The importance of folk songs in the Baltic states

Our tour guides in Tallinn (Estonia) and Riga (Latvia) both made a point of the vital importance of folk songs and public singing in the cultural and political life of these small and much invaded and tyrannized states.

Riga can be traced back to 1201 when it took its name from an abbreviated form of the river which ran though the site. German knights took charge of the district and established their rule over the native inhabitants. The order was disturbed in the seventeenth century when the Poles and the Swedes disputed occupation, ending in victory to the Swedes. Peter the Great of Russia took on the Swedes in a 20 year war from 1700 to 1720 when he evicted the Swedes from the Russian mainland and he also established a presence in the (now) Baltic states.

In 1918 the Latvians gained independence when the Russians drove out the Germans and Lenin was favourably disposed towards Latvians who supported him in the Russian civil war. According to the guide Lenin granted “eternal independence” but that only lasted until 1939 when Hitler and Stalin sat down and decided that Stalin could have Poland and the Germans could have the Baltic states. In 1944 the Russians re-occupied the territory and instituted a reign of terror that resulted in tens of thousands of Latvians being relocated in Siberia. As a result of the flight of Jews from Hitler (into Russia), migration to the west (200,000 after 1944) and mass deportation, only a third of the original Latvian population survived.

In 1990 the nation declared independence (again) and in 1991 they achieved what was called “the singing revolution” when massed Latvians filled the streets singing their traditional folk songs. For many decades these songs were the main vehicle of national unity because there was no other safe way to express political or nationalistic sentiments.

The late Roger Sandall wrote a moving commentary on some films about the travails of the Baltic states and other parts of the Soviet empire, especially the mass murder of small farmers in the Ukraine. He pinpointed the role of folk music in the Baltic states with reference to Yuris Podniek’s film Homeland.

Delicately tinkling bells and radiant women’s faces alternate with guns and gunfire. Human voices sing in solemn concert against images of planes and tanks. Meanwhile the accumulated force of memory and moral wrath is directed against a terrible history. Cutting to and fro between past and present, using black-and-white footage from the twenty independent years between the wars, the meaning of this history is examined – especially the consequences of the 1939 Nazi Soviet pact.

This is the tale of suffering, leading up to the 1990 Latvian Song Festival, its 358 choirs of 24,000 people, and its heart-felt singing of national songs banned for 50 years, which provides the moral dynamic for Yuris Podniek’s film. It has six main ingredients. First, a huge choral festival attended by thousands of brilliantly costumed and strikingly handsome women singers. Second, scenes of Soviet military forces on manoeuvers (large areas of the Baltic States have for decades been used for Soviet bases and army manoeuvres, the farmers having long since been turned off the land or deported). Thirdly, footage from the past showing glimpses of the earliest days of the song festivals, and more than glimpses of the arrogant steel-clad might of this or that imperial power rolling through Vilnius, Riga, and Tallinn. Fourthly, interview material with young and old survivors. Fifthly, scenes from exile settlements of Balts in Siberia, showing the exhumation of the dead and the transportation home of their remains. And sixthly – and intimately continuous with the preceding – scenes of Lithuania’s Hill of Crosses, a religious shrine twice bulldozed flat by the communist regime, which in its phoenix-like capacity for renewal symbolized, like nothing else, resistance to both Marxism and the Party.

What welds this material together is the poignant use of traditional choral singing, along with a low~keyed jaggedly nervy score by Martin Braun composed for invading weaponry and troops. The different elements work to produce a film which is simultaneously political in purpose, cultural in content, and has an almost musical form. But what is the deep reason for all the choirs and singing? It is because this was the only form of nationalistic expression allowed under the Soviet regime.

Check out the remarkable story of the film director Yuris Podnieks as well!

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21 Responses to The importance of folk songs in the Baltic states

  1. C.L.

    The importance of folk songs in the Baltic states

    Not another post on this.

  2. Poor Old Rafe

    CL, If you want something on a less serious note, let me say that the café next to our hotel offers beaver marinated in champagne for with greens for 24 euros.

  3. C.L.

    Marinated beaver in champagne with greens?

    Good Lord.

    Sounds like a bad night out on the Canberra club circuit with Sarah Hanson-Young.

