Category Estonia, Latvia & Lithuania

A history of the Baltic States in seven musical


t was Estonian illustrator and cartoonist Heinz Valk who first used the term “Singing Revolution” to describe the spontaneous musical gatherings that swept Estonia in the summer of 1988. Far from being a piece of hyperbole, Valk’s memorable turn of phrase was an accurate description of what was happening in the Baltic States at the time. It also shed profound light on the role of music in Baltic history, and its importance as a herald of social convulsions.

1869: The first Estonian Song Festival, Tartu

Nineteenth-century newspaper editor Johann Voldemar Jannsen was concerned about the declining role of authentic folk culture in Estonian life and thought that the encouragement of choral music would not only reverse this trend but also promote Estonian patriotism at the same ...

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Festivals and performe rs

Lithuania’s first Song Festival or Dain^ Svente took place in Kaunas in 1924. After 1945 these festivals remained acceptable to the Soviet regime, although the back-to-the-villages folklore movement that began in the 1960s was considerably more suspicious. Rasa (the summer solstice) and other Baltic pagan events were publicly celebrated despite persecution by the KGB. Folklore ensembles sprang up in towns and cities, and the village musicians from whom they collected formed performing units themselves, usually known as “ethnographic ensembles”.

The annual Skamba Skamba Kankliai festival in Vilnius’s old town began in 1975, while the first Baltica International Folklore Festival, which moves between the Baltic States each year, took place in 1987 in Vilnius.

The current undisputed ...

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Festivals and performers

Latvia’s national song festival has been taking place, usually at five-year intervals, since 1888. In 1990, the first after the country’s return to independence, it reached its largest size with over 35,000 singers, dancers and instrumentalists. Latvia also takes its turn as host of the Baltica festival, and has a range of other folk-music- related festivals of varying regularity.

Like the other Baltic States, Latvia still has a large number of local and regional folklore groups and ethnographic ensembles, most of them largely vocal rather than instrumental; the website W folklora. lv has a list of many of them...

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The land of amber has more Baltic zithers, as well as drone-based singing and a large body of traditional song-poetry — dainas — with strong pre-Christian sym­bolism and a lack of heroes.

The daina

The Latvian daina is a short song of just one or two stanzas, one or two lines in length, without rhyme, and largely in the same four-footed trochaic metre as runo-songs. Dainas feature mythological subjects and reflect most aspects of village life, but the stories and heroic exploits described in many countries’ folk songs are notably absent.

The sun is a dominant image, often personified as Saule, and her daily course across the sky and through the year is linked metaphorically with human life...

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Baltic folk music

The characteristic Baltic song festivals — hugely popular events — played a signifi­cant role in the emergence to independence of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, and have long been a focus for national consciousness.

Despite the considerable national and regional differences between (and within) the three countries, they have certain important features in common. All have archaic folk song-poetry dating back to the pre-Christian era and they have in common several traditional instruments, notably Baltic zithers variously called

kantele, kannel, kokles or kankles.

Though changes in village life throughout the twentieth century have meant that

the social contexts of much traditional song and dance have all but disappeared,

there’s still a great deal to be found in living memory...

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Lithuanian-Jewish history and memoirs

Lucy S. Dawidowicz From That Place and Time. American academic Dawidowicz went to study at Vilnius’s YIVO (Yiddish Institute) as a young graduate in 1938 and wrote this memoir as a nostalgic tribute to the city. The same author’s The War Against the European Jews is one of the best overall histories of the Holocaust.

Waldemar Ginsburg And Kovno Wept. Gripping, unforgettable account of ghetto life in Kaunas (Kovno to its Jewish inhabitants), written by a survivor.

Dan Jacobson Heshel" Kingdom. Involving account of a voyage through Lithuania inspired by memories of Jacobson’s grandfather Heshel, who was a rabbi in the western Lithuanian town of Varniai. This is a wistful, elegiac book with insights into contemporary Lithuania’s ambiguous relationship with its multicultural past.


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History, travel and memoirs

Lucy Addison Letters from Latvia. Addison was an Anglo-Latvian who chose to stay in Latvia throughout World War II and the Soviet occupation, recording the madness of war and political repression from the sanctuary of a wooden cottage in Jurmala. These letters are both gripping historical narrative and a touching read.

Peggie Benton Baltic Countdown. Recollections of Riga in the late 1930s, written by the wife of a British diplomat. From beach holidays in Jurmala to the arrival of Soviet tanks in 1940, this is an enjoyable slice of Englishwoman-abroad writing.

Modris Eksteins Walking Since Daybreak. Mixing family memoir with a general history of Latvia’s tragic twentieth century, this is beautifully written, totally engrossing stuff. If you buy just one book about Latvia, let it be this.

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General Baltics

History and politics

Eric Christiansen The Northern Crusades. Definitive account of the thirteenth-century conquest of Estonia and Latvia by German-speaking knights and priests. The mixture of missionary zeal and near-genocidal savagery that characterized the times comes in for thought-provoking scru­tiny.

John Hiden and Patrick Salmon

The Baltic States and Europe. Excellent introduction to the main themes of Baltic history, concentrating on the twentieth century.

David Kirby The Baltic World. Vol. I 1492-1772; vol II1772-1993. General, broad history examining long-term German, Swedish and Russian interests in the region, as well as the fates of the Baltic peoples themselves.

Anatol Lieven Baltic Revolution...

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From occupation to independence

With the Red Army’s advance into Lithuania in 1944, resistance to Soviet rule started up almost immediately, with various partisan groups joining forces to form the movement subsequently known as the Forest Brothers. Despite the KGB’s success in infiltrating the organization, armed resistance continued for almost a decade, finally petering out after the arrest and execution of the Brothers’ most senior leader, Jonas Zemaitis, in 1953. Meanwhile, in March 1949, another round of mass deportations had deprived Lithuania of much of its intelligentsia...

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Lithuania under the Tsars

Having taken control of most of Estonia and Latvia in the Great Northern War of 1700—21, Russia exerted an increasing amount of influence in the affairs of the Commonwealth and installed a succession of weak kings on the Polish throne. Russia, Austria and Prussia progressively helped themselves to more and more of the Commonwealth until wiping it off the map once and for all in the so-called Third Partition of Poland in 1795. The Grand Duchy of Lithuania was formally absorbed into Tsarist Russia and, carved up into lesser administrative units, ceased to exist as a territorial entity.

With Lithuania’s aristocracy and intelligentsia thoroughly Polonized, any aspi­rations to independence were invariably tied to the idea of a resurrection of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth...

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