former self, full of tourists, who have not cottoned onto this development.

Back in the day, that is, during the 18th century period of the Enlightenment, the famous German educational reformer and one of the founders of Berlin University, Wilhelm von Humboldt presented several subjects that had a long-term and fundamental influence on the educational culture of future generation, and which were based on the idea of human education as a value in itself – “the task of education is to implement the living opportunities of person and his human being as comprehensively as possible.” In European educational circles, this agreement has long prevailed in relation to understanding of education and culture, separating cultural values from material ones. However, in conditions of late Capitalism, any field is increasingly industrialised and rendered efficient and “democratic”; the concept of culture and education is becoming more diffuse and bland, and this trend, of course, is also clearly manifested in Latvia. Nothing is easier than to subordinate oneself to this all-powerful market dynamic, which offers universally understandable and simple answers even to questions that have not been asked. However, in a small country, which will never be able to base its existence on quantity, the consequences of market thinking can be quite sad, because such an environment can be counter-productive for creative and innovatively thinking people, prompting them to seek appropriate conditions for work elsewhere. These appropriate conditions are not only of a financial nature, a major role is also played by the public mood as a whole, particularly through its openness and tolerance, as well as respect for those who work in non-commercial realms.

Of the entire State-financed cultural offering, it is "serious" music concerts – along with the circus, by the way – that in relative terms generate the least interest among the Latvian population (see MoC homepage section "Creative Latvia" (presentation) sub-section "Cultural Metrics"/ "No. of Visits to State and Municipal Cultural Institutions "), and this, of course, could be a counter-argument. However, it is in regard to this point in particular that the strategy behind Latvia’s cultural policy should define a position vis-à-vis professional music and art, because, firstly, in every respect "high" art has always been a minority […pursuit] and, secondly, without the support of benefactors or sufficient state financing, its existence is simply impossible.

Education – contents and remuneration

Professional music in Latvia still derives sustenance from the tradition of music education oriented towards excellence as decreed in Soviet times, which exclusively functioned in ideal, as opposed to commercial, categories. Behind every Latvian musician, who currently occupies the European stage successfully or notably is a music teacher, who, in blind ignorance of the clock and the weight of his purse, has tried to do the best that he can. With his, all in all, genuine attitude towards his job, this teacher is a phenomenon, which most likely will not have too many followers in future, because it is highly doubtful whether this type of teacher can survive in the creative industry environment and retain his integrity. Moreover, in the market era, the status of such a teacher within society and musical education will continue to decline, along with the prestige of the musician’s profession as such, which one can already observe. The fact that proportionally, out of the small number of Latvians, so many musicians have managed to forge such successful careers is neither a miracle, nor a coincidence, and nor is this a national peculiarity, and it is only indirectly related to the phenomenon of Latvians’ love of song. These accomplishments are rooted in the musical education system inherited from the Soviet era, which was firstly geared towards general musical education, and, secondly, to fostering excellence. This was achieved with the help of specific teachers and lecturers, who still maintain a work ethic that has remained unchanged. The State is happy to boast about "its" professional musicians, but in the near or more distant future, there may come a time when the chain of continuity with Latvian musical education is broken, because in such circumstances – even with the best will in the world – the majority of Latvian musicians who have emigrated and live in Europe will be unable to return and teach music. It will be even less possible to attract foreign educators with an international reputation, who would bring with them fresh impulses and foster the creative transition so acutely required within the realm of art, forming a fruitful rotation, thus compensating the one-way brain drain observed to date.

For years, it has been notable how less and less students are applying to learn and study at Latvia’s music institutions, and from many lecturers, one hears that the internal motivation of a lot of students has dropped, which is reflected in the true prestige of music within society. As a result of all these circumstances, it is possible that the level of musical education, which is currently still high, will significantly drop in future. Since one of the main factors behind Latvia’s external profile and actively cultivated self-image as a cultural nation is professional music, it would seem entirely logical to place a major accent of the field of musical education in the vision for Latvia’s future, as well as on correcting and improving the status of professional music in society as a whole. However, this is not the case. In reality, one can quickly identify a major discrepancy between the cultural policy demonstrated by Latvia externally and the cultural policy implemented by the State internally – at the very latest, upon discovering the remuneration paid, for example, to an associate professor at the institute of the highest music education in Latvia, Latvian Music Academy – 13 euros per lesson, while a freelance lecturer at the same institution earns about 8 euros per lecture without any social guarantees - both before tax. A music teacher in a music school earns 800 euros on paper for a full position, which means 21 lessons per week - excluding concerts, exames and competitions. Meanwhile, a co-tutor at the music school earns only 10-30 minutes out the lesson paid, which means he or she would need to play for a hundred children in order to somehow get the equivalent of full position. This state of affairs removes any musical education profession from the list of professions that confer any income at all. And it must be kept in mind that cost of living in Latvia is comparable with, for example, Germany.

By reforming Latvia’s education system, with its laughably large number of State-funded universities, it would also definitely be possible to pay lecturers, including those at JVLAM, properly. However, this argument does not espouse an especially patriotic spirit and desire to consolidate Latvia’s best talents. Otherwise, in all probability, there would not have been such vociferous protests against the proposals inspired by common sense, which were recently put forward by former Education Minister Roberts Ķīlis.

And it is not even necessary for the position of the State to be manifested through massive funding, because the economic circumstances in which the Latvian State operates are well-known. However, what it is in a position to do is to influence legislation so that, as far as possible – i.e. much more actively and intensively than to date – philanthropy is encouraged, and so that it should definitely be possible for every music school to offer a talented child, outstanding secondary school pupil or Latvian composer an annual grant. It would also be sufficient for the State to support the only festival of contemporary Latvian music, "Latvian New Music Days". The Latvian Composers’ Union still exists from the funds it accrued during the Soviet era, which will soon run out, and thus we could soon witness the demise of the only organization that defends the interests of Latvian composers, who represent an endangered profession – a long and intensive amount of time is required to create a large composition, which is why it is necessary to simultaneously work full-time as a music teacher for a salary that barely exceeds the minimum subsistence level at music school or secondary school. It is not hard to imagine the highly pressured nature of such people’s lives, maintaining a balance between an extreme amount of work and financial disaster. At the same time, non-commercial original music is still being composed in Latvia: over 30 compositions debuted in 2012 alone, of which some possess abiding value integral to Latvian culture, which cannot be converted into lats.

In a small country with a financial situation as critical as that of Latvia, the decisive factor could be priorities set in a far-sighted manner, but there are grounds for thinking that these are neither balanced nor future-oriented. And what if there are no priorities at all? It is possible, of course, to try to fill in every hole through which the wind blows, but this is not conducive to growth in any field, because to quote Rainis, "He who transforms will survive". There will inevitably come a point when spinning one’s wheels on the spot for a long time becomes destructive – one needs to continually observe those who are overtaking us, because the possibility of finishing last is very real. However, perhaps this will not be all that painful at all, because song will exist forever and, most likely, beer will always be refreshing. Likewise, song festivals will definitely continue to be held accompanied by the sight of girls in white socks.