The Lithuanian Song Celebration would be different today (or not celebrated at all…) if had not been influenced by three cultural-historical elements. First of all, we had been holding a firm tradition of folk singing, secondly, we had been strongly influenced by the national revival at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries, and thirdly, the movement of Lithuanian choirs had started. Precisely the latter phenomenon was inspired by movements of amateur choirs, which had started in the Romanticism epoch, 19th century, in Switzerland and Germany. However, in the Central Europe these choirs had had much more societal meaning than artistic value, thus, eventually with the fading of society’s attention the organisation of song celebrations in these countries had stopped. Contrarily, the phenomenon had taken a different direction in the Baltic states (that we may boost about) for the amateur choirs had not only contributed to the formation of national identity, but had also directly influenced the national professional musical culture.
We are very proud that Lithuania had become the only Catholic country in Europe, which had taken over the song celebration phenomenon from Protestant countries and started organising it at its own terms. Just think about it! Lithuania had dared to choose the different path, taking off from then dominated German style songs and Protestant chants; Lithuania had chosen the pure and unique folk song tradition, which it combined with a cappella manner, characteristic to the European choirs.
Although the first choirs in Lithuania had existed already in the 15th century, however, the birth of national choral culture was linked to the rise of national movement at the clash of 19th - 20th centuries. Given the unfavourable historical circumstances, such as the influences of Polonisation, the strengthening of Russification, persecution of Catholics and intelligentsia, the ban on the Lithuanian press, the Lithuanian nation was deriving its strength in folklore. It is no surprise that intellectuals of that time, eminent personalities - Simonas Stanevičius, brothers Antanas and Jonas Juškos, Jonas Basanavičius, Antanas Baranauskas, Maironis, Juozas Tumas-Vaižgantas, Vincas Kudirka and others – played a great role by collecting and publishing Lithuanian folk songs.
In the second half of the 19th century Lithuanians seriously started bringing the Lithuanian chants back to religious life. Truth be told, it had not been easy. Although the Tsarist authority was not prohibiting chanting at churches in mother tongue, it was strongly opposed by local Polonised clergy. However, the new generation of priests, intelligent and patriotic, outbalanced the situation. Thus, the frontmen of national identity formation were above mentioned personalities, such as Juozas Tumas-Vaižgantas, Antanas Baranauskas, Maironis, also Motiejus Valančius, Antanas Vienažindys, Adomas Jakštas and many others, laying the ground for a chant in Lithuanian.
The church music reform, which had started in Germany, positively influenced the development of Lithuanian choirs. Its main goal was to bring the Gregorian chanting back to churches. Juozas Naujalis deserved the most praise for this change in Lithuania. The most important work of this reform in our region was substitution of the Polish music of entertaining genre with the professional music. This gave a perfect ground for the rise of Lithuanian choirs and popularisation of Lithuanian chants.
Did you know what special role along with the clergy and believers was played by the organists? The organist’s skill, just like other skills and crafts used to be transmitted by learning from a master. Important to note that most of Lithuanian organists were musically illiterate, playing and chanting by ear, therefore Juozas Naujalis set himself a goal to educate the organists. Until the very beginning of the WWI Lithuanian organists and choirs forming around them were holding to the churches.
The ban on the Lithuanian press was an especially difficult period. The Tsarist authority was fiercely attacking any manifestations of national culture. For this reason, many secular choirs were held secretly. Juozas Naujalis likewise acted underground – in 1899 he initiated the first secular choir “Daina” (A Song). The choir secretly rehearsed and organised performances at a private apartment. Do you imagine the risk payed by the choral singers for the ability to practice the prohibited activity? However, the Juozas Naujalis run choir dared to give a public performance in 1900 at the open-air gathering which took place at the forest near Kaunas. Truth be told, unfortunately, the conductor Juozas Naujalis could not be present himself.
After the ban on the press had been lifted representatives of Lithuanian culture could start breathing freely and implementing secretly planned projects and showcase their works. Very soon the movement of Lithuanian choirs and Lithuanian evenings had revived. A Lithuanian evening is an event combining a theatre spectacle and a performance of a local choir. Usually such an event took place at a village or a small town, at a bigger farm’s barn, sometimes at a hall. Supposedly, in a decade (1905-1914) around 4-5 thousand such evenings had been organised, meaning 1.5 event every day. It leaves no doubt that a choir had then become one of the main important ways of a Lithuanian’s self-expression.
Not only folklore had sounded in the Lithuanian evenings, but also the first songs written by professional composers. Furthermore, the press archives of that time revealed one especially beautiful and important detail of the period – the choirs at the Lithuanian evenings had always been asked to sing Vincas Kudirka’s “Tautiška giesmė” (National Chant). The audience sometimes had insisted for it two, three or even four times.
