Arnolds Klotiņš, the most prominent scholar of the work of Alfrēds Kalniņš (1879-1951) says of the solo songs that they are central to the great Latvian composer’s work. Kalniņš composed an array of work ranging from the symphonic to the first Latvian opera, Baņuta and from complex choral works to cantatas. Nonetheless, his solo songs – there are approximately 250, composed between 1900 and 1949 – are what most Latvians associate with this composer. The songs peer into psychological depths, paint scenes, recast experiences, and seize a panoply of moments. For those who listen deeply to music, it can seem that a psycholigica portrait of the Latvian might be drawn from these works, to be taken as inspiration or used as a mirror.

The melody does not have the dominant role in Kalniņš’s songs. A broad spectrum of musical thought is instead colored by harmonies that can recall the expressive nature of Richard Strauss or the impressionism of Debussy’s musical ideas. The songs avoid melodrama and any sentimentalism. In the earlier work there may be romantic piano passages, and the songs do contain the pathos present in the work of nearly every Latvian composer. The quasi-folkoric reflection of lyric poetry in sound may not be appreciated by everyone in our era, but in Kalniņš’s world it’s part of the expression. His songs of rural life and children’s songs are especially striking.

The compositions offer singers a remarkable opportunity to inject their own imaginations without a surfeit of emotion but with enough passion to make the performance memorable. The Radio Latvia archives include many a recording of unforgettable performances of these songs by such artists as Mirdza Kalniņa, Maijas Krīgena, Rudīte Zariņa, Ingus Pētersons, Jānis Sproģis, and Kārlis Zariņš. "Brīnos es" ("I wonder") in tenor Jānis Zābers’s voice has become iconic.

Poems set to music were most often by well-known Latvian poets like Jānis Akuraters, Aspazija, Antons Austriņš, Fricis Bārda, Anna Brigadere, Atis Ķeniņš, Kārlis Krūza, Andrievs Niedra, Plūdonis, Kārlis Skalbe, and Teodors Zaļkalns, the last a friend in Kalniņš’s youth. Kalniņš’s music for Rainis’ texts is remarkable, in that few have been able to approach the work of Latvia’s literary giant with both originality and such deep respect for Rainis’s voice.

Orests Silabriedis

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