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Recalling the father of Latvian classical music

Jazeps Vitols

Wednesday, July 26, is the birthday of Jazeps Vitols: composer, critic, educator, the father of Latvian classical music — and an example of how political histories retroactively affect fame. Vitols was born in 1863, when Latvia, on the banks of the Baltic Sea, was part of the Russian empire, the cultural prowess of which enabled Vitols’s education and career. He attended the St. Petersburg Conservatory, studying with Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov — Tchaikovsky was a classmate — and, upon graduation, joined the faculty. Vitols remained in St. Petersburg, a member of the city’s musical elite, for nearly 40 years.

The era had witnessed Latvia’s First National Awakening, reasserting native heritage in opposition to Germanic influences that had dominated the country for centuries. (For much of his life, Vitols’s name appeared most often in its German form: Joseph Withol.) At the same time, Tsarist authorities were trying to diminish Latvian regional mores. As early as 1889, with his orchestral work “La Fête Lihgo” (named after the Latvian midsummer festival), Vitols made prominent use of Latvian folk songs. His nationalist sympathies found special expression in choral music, a strong Latvian tradition. (The monument to freedom in the center of Riga, the Latvian capital, depicts soldiers and singers as equal partners.)


After World War I, Latvia was newly if precariously independent; Vitols left St. Petersburg for Riga, where he founded the conservatory that now bears his name. Latvian autonomy survived a 1918-20 war with the Soviet Union, but the next world war again found the country squeezed between German and Russian aggression. In 1944, as the Red Army advanced through Eastern Europe, Vitols — appalled by the Bolsheviks — cast his lot with exile, fleeing, with many other Latvians, to Germany. He died in Lübeck in 1948.

Latvia remained a Soviet republic until 1991, a subjection that complicated Vitols’s posthumous reputation. His Russian pedigree, combined with Soviet policies that tactically, selectively encouraged expressions of Latvian tradition, made Vitols unable to ignore, but his anti-Soviet stance and his music’s nationalist potency — Vitols’s choral setting of “Gaismas Pils” (“The Castle of Light”), a Latvian folk tale, practically became a second Latvian national anthem — made his case politically tricky. The longing for Latvian independence in Vitols’s music was rationalized into a universal cry of proletariat liberation; his memoirs were, for decades, published only in excerpts, his harsh criticism of the Bolsheviks carefully excised. But Vitols’s music, balanced on an edge between expansive harmonic color and an unwavering, academic formal propriety, forever preserved a sense of the man.


Matthew Guerrieri

Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at matthewguerrieri@gmail.com.

An earlier version misstated the location of Latvia.