The composer, conductor, researcher of folk music (not to mention chess player, entrepreneur and master at quarrels) Emīlis Melngailis (1874–1954) is notable first of all for his collection and arrangement of folk songs as well as his variations upon their melodies. He collected approximately 5000 melodies, not only Latvian in origin but also from the Roma, Russians, Kazakhs and Jews.

Melngailis kept to the diatonic principle in his arrangements, rejecting the chromatics characteristic of European romanticism, using only the seven tones of the scale without chromatic alterations and so-called ancient scales. The principle was suggested to him by Andrejs Jurjāns, though Jurjāns himself deviated from his own position. Jurjāns’ first followers were Melngailis and Jēkabs Graubiņš, whose approach differed from Melngailis’ in that he preferred to construct ornamented, polyphonic palaces whilst Melngailis devoted himself to building simple, even primitively crude "wooden lighthouses" that can cast strong rays despite their simplicity.

"Jāņuvakars" (Saint John’s Eve) is the perfect example of a work by Melngailis where the folkloric content and his composition form a seamless whole in which these two elements are indistinguishable. This piece, incorporating two solstice folk melodies collected by Jurjāns, with its exquisite use of the līgo refrain common to most solstice songs, has become a classic symbol of the Song Celebration and of Latvian choral singing.

Melngailis asks that the piece be performed quietly but exuberantly. In C Minor, the work calls for two soloists, a soprano and a tenor. The soloists call; the choir responds. The finale calls for a high C that is probably the highest note to resound in the Song Celebration’s amphitheater. "Saint John’s Eve" is actually a fragment from Melngailis’ ballet Maija.

"Jāņuvakars" has been performed fifteen times at the Song Celebration, making it the second most popular composition after Vītols’ "Castle of Light." The premiere took place under conductor Teodors Reiters at the 6th festival in 1931; it was conducted by Melngailis himself at the 8th and 9th festivals. 

Orests Silabriedis

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