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An ancient culture that thrives on change (2005)

In 2005 a European magazine called ‘Parliament’ contacted the Latvian Institute and requested an article on Latvian culture for a special issue they were creating. I wrote them this:

An ancient culture that thrives on change

by Ojars Kalnins

The contemporary Latvian poet Imants Ziedonis has described culture as simply something ‘which is, lives, wants to live and flourish.’ In Latvia, this spiritual and emotional aspect of social life has developed a distinctive national identity over a period of 3,000 years. The fact that it has survived, adapted and flourished despite remarkable adversity, is a testimony to its vitality as it enters its 4th millennium.

Latvian traditions, customs, decorative art and world view have always been closely tied to the Northern European land and nature that they have depended on for survival. The forests, rivers and meadows on the southern shores of the Baltic Sea, like the sea itself, have shaped Latvia’s history, politics and economy, and as a result, have formed the lifeblood of its living culture.

Ironically, the period when the modern Latvian language and culture began to coalesce, was also the period when it faced its greatest threat, for the 13th century marked the beginning of a series of foreign incursions, invasions and occupations. German, Swedish and Polish warriors and traders brought European culture to Latvia, at times threatening the existence of the Latvian culture, at times strengthening it through adversity, and eventually co-existing along side it.

Centuries of foreign rule reduced Latvians to serfdom and prevented them from  recording their history and traditions in written form. Latvian culture was instead preserved and manifested in folklore that displayed the collective wisdom and beliefs of the Latvians’ ancient tribal ancestors. A uniquely Latvian cultural phenomenon, folk songs, or dainas, date back well over a thousand years. Rich with tradition, literature and symbolism, the dainas serve as an oral record of Latvian culture. Their subjects encompass the entire course of human life, from childbirth, youth, marriage and work, to old age and death. By the 19th century, more than 1.2 million texts and 30,000 melodies were identified. In the 21st century, these songs continue live as an essential part of Latvian contemporary holiday celebrations and social life.

This powerful tradition of song played a central role in Latvia’s National Awakening in the second half of the 19th century and led to the first Latvian Song Festival in 1873. The Song Festival, involving massed choirs of tens of thousands of participants was a central focus of national identity during Latvia’s first period of independence from 1918 until 1940. It survived as a distinctly national event and a bastion of Latvian culture despite 50 years of forced Sovietization during the Soviet occupation, and spearheaded Latvia’s ‘singing revolution’ in the late 1980’s. The political and economic forces that lead to the restoration of Latvia’s independence in 1991 were driven by powerful, centuries-old cultural forces.

Latvian traditions still play a central role in the Latvian identity today. This uniquely ‘Latvian’ culture is woven through its literature, music, theatre and the visual arts. Yet, the legacy of foreign rule has also given Latvia a second, European culture. As a distinctive Latvian identity emerged during the National Awakening in the 19th century, so did an appreciation for the achievements of other cultures. Latvians enthusiastically embraced all the classical arts – literature, painting, theatre, symphonic music, architecture, opera, ballet and film. At the turn of the century the Latvian poet Rainis, and painter Janis Rozentals and Vilhelms Purvitis had established international reputations. In the 1920’s and 1930’s Latvia’s ‘Riga group’ of  painters become known internationally.

During Soviet rule, Latvia’s passion for the arts routinely broke through the rigid ideological constrictions that Moscow tried to impose on its Communist empire. Latvia’s filmmakers established Riga as the ‘Hollywood’ of the Soviet Union, while it’s provocative fashion designers made it the avante garde design centre of the otherwise staid and conservative Soviet Union. The late Juris Podnieks gained world recognition in the 1980’s for his incisive and uncompromising documentary films that exposed the dark and deteriorating underbelly of the collapsing Soviet empire.

With independence, came a revival of Latvia’s traditional and cosmopolitan cultures. Latvia’s National Opera – the ‘White House’ of Riga  – was one of the first buildings to be renovated after the restoration of independence in 1991 and is the centrepiece of a flourishing cultural life. While economists will list wood and wood products as Latvia’s top export, many believe it’s actually opera singers. Latvia’s home-grown, world class opera singers such as Inese Galante, Sonora Vaice, Egils Silins and Elina Garance, today perform in opera houses throughout Europe.

Peteris Vasks is considered one of the finest contemporary composers in the world, while Riga-born violinist Gidons Kremers and his Kremerata Baltica chamber orchestra won a Grammy in 2002. Violinist Baiba Skride took First Prize in the Queen Elizabeth International Music Competition in Brussels in 2001 and has been hailed as one of the most outstanding young violinists in all of Europe. The creative energy of Latvia’s  innovative post-modern folklore band, Ilgi, has established them as stars in the growing genre of world music. Not to be left behind by classical and traditional artists, Latvia’s youthful pop-rock band Brainstorm has gained legions of fans across Europe through its successes at Eurovision and on MTV.

The rapid renovation of Riga’s historic centre has revealed hundreds of examples of distinctive Jugendstil architecture, leading some to assert that Riga may be the Jugendstil capital of Europe. Interestingly enough, over 60% of the buildings displaying this very European Art Nouveau style of the turn-of-the-century, were designed by Latvian architects.

A hundred years ago Riga was known as the ‘Paris of the North’. As it enters the 21st century, Riga has blossomed as a creative centre for the arts once again. Local and visiting art exhibits and the opera, theatre and ballet, compete with night clubs and discos that rock with jazz, blues and the latest electronic fusions of hip hop and dance music.  After ten years of independence, Riga is now called ‘The Second City that Never Sleeps’, and ‘The Hottest City in the North’.

The vibrancy of cultural life in Latvia is a product of talented artists, performers and writers that honed and developed their skills in cities and regions throughout Latvia. Many continue to live and work in their home towns or rural settings, blending the influences of traditional roots with the modern, cosmopolitan influences of the nation’s capital. This spiritual desire to live and flourish as Latvians, as Europeans, and as the shapers of the 21st century, is a phenomenon that continues to shape Latvia’s multi-faceted, dynamic culture.

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