Jāzeps Vītols and choir song
There are two fields of activities that bind Jāzeps Vītols (1863-1948), the founder of the Latvian Conservatory and its first rector (1919-1944) with a choir song. One shows the professor as a composer and creator of choir songs, the other one – as a conductor, producer and interpreter of his songs. From today’s perspective, it might seem that the weight of his composition scale is a lot heavier, a lot more meaningful, with more than a hundred original choir songs, about one hundred folk song arrangements together with cantatas and other vocal and instrumental pieces, hymns and different arrangements for a choir. Besides, among the original songs one will discover a number of songs without which the dower of the Latvian classical choir songs today would be inconceivable.
However, going deeper into the historical evidence we realize that without the practical experience as a conductor the creative weight of the other scale would not have been that rich and of such high quality because Vītols had been learning about a choir ‘from the inside’ throughout his Petersburg period where working as a teacher (from 1886) and, later as a professor (from 1901) at Petersburg Conservatory he spent 38 years altogether.
He gained his first practical experience as a choir-master a few years after the graduation from the conservatory by initiating and leading a Latvian men’s double quartet. The rehearsals took place in Vītols’ apartment: ’a semicircle, one single music sheet for each group of singers; the taller ones having a candle in their hands as the room was poorly lit. We enthusiastically sang traditional songs arranged by Cimze and Jurjāns’. It was followed by a 14-year-long work with the Latvian Charitable Society choir in Petersburg which was an active participant of different Latvian events and gatherings, performing many songs, including almost all songs written by him. Although Vītols’ cooperation with St. Petersburger Liedertafel men’s choir of the Petersburg German Singing Society lasted for a short time, it had very complimentary reviews. And then – the most prolific decade in the professor’s life followed when he was a conductor of the mixed choir of the Petersburg Singing Society (1908-1918). ‘The choir took off fast both in number and quality; the society ‘Thursdays’ soon played an important role in the social aspirations of Latvians’. To become a member of the choir one had to undergo a serious selection – ‘it was the professor himself who thoroughly did the audition of the new singers’. Almost all students of the Petersburg Conservatory of that time – composers, conductors, vocalists and instrumentalists were among the choristers. Every season two representation concerts were organized, including concerts hosted by the Conservatory Hall in the last years of his work which ranked highly among the Latvian gatherings in Petersburg.
The Petersburg Singing Society choir was successful in the so-called ‘choir battles’ of the 5th Song Festival (1910) coming first together with two other competitors in the category of mixed choirs. Moreover, Vītols was the chief conductor of all three grand concerts of the festival. Professor Vītols conducted songs by G.P. Palestrina, G.F. Handel, L. van Beethoven and two of his own songs (‘Wanderer`s night song’ and ‘Prayer’) at the sacred music concert of the united choir, also ‘Blow, the Wind’ by Jurjānu Andrejs, two of his own arrangements and three original songs, including ‘My Homeland’ for the men’s choir and ‘The Castle of Light’ at the secular music concert and the symphony sketch ‘Līgo’, the cantata ‘Song’ and the vocal/instrumental version of ‘The Bard of Beverīna’ at the symphony music concert.
In the following years the Master was randomly seen conducting the joint choir, just in some concerts, in Gaujiena Song Days or conducting ‘The Castle of Light’ in the national song festival. In his ‘Memories of My Life’ written in the late 1930s he modestly admitted not being a professional conductor. He ironically remembered how happy he was during his years of study when Karl Davidov, the conductor of the students’ band and rector of the conservatory at that time, ‘laughingly set me free from the crazy baton and evaluating my total worthlessness replaced me. I was wise enough not to dream about the conductor’s future glory’. Never dreamed about it but received it deservedly. More importantly, acquired a unique experience as a choir music composer.
The choir song in the wide sense of the word went side by side with Vītols throughout his creative life: the two first were written as an assignment in the department of composition under Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, while the last one Goldsmith was a dedication to the men’s choir conducted by Roberts Zuika, which was given to the conductor on the last day of the professor’s life. Significantly, even the first early songs Birch Tree on the Moor and Prayer bear many of the signs by which we recognize the hand of Vītols in his prime of life-harmonic purity, timbre richness, extremely flexible flow of voices together with a vividly marked pattern development of each song. These qualities are present in all our particularly favorite songs although different if genre and content of ballads (The Bard of Beverīna, Three Sacred Oak Trees, The Castle of Light, etc.) and dramatic songs (The King’s Daughter, Dies irae, etc.) as well as the romantic (The Day is Dawning, The Sun`s Revelry, The Forest Lake, etc.) and national ones (Autumn, In Rīga I Bought I Bought a Grey Horse, etc.). They form the ‘golden repertory’ of the choirs as in terms of music expression they are comparatively simple.
But with the time, the composer’s requirements for the choir song and its performing standards demonstrated by the choirs changed. We can sadly agree with Vītols who confessed in 1933 that his songs had become too complicated for the choirs of that time. On the other hand, Vītols had placed his compositions in the prosperous stream of Latvian choir songs which gave fruit in last quarter of the 20th century and are still alive today. This is a chapter of Latvian choir literature which considers the choir to be a technically independent, mighty and magnificent instrument. Alas! These pieces are not manageable for every amateur choir. However, more and more often the young conductors strive to perceive and work with ‘difficult songs’ of Jāzeps Vītols. It is worth doing it, as the most wonderful world opens just before the brave and persistent conductors. One has to be exceptionally skillful to balance the individual and sophisticated performance with Vītols firm position. Yes, a composer does have the rights to speak any language but nobody will ever be allowed to neglect the logic of the music! These words of a Master equally apply to both the art of composition and the art of interpretation.
To make this wish come true, we need talented, smart and hard-working conductors. To identify them and to encourage their growth is the main task of the Jāzeps Vītols Choral Conductors Competition.
Professor, Dr. art. Ilma Grauzdiņa