“Imagine a song so special that everybody knows it by heart, so beautiful that everybody loves it with a passion, and that every five years over 10 000 people gather to sing to hundreds of thousands more.” That was the opening line of the BBC Radio 3 program “The Choir” last Sunday, presented by Gabriel Jackson about choir music in the Baltics.
Gabriel, a British composer particularly applauded for his choral works, who has received numerous awards and ample recognition for his compositions, including an award from the British Academy of Composers, happens to be a fan of the Baltic, especially Latvian, choral tradition.
Indeed, Gabriel’s last critically acclaimed CD, “A Ship with Unfurled Sails”, is based on an Estonian poem, conducted by Latvian conductor Māris Sirmais, and sung by the State Choir Latvija. He has visited both Latvia and Estonia frequently over the last ten years, knows the crucial Latvian word “priekā” (cheers), and will be visiting again this summer for the Latvian Nationwide Song and Dance Celebrations. It is also no coincidence that Gabriel has chosen Latvia for his first opera project (which I for one cannot wait to hear), and is working on it in collaboration with Latvian poet Kārlis Vērdiņš.
The radio program, a very genuine and heartfelt account of choir music in Latvia, the “less intense” but no less loved choral tradition in Estonia, and “under the radar” music in Lithuania, achieves what I have failed so many times – to explain the emotional imperative of singing in Latvia, the cultural, historical, and even psychological importance of it.
“Every Latvian I know can and does sing”, Gabriel wrote a couple of months ago in a blog on gramophone.co.uk and reiterated on Sunday. I am one such Latvian, and in the many years I spent abroad, during which I kept singing, I did not meet anyone who “gets it” – until Gabriel. After all, choirs in other parts of the world are often associated with religion, with singing in churches, at times even considered old fashioned. But here, “singing is what Latvians do”, it is “at the heart of everyday life in a way that we should only envy.”
In the Baltics, singing is cultural, and historical. Choral music was vital in developing and maintaining a sense of national identity during many years of occupation, as well as providing a means of creative resistance; and so it retained its central role within our culture. Choir music here is rich and varied. There are new versions of old songs, multiple versions of the same song, new pieces which sound like nothing you have heard before, some sacral, some folk, others in their own unique category of choral music.
I find it moving, flattering, and also humbling that a world class composer like Gabriel Jackson appreciates the beauty, the importance, the uniqueness of the Latvian, and Baltic, choral tradition, and I am excited by his collaborations with local professionals.
On “The Choir”, Gabriel notes that there is an “emotional authenticity” in the sound of Latvian choirs, and an “openness and lack of self-consciousness” in choral music as a whole. “It is singing, through which the layers of history and formation of an identity are felt”, he writes, and tells you on the program that certain songs make him cry every time – as they do us.
I can only thank pianists Rafi Haradzanjan and Nora Novika, who brought Gabriel to Rīga for a concert of British composers, for first introducing him to Latvia, and look forward to his future work with our incredible choirs.I highly recommend that you tune in to last week's episode of "The Choir". Gabriel will take you on a journey; one well worth taking.