Choir Song "Midsummer's Eve", 1926, by Composer Emilis Melngailis (1874−1954)
By turning their ancient customs and rituals into a modern national identity, Latvians have earned the nickname “Europe’s last pagans”. One of the master weavers of this unique tapestry was composer Emilis Melngailis, whose choral masterpiece “Midsummer’s Eve” (Jāņuvakars) transformed simple folk tunes into great music.
“Midsummer’s Eve” is by far the most beloved of some 50 original choir songs written by Melngailis, which were deeply inspired by folk melodies. Called “Līgo” or “Jāņi“, Midsummer’s Eve is the biggest celebration in the Latvian calendar. A great time is had by one and all, with even city dwellers visiting their relatives’ farms to drink beer and jump over fires, but it is also a deeply spiritual event embodying the Latvian people’s closeness to nature.
Many of the songs sung at Jāņi include the refrain “līgo, līgo“, an ancient invocation to fertility. This is at the heart of “Midsummer’s Eve”. Arranged for both male and female choirs as well as soprano and tenor soloists, over five minutes the soulfully meandering music builds to a crescendo with the highest “C” ever sung at Latvia’s giant song celebrations. It is like the very moment when the sun is at its highest point.
The song was first performed by the massed choir of the Song Celebration in 1931 under legendary conductor Teodors Reiters, then in 1933 and 1938, Melngailis himself conducted the piece. While other works composed during Latvia’s first republic were deemed ideologically unsound, “Midsummer’s Eve” was sung at a number of Soviet-era song celebrations. In an era when the festival repertoire had to include songs praising the Communist ideology, Latvians felt a deep reflection of their true identity in Melngailis’ masterpiece.
Melngailis was one of six children born in Igate village (Vidzeme region) to Jēkabs, a teacher, and Līze, a renowned local folk singer. Emilis precociously debuted as a composer and conductor for a local church choir at age 12, before studying music in Dresden and St. Petersburg.
He spent almost 14 years in Tashkent, Central Asia, but on visits home to Latvia he visited Latvia’s provinces to write down peasant folk music. He returned to Latvia permanently after the First World War, and in his lifetime collected some 4 500 such melodies, which he arranged into 200 works for choirs.
“Midsummer’s Eve” is the second most-performed song in the history of the Song and Dance Celebration, surpassed only by Jāzeps Vītols‘ “The Castle of Light” (Gaismas pils), and it continues to be recorded by smaller choirs. After the restoration of Latvia’s independence in 1991, “Midsummer’s Eve” has been a staple of the massed choir events, featuring up to 20 000 singers. To hear it performed by this huge ensemble is a mystical, transcendental experience.
Song Celebration in 1985. Conductors Jānis Dūmiņš, Haralds Mednis.
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Emilis Melngailis Song Day on 10 June 1923. National Library of Latvia, Collection of Small Prints. (in Latvian)
Commemorative song evening "Daiņuvakars" dedicated to composer's Emilis Melngailis 35 years of professional activity on 11 May 1930. National Library of Latvia, Collection of Small Prints. (in Latvian)
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