    ——————————————————————-

    It’s always heartening to read about the recrudescence of folk cultures after an epoch of oppression. The Hill of Crosses and the song festival shot back up like green shoots following a blaze. I’d like to say that such homely folk customs cannot ever be destroyed by tyrants; it may be true. The real test comes with competition from television and pop music, I think. Maybe they were quarantined from that.

    All of this also brings to mind Gough Whitlam’s shameful recognition of the Nazi-Soviet Pact – one of the most disgraceful decisions in the history of Australian foreign policy.

  4. Tintarella di Luna

    Where are you Rafe? I heard some of the most beautiful Macedonian folksongs in a beautiful restaurant on a little river not far from the Monastery of Sveti Naum-serenaded by four blokes one with a a real bass, one with a guitar, zone with a squeeze box and one with a violin. Couldn’t understand a word but loved the harmonies and melodies

  5. Tintarella di Luna

    Sorry didn’t look up

  6. Tintarella di Luna

    Thanks for that Rafe

  7. Splatacrobat

    All of this also brings to mind Gough Whitlam’s shameful recognition of the Nazi-Soviet Pact – one of the most disgraceful decisions in the history of Australian foreign policy.

    My Latvian father never voted Labor for this reason. A disgusting shallow offering from one socialist government to another. Whitlam deserves to be remembered for nothing else.

  8. From what I’ve heard, there was often a current of contrarianism in the popular culture of Soviet states. If the mandated state culture was classical music, folk music was popular. If folk music was compulsory, classical music was popular. This spirit sometimes took odd forms – Brian Aldiss once learned his SF book Non-Stop was wildly popular amongst the Czechs on translation – from my recollection Aldiss had mostly crammed the book full of half-baked Jungian symbols, etc; a fun read – but the Czechs interpreted it as an anti-communist allegory.

    Nowadays our state (via the ABC) kinda approves of everything. There’s ABC Classic FM, ABC Country Hour, JJJ… they’ll probably have a death metal channel soon. What does this say about us?

  9. Token

    A disgusting shallow offering from one socialist government to another. Whitlam deserves to be remembered for nothing else.

    Gerard Henderson is doing God’s work by making sure that and similar pieces of history by the ALP are not forgotten.

  10. Helen

    Some of the best workers we have ever had have been Estonian, well educated, generally a few years older than your average backpacker and quite level headed. And so proud of their folk songs and dancing. A couple gave us a show one night, it was impressive.

    When Estonia joined the EU I asked Kat (one of the girls) if this was a good thing and she said “We have exchanged one master for another”

    The stories she related of her grandmother’s experience in exile were harrowing. Many of her family died. Even today granny will not waste a single crumb of life giving bread.

  11. What's an Agronomist?

    One minor error of fact: (from Wikipedia)
    “In the north, Finland, Estonia and Latvia were assigned to the Soviet sphere.[76] Poland was to be partitioned in the event of its “political rearrangement”—the areas east of the Pisa, Narev, Vistula and San rivers going to the Soviet Union while Germany would occupy the west.[76] Lithuania, adjacent to East Prussia, would be in the German sphere of influence, although a second secret protocol agreed to in September 1939 reassigned the majority of Lithuania to the USSR.[77] ”

    Germany invaded and controlled the Baltic States from 1941 to 1944, when they were re-conquered by the USSR.

  12. Driftforge

    Thanks for that Rafe. My father’s parents made it out of there during the second world war, arriving Australia in 1949 after several years moving around Europe.

  13. Elizabeth (Lizzie) B.

    Folk cultures run deep, Rafe, and they are fascinating insights into what people really thought, wanted and believed. Unless, of course, they were heavily manipulated, as sometimes happens.

    One of the most charming evenings I have experienced was in Coimbra in Portugal. Da Hairy Ape and I were taken to a very classic Fado recital in a restaurant with music. Fados are the traditional airs of Portugal, soulful and mournful, and often about lost love. The Portuguese adore them. Soldiers sing them when far from home and locals keep the Fado alive with their patronage. At the end of the performance the musicians struck up a very famous Song for Coimbra, the lights were dimmed and slowly and very softly all of the audience joined in, until in the candlelit gloom this song was so very gently sung home. We were the only non-Portuguese in the place.

