Latvian Nationwide Song and Dance Celebration is the greatest performance in the Land That Sings. The Celebration is a jewel of Latvian culture accessible to each and every one. Urban and rural people from all walks of life maintain this tradition, recognized as unique by the UNESCO. Tens of thousands of people sing and dance once every five years, as seen by national and global audiences live and via radio and television broadcasts.
Nationwide Song and Dance Celebration
The first Latvian Nationwide Song Celebration took place in 1873, having been preceded by smaller regional festivals. Europe experienced a wave of National Romanticism and Latvians followed suit with their National Awakening. It paved the way to the independence of Latvia in 1918 and preserved the Latvian culture and self-awareness during the occupation time.
Latvians have held 25 Song Celebrations between 1873 and 2013. The continuity of the tradition and the scope of mass participation makes it grass-root and nationwide. Each Celebration consists of several concerts and dance performances, concluded by the combined choir concert gathering as many as 20,000 singers on a single stage. The preparation takes up a five year interval for the Celebrations to achieve the famous precision and quality. Dancers and orchestral musicians are an integral part of the final concert.
The Celebrations were part of non-violent resistance at all times. Latvians voiced their collective say through the most symbolical songs of the Celebrations. Thus, the hymn for Latvia was sung repeatedly during the first Celebration in 1873 in spite of the ruling Tsarist regime and went on to become the national anthem of the Republic of Latvia. The Celebrations preceded the Awakening of the 1980’s. The Soviet authorities could not prevent the huge choir from singing prohibited songs live. The Singing Revolution of 1988-1990 was named so because people sang meaningful lore at large protest gatherings.
The next national song festival will take place in 2018. Meanwhile, every five years there is an equally impressive School Youth Song Celebration gathering singers and dancers from Latvia’s primary and secondary schools. Approximately 30,000 youth singers and dancers give a performance of a professional level. The sincere energy that youngsters radiate while singing and dancing is something truly moving.
If you are around Latvians, be aware – sooner or later they are going to start singing. The unison of thousands at the Song Celebration is achieved by the hard work of every dozen singers from each choir. Great tradition and hard work still makes Latvia the land that sings.
Choir singing is an integral part of the Latvian identity ever since National Awakening in the 19th century. This way of collective singing became as prominent for Latvians as Opera, Lieder, Chansons and symphonies were for other nations. Choral music in Latvia became a coveted realm of its most outstanding composers, conductors, and community leaders. As a result, it became the leading genre of Latvian professional music. Involvement of professional composers in choir conducting made it a respected and socially important occupation. This unusual situation in Latvia had far-reaching effects.
Several choirs stood out from the multitude of amateur choirs of interwar Latvia. The Reiters' Choir, led by Teodors Reiters, made ten major concert tours during these two decades and brought Latvian choirs fame and recognition outside Latvia. Makers of first Latvian talkies even selected his choir perform for the sound track.
The choir today is still a cornerstone of Latvian culture and identity. Most every school has a choir. Every amateur choir aspires to become professional. Each distinguished conductor is a pillar of the society and a household name. Latvians are eager to cooperate with choir enthusiasts around the world. The European association of professional choirs – Tenso – was co-founded by the Latvian Radio Choir in collaboration with the leading choirs in Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, France, Great Britain, Ireland, Norway, and Denmark.
Latvia’s leading professional choirs are recognised among the best in the world. The Latvian Radio Choir conducted by Sigvards Kļava and Kaspars Putniņš, chamber choir Ave Sol conducted by Andris Veismanis and the State Academic Choir Latvija conducted by Māris Sirmais are legendary. They frequently perform world premieres of the most challenging modern scores. The youth chamber choir Kamēr, conducted by Jānis Liepiņš, has won top prizes at numerous international competitions worldwide.
In 2006 Kamēr decisively won first prize in all three categories at the World Choir Games. As a result, Latvia earned the right to host this event in 2014. It became the most imposing highlight of Rīga as the European Capital of Culture. The Latvian choirs prevailed in the majority of competitions and won most of the prizes. The greatest honour bestowed to Latvia was the World Choir Games Peace Prize 2014 for the choral singing traditions.
© The Latvian Institute 2015; Photos © Latvijas Nacionālais Kultūras centrs, Latvian National Library, Romvalds Salcevičs, Adelīna Darviņa, Austra White, Aivars Liepiņs, INTERKULTUR/Studi43