July 14, 2020
The Song Festival tradition, born in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland, was carried by Baltic Germans to the Baltics, then a part of the Russian Empire.
Author: Pauls Bankovskis
The Song Festival tradition, born in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland, was carried by Baltic Germans to the Baltics, then a part of the Russian Empire. Singing groups or choirs were established in bigger and smaller towns and every now and then the choirs would meet in a common celebration of singing, which gave rise to what we now know as the Song Festival.
When serfdom was abolished in the Russian Empire, the Baltic population gained new rights and freedoms: there was now a freedom of movement, choosing one’s own place of living, acquiring property, organizing, and educating oneself. Latvians who had been educated at the universities of Dorpat and St Petersburg urged their compatriots to be conscious of their national identity, to appreciate their national heritage and keep up traditions. Latvian folklorist and writer Krišjānis Barons (1835-1923) collected and wrote down 268,815 folksongs, but he was hardly the only one – Baltic German literati had started the process as early as the 18th century. Barons stored and systematized his collection of folksongs in a specially made cabinet with many drawers. Nowadays this collection has been included in the UNESCO World Memory Register.
With folk singing traditions blending with the Baltic German choir singing movement, song festivals gained ever increasing popularity. They were held both in cities and in wider regions. The 1857 festival in Tallinn and 1861 festival in Riga gathered singers from the entire Baltic region.
In the second half of the 19th century, Latvian Society was founded in Riga, fast becoming the center of Latvian economic, social, and cultural life. In 1873 the Riga Latvian Society held the First All-Latvian Song Festival, drawing choirs from all over Latvia. Once every five years a Song Festival takes place in Latvia to this day. Since 1948 dancers also participate, therefore the event has become the Song and Dance Festival. Since 1960, a school song festival is also taking place and, during the Soviet occupation, Latvian émigrés started organizing song festivals outside Latvia.
Given the large number of participants – the joint choir nowadays tends to have over 30,000 singers – organizing the event has become a complex of organizational and logistical problems, with the venue first and foremost.
For the most part, the festivals have taken place in Riga; the only exception was the Fourth Song Festival, which took place in the capital of the Courland gubernia, Jelgava. In Riga, both the Esplanade, which the army once used as training grounds, and the present-day Victory Park have served as venues for the celebration. Temporary stages and audience seating had to be built for the occasion, sometimes even with a roof, to protect the participants from the sun or rain.
Albeit temporary, the constructions merited from the touch of the outstanding architects of the time: the first academically educated Latvian architect Jānis Baumanis (1834-1891), Konstantīns Pēkšēns (1859-1928), Ernests Pole (1872-1914), Pauls Kundziņš (1888-1983), and others.
For several years, the real estate developer and owner Ludvigs Neiburgs served on the Song Festival construction committee, but later his company was trusted with the building of the stage for the Song Festivals that took place in 1931 and 1933 (architect Aleksandrs Birznieks (1893-1980)). Already then the number of participants was substantial – 12,000 singers and 34,000 listeners. Even though the structures were temporary, architects and builders tended to make them more than functional: the stage was adorned by towers and colonnades, and various ethnographic motifs were used.
Ludvigs Neiburgs was a practical man, and his approach was what nowadays would be called reprocessing and zero-waste technology. After the festival was over, the constructions were carefully dismantled and the materials used in the construction of new buildings. Some of them are still seen in Jūrmala amongst the most luxurious mansions and summer residences of wealthy Rigans.
The latest All-Latvian Song and Dance Festival, which took place in 2018, saw the participation of 43,000 singers and dancers, and the audience numbered 500,000.