Article by Žaneta Jaunzeme-Grende, Minister for Culture:
Latvian Song and Dance Celebration Tradition
During the 19th century, the tradition of public song celebration festivals as a European cultural phenomenon was born and spread as a patriotic movement, throughout several European countries, including the Baltic region.
The first overall public celebration of songs took place in Latvia in 1873. This tradition has survived up until today only in the Baltic States. Moreover it has flourished and developed, and today is regarded as a Baltic cultural miracle. In 2003 the Tradition and Symbolism of the Song and Dance Celebration Tradition has been proclaimed by UNESCO as a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
The central event of this tradition is the nation-wide song and dance celebration which takes place over the course of several days, once every five years, in the capital city of Latvia – Riga at specifically created venues. Up to 40,000 performers from all regions of Latvia take part in each celebration as members of male-voice choirs, female-voice choirs, and mixed choirs, folk-dance ensembles, brass bands, folk art groups, amateur theatres and applied art studios. Total audience numbers at the final events are close to 400,000, which is approximately 20% of the population.
The main activities of each song and dance celebration are the concert of co-singing in a mass choir, folk-dance performance and the performers’ parade, which manifests itself as a cultural representation of every region in Latvia. The aesthetic and unifying element of the festival is the joint repertoire, which is a synthesis of ethnic culture and elements of contemporary art.
Since the birth of the tradition, the core of the celebration has been co-singing as a valuable artistic performance, whereby a mass-choir consisting of up to 20,000 singers performs 4 – 10 part folk-song arrangements and original compositions. The choir’s most traditional, yet musically challenging genre is the performance of a cappella (unaccompanied) works.
In the contemporary Latvia the preservation of song and dance celebration tradition is never-ending process and consists of a system of regular events, such as rehearsals, concerts, district and regional reviews and festivals, choir reunions and joint rehearsals. As soon as one national celebration has ended, preparations for the next celebration begin.
Moving towards the XXV Latvian Nation-wide Song and XV Dance Celebration event taking place in 2013 the tradition continues to develop as a wide-ranging cultural event, where the nation not only represents its intellectual heritage and artistic potential, but also expresses its mentality and view of the world in all its characteristically emotional energy, linking man and nature. Taking into account today’s globally versatile culture as a whole, the song and dance celebration tradition in Latvia is a sign of national originality and a symbol of identity.
More than 200 digital objects are available in Europeana depicting the history of Latvian Song Festivals. The most prominent object of the collection is a poster of the renowned Latvian artist Niklavs Strunke, which is highlighted also on the collections page of „The European Library”. In the poster Strunke has emphasized the tradition of song festival by depicting a sage with a zither in his hands. The old man is surrounded by singing children and a young woman.