The symphonies of Jānis Ivanovs (1906-1983) can drastically alter one’s understanding of a whole half century in the development of Latvian culture. Though Professor Ivanovs’s 24 sketches for the piano and 15 vocalizations for choirs are quite refined works, testifying to his talent with working in smaller forms, Ivanovs’s special place in the history of music is primarily based on the scope of his musical thought. The sizable scope of his legacy is not only artistic but also quantitative. No other Latvian has ever composed such a musical archipelago, consisting of 21 symphonies, the shores of which are still washed by the lyrosophical currents of the "Latvian school" in composition.  

The first three symphonies offer a sort of introduction to the exposition of his musical personality in the 4th, 5th, and 6th. At the level of the primordium, all that is developed in his further work can be found here.

"Atlantīda" ("Atlantis"), the 4th Symphony, premiered in September 1943 in Riga. It was a turning point for Latvian music as the first Latvian symphony not to soar beyond the ceiling of national romanticism. Its impressionistic qualities, quite clear in the female choir section of the second movement, was no longer new. "Atlantīda," intended with lighting and choreography (which it did not receive until 1998) proves that fashion, followed or not, is not the decsisive measure of a work’s artistic value.

The 4th Symphony was composed in the atmosphere of historic catastrophe, telling of the ruin of a great and self-sufficient culture, presented as a look back into a legendary past, but the 5th Symphony turns to a harsh present, just as the scores of Shostakovich did in wartime. The 5th Symphony premiered in Moscow in May 1946, receiving favorable reviews. This music no longer has any hint of anything provincial. 

The 4th and 5th Symphonies show Ivanovs’ ability to enter into a dialogue with the past and present of European music, while the 6th "Latgalian Symphony" is a unique testament to his ability to survive and his relations with the totalitarian system. Once the Communist Party’s Central Committee condemned "formalism" in Soviet music in February 1948, his 5th Symphony was condemned and the coming decade required a symbolic gesture to demonstrate his loyalty to the regime.

The composer of the 6th was capable of offering everything the Stalinist regime demanded; he received the Stalin Prize, second class, which was not a prize that was easily handed out. Though this is a work of socialist realism so-called, his individual style does not vanish. It may actually be the best symphonic work composed in the period suffocated by Zhdanov’s notorious decree.

The text accompanying the 6th Symphony tells of Russian song bringing freedom and happiness to the people of Latgale; whether he or the musicologist Arvīds Darkevics penned it is immaterial, since that sentiment is musically expressed in the work. The next symphonies also stressed praise for Soviet power, "Sinfonia humana," for example, dedicated to Lenin’s hundredth birthday and other symphonies inscribed to the 20th anniversary of Latvia’s takeover and the 50th birthday of the USSR. The complex, polytonal music, however, suggests a distance rather than passionate glorification.

From the 9th to the 16th, rapid contrasts of theme and tempo are the rule. The 14th "Sinfonia da camera" is a concentrated, neoclassical expression of his conviction that contemporary audiences could no longer follow a musical thought extended for forty or fifty minutes.

His later work is in some sense an emotional reprise, being a qualitatively new exploration of what has already been experienced. Melancholic musical images flash with beauty, as in the 3rd movement of the 17th symphony. Composed with an enviable regularity in nearly annually, the last symphonies can be taken as a diary of the period of stagnation under Brezhnev.

The 21st Symphony is a resigned epilogue to a requiem completed by his student Juris Karlsons. It is the attempt of a master to offer more when everything seems to have been said. Despite occasional gushes of emotion, the sense of the final symphony is that of a search for an exit in a doorless room. Despite the deathly aspect of the conclusion to his symphonic work, Jānis Ivanovs is noted for his vitality in broadening the horizons of Latvian music – his opus stands as proof that a true artist can overcome the circumstances and environment whence he came and had to work in.

Mikus Čeže

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