Latvian Music in Canada | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Latvian Music in Canada

Latvians of German and Russian descent began arriving in Canada at the end of the 19th century, and the number increased after the Russian Revolution of 1905.

Latvians of German and Russian descent began arriving in Canada at the end of the 19th century, and the number increased after the Russian Revolution of 1905. The independence from Russia which Latvia achieved in 1918 was lost when it was occupied by the USSR and then by Nazi Germany during World War II; the republic was incorporated into the USSR in 1945. More than 15,000 Baltic Latvians settled 1946-63 in Canada. The 1986 census yielded a total of 12,620 Latvian Canadians, about 64 per cent residing in Ontario. Most Latvians are Lutherans; some are Baptists, Jews, or Roman Catholics.

Latvians brought to Canada a rich folklore, the product of a long national memory. Most of their folksongs are dainas, four-line stanzas of two-verse pairs, in falling rhythm without anacrusis. Composed of four icti, 95 per cent of the songs' lines are in trochaic dipodies. Diminution, repetition, and parallelism also are reflected in the music, because the melodies - primarily syllabic and often modal - match the metre and rhythm of the text. This stability of text and tone has been an important factor in the successful oral transmission of the songs over the centuries. Favourite themes include the rituals, mythology, customs, and labours of the farm; the family; the indispensable horse; courtship and abduction; oppression; and, particularly, natural phenomena as a metaphor for the human spirit and condition.

Latvian-Canadian youth have shown a keen interest in the animation and revival of this folklore. Young people have been encouraged to perform on the kokle, a 5-12 string (plucked) instrument distantly related to the medieval dulcimer. The kokle is Latvia's national instrument, suitable for accompanying song and dance. Some 189 folksongs of Latvian origin were collected in Toronto for the National Museum (Canadian Museum of Civilization) by Aija B. Beldaves, Helen Creighton, and John Glofcheskie.

The annual National Song Festivals, which began in Latvia in 1873, have been broadened by the many communities of Latvian exiles into an international movement. Concerts of church, orchestral, and chamber music by Latvian composers and performers, as well as folk-dance displays, theatre presentations, and arts and crafts exhibits, serve as a focus for the Latvian cultural identity. Such festivals have been held in Toronto in 1953, 1957, 1961, 1965, 1970, 1976, 1981, 1986, and 1991.

Prior to World War I, Edouard Hesselberg and Harry Adaskin, both born in Riga, had emigrated to Canada. Almost half of the Latvian Republic's leading musical figures of Baltic origin left their homeland after 1944, several of them ultimately settling in Canada: the composer-conductors Janis Cirulis (1897-1962), Janis Kalnins, Janis Norvilis (b 1906) and Haralds Berino; the singer-teachers Janis Niedra (1887-1956) and Mariss Vetra (1902-65); the violinist Janis Kalejs and his wife, pianist Felicita Kalejs. The conductor Alfred Strombergs began his Canadian career in Halifax, where he was active in the Nova Scotia Opera Association together with fellow Latvians Vetra and the baritone-teacher Teodor Brilts. Also in Halifax, a former prima ballerina of the Riga Opera, Mirdza Dambergs, founded the Dambergs School of Ballet (1957-82). In Toronto Talivaldis Kenins has established himself as one of Canada's most successful composers, and has achieved international reputation. The Toronto choral conductor Arvids Purvs and organist Anita Rundane each play a leading role in the musical activities of the international community of expatriate Latvians, as does Hamilton conductor-writer Imants Sakss. British Columbia choral composer Imant Raminsh also emigrated from Latvia after World War II. A major Canadian performer of Latvian descent is the German-born pianist Arthur Ozolins.

Among Canadian-born professional musicians of Latvian parentage are Ivars Taurins, violist with Tafelmusik and founder-director of the Tafelmusik Chamber Choir; several young Ontario performers: pianists Sandra Mogensen and Peter Zarins, bass Paul Sketris, violist Arturs Jansons, cellist Jill Vitols, choral director Visma Maksina; and Gunta Dreifelds, responsible for translation and surtitles for the COC. The jazz (alto) saxophonists Campbell Ryga and Janis Stephrans, who emerged in Vancouver and Montreal respectively during the mid-1980s, are of Latvian descent. In the 1960s Latvians resident in the USA had appeared in Toronto under the auspices of the Latvian Concert Association. Several second-generation Latvian Canadians such as Mogensen, Sketris, and Maksina gave concerts and radio programs in Soviet Latvia. In 1989 the highly regarded Riga chamber choir Ave Sol sang in Toronto, Montreal, and Halifax, and in the same year Talivaldis Kenins was a guest at the 70th anniversary of the Latvian State Cons. Latvian-Canadian choirs and dance groups participated in the 1990 International Song Festival in Riga.

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