With the flair of national revival in the society a vision of the massive united choir had formed. Just imagine what feelings had been evoked by every bigger gathering of choral singers, usually coming together for rare occasions of church calendar. The image of this united choir had been romanticised and associated with the united nation, the manifestation of the statehood.
Therefore, no wonder that in the press of that time, precisely “Vilnius žinios” of 1906, the calling to organise the National Celebration had been published. The calling had been extended to the rural people, it even had been hoped that Lithuanian choirs could come from Riga, St. Petersburg, Odessa and other cities. This should have not been only singing and dancing celebration, but also would have involved a fair, discussions of workers and craftsmen. Unfortunately, the ambitious vision of the joint celebration had been too early for that time. First of all, the organisation of the National Celebration would had required financial resources, responsible organisers and authoritative personalities, capable of drawing the society in the event and contributing to various organisational issues.
It is interesting to note that the calling to hold the National Celebration had been commented by Editor of “Vilnius žinios” Antanas Smetona, who later became the President of the Independent Republic of Lithuania. He had been stating that foremost important had been not the folklore, social communication, but the determination to present ourselves as a mature nation to the word capable of “taking the civilization’s path”. The message for the people of that time had served as a statement by the nation equal to other European nations to act, to join forces in order to protect the national identity by the means of the singing culture.
In 1909 the first appearance of the joint choir (around 100 singers) had happened at the Lithuanian evening in Jurbarkas. There had been more similar gatherings, however none had developed into a more solid event due to the WWI.
There is a variety of opinions on the topic, though one should not forget that the maximum importance in the development of Lithuanian choirs was given to singing technique. Choirmasters were teaching chanting techniques, creating the repertoire, participating at public concerts. The most of them did not cared about organisational issues. There were initiatives trying to unite the choirs, but historical circumstances were not favourable to the realisation of it. However, the initiatives of Juozas Naujalis in reforming the church music culture, curating the organists, the enthusiasm of Stasys Šimkus for activating village and town choirs, the voice of Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis on the aesthetic music problems, his activity as a choral master – were all very important for the choral progress. All of them had one unifying goal, that is to develop our music culture by laying the base to the Lithuanian identity.
Therefore, the choral culture in Lithuania developed before the WWI: a generation of talented composers, who were writing choral music, matured, the choirs and its’ audiences appeared, the performances were covered in the press, even criticised. The entirety of all these conditions were bringing the society closer to the organisation of the first Song Celebration. Looking back to the time at the clash of 19th -20th centuries the movement of Lithuanian choirs, which was especially important not only in Lithuanian, but European context, leaves a strong impression. The national revival had become a favourable impulse for the national movement of singing culture.
Among the Baltic States Lithuania was the last to organise the national Song Celebration. In the beginning much attention was given to the title. It was decided to pick up one that would not be too obliging - a Song Day. Later then the specially made up commission decided on the celebration’s location - Ąžuolynas - in the temporary capital Kaunas and the date –23-24 of August 1924. The organisers of the first national celebration put the most of responsibility and heart into this task. The first requirement raised for the choirmasters was to select singers with perfect musical ear and the best voice.
It may be hard to believe that a number of 97 choirs extended their wish to take part in the Song Day. A hard task – to master the repertoire and provide themselves with proper festive attire -felt on them. All of this should have to be done by own human and financial resources.
The city of Kaunas had likewise been preparing for this extraordinary event – not only organising the folk art exhibition, but also adorning the urban environment, calling along the city dwellers to contribute by offering accommodation to participants or decorating the streets.
Already in 22 of August the first groups of neatly dressed choral singers flood Kaunas – everyone had travelled at their own means; for some of them it had been the first visit to the big city. The first day of the event started with an early morning rehearsal, later in the day the Agriculture and Industry Exhibition was opened, in the afternoon the main programme of the Song Day started with Vincas Kudirka’s “Tautiška giesmė“. Around 3 thousand singers rejoiced the audience with the sound of arranged folk songs and originally composed melodies.
The first Song Celebration was indeed a great success – tens of thousands of people were flooding the exhibitions and concerts, although a part of singers reached their homes one day earlier than planned for the Song Day had to be postponed due to a sudden rain.
Not only the Lithuania Major, but also Lithuania Minor joined in the singing. Therefore, let’s look at the happenings which took place in this unique region, having maintained authentic soul of folk singing.
Although being the smallest ethnographic region, Lithuania Minor is also presented as one of the most interesting, unique, the one veiled in mystery and otherness. Thus, song celebrations of this region were different from the rest of the state.
