JĀZEPS VĪTOLS'S "GAISMAS PILS": a ballad for mixed choir
Jāzeps Vītols’s "Gaismas Pils" ("The Castle of Light" (1899)) is a perfect symbol of the dawn of Latvian classical music, Vītols’ accomplishments in the choral realm, and the Song Celebration itself. The first professional Latvian composers came forth in the last decades of the 19th century, one of the pioneers being Jāzeps Vītols, who was raised in a German-speaking family. After studying music in St. Petersburg, Vītols settled in what was then the imperial capital and became one of the most respected professors at the renowned conservatory there. In addition to being an educator, Vītols was a music critic and conductor, composing primarily in the summertime when his other duties were fewer. "The Castle of Light" was composed almost incident, according to Vītols, on 21 June 1899 at Zarechye in Pskov guberniya, where he spent summers with his brother Ansis Vītols, a medical doctor. The premiere took place at a concert by the Latvian Singing Association in the Riga Bicyclists’ Garden in the summer of 1900.
Jāzeps Vītols frequently complained of the paucity of Latvian lyrics in his letters, but Auseklis’ "epic beauty" inspired the composer to the point that he considered the two volumes of the poet’s work his most treasured works an "object of jealousy." Vītols did strike two verses from Auseklis’ poem when composing "The Castle of Light." The composition consists of three parts (a contrasting central portion followed by a reprise) and a coda. Working from the principle of avoiding the division of the base group of the choir into several voices, "The Castle of Light" is sustainedly four-voiced.
The main tone is mi minor. Jēkabs Graudiņš has noted perceptively that most of Vītols’ great works were composed in the minor key. Vītols’ minor key is not lachrymose, however; like the minor key in Latvian folk songs, it is manly and heroic. Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Vītols’ teacher, once observed with interest that Vītols’ music seems neither Russian nor German. The esteemed music critic Jēkabs Poruks goes a step further: "Despite the long years he spent in Russia and the lack of ethnographic signifiers in his music, the national character of his music needs little explanation. […] It is enough to consider "Beverīnas dziedonis," "Karaļmeita," and "Gaismas pils" to see that Auseklis, Rainis and Vītols are the stages of a single journey."
"Gaismas pils" is the song most frequently sung at the Song Celebration; the great combined choir that closes the festival has sung it sixteen times. It was omitted only in 1960, 1965, and 1977. Vītols himself conducted it thrice (the conductor Ernests Brusubārda recalled that the master never lost his composure or balance, as happens with many other conductors"). Memorable conductors of "Gaismas pils" include Pauls Jozuus, Leonīds Vīgners and Imants Kokars, put choirs consider the absolute maestro of the ballad to be Haralds Mednis. In 1980, the composer’s widow Annija Vītola in attendance at the Celebration in Mežaparks, the song was performed three times. In 1985, "Gaismas pils" was stricken from the repertoire and Haralds Mednis, disliked by the Soviet authorities, was sidelined. The combined choir called forth the maestro from his seat in the audience, the authorities were forced to bend, and "Gaismas pils" again rose twice. Some would even say that the ballad’s performance that year marked the beginning of the third National Awakening that soon followed.