    Da Hairy Ape, however, was fairly unmoved. He doesn’t much like Fados. I point out to him that they have a role similar to Irish folk songs to the Irish. He points out that the Irish songs are robust, revolutionary and sung in pubs. I remind him of the wistful gentle ones. Sadly, the Irish songs are these days being kept alive by tourism and a small coterie of musicians dedicated to the old ways of singing and playing. There is though a rich vein of new Irish music, keyed into the Gaelic revival and other popular song styles. Personally, I love the old and romantic stuff. Those remembering the dead of the Irish political struggles can also be very moving.

    Travel is a fantastic thing for taking perspective on home. Glad to see you and Tinta enjoying it.

  14. Tintarella di Luna

    Lizzie I saw the great enjoyment of the people too -I did not see thst anywhere else I guess being under the yoke for centuries concentrates the culture – what’s happenin at this very moment at the hands of barbarians is the eradication of many cultures -I hope they have folk songs

  15. Rabz

    but that only lasted until 1939 when Hitler and Stalin sat down and decided that Stalin could have Poland and the Germans could have the Baltic states

    As noted above, this is not quite true. Stalin personally dispatched his most trusted (and brutal) functionaries (Dekhanozov, et al) to “reincorporate” the Baltic States into the USSR in mid 1940.

    Hitler was furious, but as we know he was simply forced to bide his time until the commencement of his ill fated quest to slay the red dragon.

  16. Diogenes

    When dad visted the ancestral home in the ’80s he noted 2 things – all the really good stuff had been removed from Bran Castle and that people he knew that should have identified as he did as Szekler didn’t so as to get around various blocks & access to better schools jobs etc
    Now you are probably thinking yeh sure Diogenes that was the b****d communists and it is different now – except it ain’t… Even today many Szekler keep up the traditions, but identify as Romanian due to active discrimination, and , as even as late as May this year the Romanian govt was proposing legislation that would in essence gerrymander the Szekler out of existance (they form a majority in some counties, and are thus able to “legislate” protection of local tradition and will become minorities in much larger counties).

  17. Dr. Sir Fred Lenin

    Rafe,I once worked with a guy whose parents were Latvian,he was reall well taught about Latvian History ,and customs.He loaned me a book of Latvian History ,I found it very interesting ,one name stuck in my mind ,a great hero called I think ” Stepins Krauklis” , ,seems he was like a Latvian , ” Braveheart” or “Robin Hood” .Proximity to Russia and Germany was a Geographical Health Hazard,Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania and Poland ,all invaded and opressed by the two Giant neighbours.Oh and Ukraine of course.

  18. Splatacrobat

    The Welsh clung onto their language through singing as well.

  19. Splatacrobat

    Rafe,I once worked with a guy whose parents were Latvian,he was reall well taught about Latvian History ,and customs.He loaned me a book of Latvian History ,I found it very interesting ,one name stuck in my mind ,a great hero called I think ” Stepins Krauklis” , ,seems he was like a Latvian , ” Braveheart” or “Robin Hood”

    According to legend, Namejs was the leader of the Semigallian tribes during the early 13th century invasion of Latvia by German crusaders. He was one of the last warriors fighting against foreign occupation at that time. During the battles, Namejs was forced to retreat to Lithuania. Before leaving, Namejs gave his ring to his son with the hope that his son will recognize him upon return. Germans heard about this exchange and began a search for Namejs’ son; they wanted to capture the boy and force him to profess Christianity. In an effort to protect Namejs and his son, nearly all Semigallian boys and men made and wore similar rings. As a result, Namejs became the most popular Latvian ring. Latvian people and friends recognize each other around the world by wearing this particular design.

    I received one from my father and gave one to my daughter on her 21st. Funny thing happened only a week before she received her ring. She was applying for a job and handed in her application when the man recognising her Latvian surname said “Where is your Namejs ring?”.
    It doesn’t have the same pulling power of a Mason’s ring but does give you a warm glow when you meet a fellow traveller who has a shared heritage.

  20. cuckoo

    Reminds me of a moment towards the end of Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honour trilogy, where British troops meet up with soviet forces and do a bit of celebrating. The soviets sing patriotic songs, and their officer asks the Brit officer if his men can sing some British patriotic songs in return. The Brit officer replies that his soldiers only know songs about women and drinking.

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