A Nation Sings
The sight and sound of 15,000 folk-costumed singers is something you remember forever. And the 2023 All-Latvian Song Festival will be particularly special, as it marks 150 years since the first one in Riga in 1873.
A century and a half ago, just 1,005 performers from 43 choirs took part. But their melodies would have a profound impact on their homeland.
Rīga dimd - Riga rings out
By the mid 19th century, Latvians were emerging from centuries of oppression by German aristocrats and czarist Russian bureaucrats. After the abolition of serfdom in Kurzeme in 1817 and Vidzeme in 1819, talented young men were going to university and entering the professions in Riga.
These New Latvians tried to form an association to pursue their common goals, but this was blocked by the authorities, afraid of any challenge to their privileges. Until in 1868, a famine broke out in Finland. The powers-that-be had to permit the creation of a committee to aid the hungry, and the Latvians duly held concerts and a theatre performance to raise funds.
This committee cleverly evolved into the Riga Latvian Society (RLB), a body which had nation building ambitions. Including musical aspirations.
All Together Now
The beauty of Latvian folk singing had long been admired by foreign travellers. In the 18th century, under the influence of Pietist missionaries, choirs were formed. And by the early 19th century the first teachers' colleges were graduating educators with musical skills.
A Vidzeme region song festival was held at Dikļi in 1864, followed by one in Dobele in Kurzeme in 1870. And the gentlemen at the RLB wanted a national event to foster a sense of unity amongst Latvians.
There was a sense of competition - since Estonians and Baltic Germans had held song festivals in recent years, why couldn't Latvians do it too? Plus, there were financial pressures. The RLB had built a grand and expensive headquarters in central Riga. And a big event would be just the ticket to pay off the debt.
Thus in February 1873, a committee was formed to organise a festival in just four months. This was a challenge given the dire state of transportation back then, with just two rail lines, some rivers and dirt tracks for the choirs to get to Riga.
The event was advertised in the Latvian-language paper Baltijas vēstnesis. Visitors to Riga took the sheet music back to their communities. And in late June, the choirs began to arrive.
One choir from Renda used the journey productively. Farmers hitched several carts together, with the tenors and basses riding and practicing in separate jalopies. When they stopped at a tavern, they would rehearse together.
The opening ceremony held on 26 June (8 July new style) at the RLB was replete with symbolism. It was opened by the organisation's chairman, Jānis Frīdrihs Baumanis. His meteoric career encapsulated Latvian dreams. The son of a Daugava ferryman, he became the first professional Latvian architect, designing numerous grand public buildings like the Saeima, Riga Circus and the RLB HQ itself (although it burned down in 1908 and was replaced by the current structure).
This was immediately followed by the first ever rendition of independent Latvia's national anthem Dievs, svētī Latviju (God Bless Latvia) by the choir of the Baltic Teachers' College. It was composed by trainee teacher Kārlis Baumanis (no relation to the architect).
The composer Baumanis was also an artist. He designed the famous "Līgo" Song Festival Flag, which was first presented to the public at the opening ceremony in 1873. It is now in the Museum of Riga's History and Navigation, (although the one on display is a handmade replica from the 1970s as the original is too fragile).
Songs in the Park
On the evening of June 26, a concert of religious music by foreign composers was held in Doma Cathedral.
Three days later, a procession of the performers left from the RLB for a roughly 2 km walk to Ķeizardārs (literally, the Czar's Garden, today Viesturdārzs) for a mass choir concert of secular music .
Escorted by police on horseback and an army band, they strolled through the well-heeled boulevards. Contemporary accounts recalled German onlookers catcalling about "peasants coming to town." But the singers arrived safely at the venue, an impressive temporary timber auditorium designed by the architect Baumanis.
The arena was packed with 15,000 spectators. In sharp contrast to today's choral gender balance, about 80% of the singers were men. They came from Kurzeme, Vidzeme and Riga (Latgale choirs would only join in at the third festival in 1888).
And for the first time ever, Latvian folk songs were the centrepiece of a major musical event.
The audience responded rapturously to this radical departure. And all of this coming together produced remarkable results. The next four festivals, all before the First World War, were held the week before Jāņi (Midsummer Eve). The singers would go home and sing their newly-mastered repertoire around the bonfire, spreading fine music throughout the land.
The festival choirs got bigger, as did the temporary arenas. The one for the third gathering held 1895 in Jelgava in (the only time it has happened outside Riga) was the largest wooden structure in the world.
Within a few decades, thanks to migration from the countryside, Latvians were the biggest ethnic group in Riga. The new city slickers made their mark in business, the professions and the arts.
And less than half a century after that memorable concert in Viesturdārzs, Latvia would be an independent country.
amazing tours in latvia!
Visiting Riga? Take a trip through Latvia's musical heritage on the Song Festivals History Tour!
- Also, see the highlights of Riga on my free walking tour, and discover the city's wooden architecture and Soviet heritage.
- Explore Latvia's world famous beach resort with a Jurmala free walking tour or a full day excursion around the resort. Or take a trip to Kurzeme.
- And check out Riga visitor info and the Jurmala visitor guide for fun places to go after your tours!