Nationwide Latvian Song and Dance Celebration
The Nationwide Latvian Song and Dance Celebration is one of the largest choral events in the world. It is a celebration of Latvian folklore heritage with the underlying goal – to unite the nation and strengthen national identity. The Celebration, held every 5 years, brings together tens of thousands of participants from all over Latvia and worldwide. This global gathering of Latvians and unique cultural expression of the Baltics is included in the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
Celebration participants and spectators come together from all over the world for a full week of cultural events – to celebrate national culture through song and dance. Hundreds of amateur-level choirs, folk dance groups, as well as orchestra musicians, folklore groups, amateur theatre troupes, members of applied arts and fine arts studios and other artisans involved in upholding ethnic traditions converge on the capital city, Rīga, to take part in the Celebration. Its purpose is both to highlight the classics in Latvian choral and folk dance traditions as well as to showcase new works by contemporary Latvian composers and choreographers.
Highlights of the Celebration are the procession, a day-long event held on the streets of Rīga with all Celebration participants taking part, cheered on by locals, tourists and celebration spectators from all over the world. The other two main highlights are the Dance Celebration final concert, held in Daugava Stadium and the Song Celebration grand finale – the final massed choir concert, held on the Mežaparks Open-air Stage on the outskirts of Rīga.
Choral singing and the tradition of massed a capella singing, folk dance and other traditional folklore traditions are passed on from one generation to the next. Many participants have started singing or dancing in childhood, and have continued this involvement throughout their lives. Choral singing and folk dancing from a young age was also fostered by the introduction of Latvian School Youth Song and Dance Celebration in the 1960s, which continue to gain in popularity and are also held every 5 years. These Celebrations have the same format, with only school-aged children and youth up to the age of 22 taking part.
The massed singing tradition began in the 19th century in Western Europe and while the tradition disappeared in other countries, in the Baltic States the tradition developed and flourished. The origins of the choral tradition in Latvia stem back to the founding of local singing societies and church choirs in the countryside. Folksongs – the core of the local singing tradition – were enhanced by the first Latvian composers who arranged them as songs for a massed choir and these became part of the repertoire. This also coincided with the period of the First National Awakening and the rise of Latvian national identity, culminating in the first Latvian Singing Celebration, held in Rīga in 1873. Song celebrations continued to be held regularly over the decades even during Soviet occupation, when they were meant to exalt the USSR, yet actually contributed to covertly maintaining Latvian national identity, as some of the patriotic songs were still included in the concert repertoire.
During Soviet occupation Latvian Song Celebrations were also held outside Latvia – among Latvians living in exile. Tens of thousands of Latvians who had fled from Communist rule during World War II and lived dispersed worldwide, continued to celebrate their cultural heritage and passed their traditions down from one generation to the next. These Celebrations were regularly held in the larger cities of North America, Western Europe and Australia (where they were called Latvian Arts Festivals), providing a source of national pride and an opportunity to showcase Latvian culture to the local community. Nowadays this Celebration is still held in various cities around the world, even though there are no obstacles now to taking part in the Celebration in Latvia.
Choirs and dance groups that take part in the celebration must undergo a rigorous selection process and even though competing choirs are considered amateur, the level of vocal knowledge expected of choir members is high. Folk dancing competency is also assessed, with folk dancing groups in the final concert grouped by skill level.
The most recent Celebration was held in July, 2018 as part of Latvia’s Centenary celebrations, with a record total of 43,000 participants – 18,000 folk dancers and 16 500 singers, featuring 65 different events, mainly free of charge. Latvia’s Centenary also prompted the reconstruction and enlargement of both Mežaparks Open-air Stage and Daugava Stadium, increasing audience capacity. Audience interest in the Celebration continues to grow with every celebration and while limited seating can never match demand, modern technology has been able to contribute markedly by providing live coverage of the major Song Celebration events online, on TV and by setting up large screens at a number of outdoor venues throughout Latvia.
The next Nationwide Latvian Song and Dance Celebration will take place in 2023, commemorating the 150th anniversary of this unique tradition. The next School Youth Song and Dance Celebration will be held in 2020.
One can search through comprehensive materials of past Song and Dance Celebrations online via the National Library of Latvia digital collection: dziesmusvetkukratuve.lv.
Director of the Institute of Literature, Folklore and Art of the University of Latvia professor Dace Bula telling about the Latvian Song celebration in the UNESCO Memory of the World Register. UNESCO LNK, 2011.
1895. gada Latviešu dziedāšanas un mūzikas svētku komiteja [cirkular]. (1895). Jelgava. (in Latvian)
VII Dziesmu svēku rīcības komitejas izdevums. (1930). Rīga. (in Latvian)
Dziesmusvētku 60 gadu atcerei. Dziesmusvētki: programma. (1933). Rīga. (in Latvian)
IX Latviešu dziesmusvētki: programma. (1938). Rīga. (in Latvian)
Noteikumi dziesmusvētku koru dalībniekiem. (). [Rīga]. (in Latvian)
Laukuma iedalījuma plāns VII. Vispār. Dziesmu svētkiem. (). [Rīga]. (in Latvian)
Song celebration of 1948: (conversation material). (1948). Rīga. (in Latvian)
Dziesmu svētki laiku lokos: [kalendārs 1990. gadam]. (1989). Rīga: LPSR Žurnālistu Savienības radošā fotostudija. (in Latvian)
Rīga: kur pavadīsim brīvo laiku līdz Dziesmu svētku koncertam? (). Rīga: A/s „Rīti”. National Library of Latvia, Collection of Cartographic Materials. (in Latvian)
Nora Ikstena on the Song celebration in the Latvian Culture Canon, 2008. (in Latvian)
Pirmo latviešu dziesmu svētku 75 gadu atceres svinības Dikļos. (1929). Rīga: Pagalms. (in Latvian)
Latgale Song celebration: 15 and 16 June 1940 in Daugavpils. (1940). Daugavpils: Daugavpils latviešu biedrība. (in Latvian)
Sproģis, Jūlijs. (1930). Ko runā dokumenti par Vispārējo Dziesmu svētku rīkotāju konfliktu. Rīga: Latvijas Zemnieku savienības spiestuve. (in Latvian)
Nora Ikstena on the Song celebration in the Latvian Culture Canon, 2008.
Kārļa Avena uzruna Dziesmu svētkos Klīvlendā. (1974). No: Voice of America: Latvian programming [CD]. [Amerika]. Latvijas Nacionālās bibliotēkas Audiovizuālais krājums, Fcd/11932.
Sarunas ar Haraldu Medni: [intervija] [CD]. (1998). [Rīga]: Latvijas Radio. Latvijas Nacionālās bibliotēkas Audiovizuālais krājums, Fcd/6260.
Tradition and symbolism of the Song and Dance Celebration process in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania [DVD]. ([20–]). Diriģenti Tõnu Kaljuste, Sigvards Kļava, Imants Kokars, Eri Klass u.c. Latvijas Nacionālās bibliotēkas Audiovizuālais krājums, Fdvd/2664.