The beginning of the movement could be associated with the singing evenings, organised by the cultural circle “Birutė” and the Lithuanian chanters’ circle of Tilsit, founded by Vydūnas. Namely Vydūnas has deserved the greatest praise from the local Lithuanians for his long-lasting work at the circle both leading the choir and organising concerts and songs celebrations in various locations around Lithuania Minor. The chanters’ circle of Tilsit managed to take great benefit of the local media of that time, widely communicating the message on the planned song celebrations, thus, it used to succeed drawing in from 400–3000 spectators.
Truth be told, it is barely known that the outline of contemporary song celebration’s scenario reflects the first song celebrations, organised by Vydūnas in Tilsit. All the consequent song celebrations consisted of a songs’ part - the most important then and forever, an orchestral music part, dancers’ performances, so called gambolling, and entertainments.
The enthusiasm of song celebrations of the Tilsit chanters’ circle had gone viral in the entire region. In the beginning of the 20th century Lithuanians, especially young people, of other towns and villages had been massively coming together to circles of chanters. Finally, all the circles had united into a single union “Santara” (Concord), which had lived its “golden age” after the WWI. However, “Santara” was not the only one, there was another professional choir “Aida” which acted in Klaipėda. The choir was drawing inspiration from Vidūnas, reflecting his ideas and goals on high mastery and strengthening of national identity, which made him especially popular. Along with these organisations adult choirs of various composition were forming, as also choirs at the gymnasiums – in the end almost every school had its own choir. Given the abundance of the choirs, organisation of song celebrations became inevitable.
However, back then to 1927 the political situation in the Klaipėda region was tense. Germans were hoping to retrieve the lost land and this determined the cultural fight between local Lithuanians and Germans. Germans were founding cultural organisations, chanters’ circles, stimulating the musical theatre’s activity and organising song celebrations, even publishing German newspapers. Thus, Lithuanians were challenged to resist the pressure of the German choral culture, which was intensively dispersed through choirs by trying to instil the German mentality, showcase the cultural treasures and attract the people, especially the young ones. Lithuanians joined this cultural battle by strengthening the Lithuanian choral singing tradition, promoting musical expression of people, offering collective performing possibilities. The Song Celebrations of Lithuania Minor in Klaipėda Region were meant to outbalance the German identity. This cultural resistance had to be systemic, patient, tireless and fatal.
The preparation process for the first Song Celebration of Lithuania Minor was led with exceptional importance. The evidence of this process can be found in the local press, where various news, announcements, the repertoire, advise to the participants were published. The Celebration’s committee was drafted from active art and society representatives, while one of the conductors, commissioned to establish the Celebration’s programme, was Vydūnas. Certainly, the repertoire mainly consisted of traditional compositions performed by choirs of Lithuania Minor and songs by the local authors.
The Song Celebration, which lasted two days (June 6-7, 1927), was especially solemn for the ancient chants of the Klaipėda region, songs of professional composers, which were performed, but also inspiring addresses and the national anthem of Lithuania. The united choir consisted of 600 singers, around 100 musicians of military orchestras took part, while the Celebration’s premises could not hold in the audience, thousands of visitors were left over the fence.
With the joy of the first Song Celebration of Lithuania Minor still lingering in the air, the preparation for the second one began, while the choirs had to be practicing and building up their mastery throughout the year by participating at smaller scale events.
The third Song Celebration of the region, held in 9-10 of July 1938, was especially remarkable. It would almost be no mistake to call it the Lithuanian Song Celebration. It deserves the title for two anniversary occasions and its massiveness. The year of 1938 marked the 15th anniversary of incorporation of the Klaipėda Region into the State of Lithuania and the 20th anniversary of independence of the State. The Celebration hosted 105 choirs or 3 thousand singers from all around Lithuania and around 10 thousand spectators.
The preparation process for the second National Song Celebration met even bigger challenges for not only organisation resources were limited, but also time was not in favour of organisers. In 1926 after the President Kazys Grinius was deposed in a military coup, public gatherings had stopped for a while. Thus, having returned to the organisation of the Song Celebration it was inevitable to shorten the programme. However, the problems remained, the committee members were changing endlessly, the decision on the key conductors was not taken, the government was late to allocate the financial resources, so finally, even having overcome the challenges, no one was already expecting that the second Celebration will be better than the first one.
Although the second Song Celebration received two or three times more interest (173 choirs – around 8 thousand performers - had registered), the cost of transport determined that 6 thousand singers gathered at the first day and their number dropped down to 4 thousand at the second day of Celebration. The same repertoire consisting of 21 song was rendered on both days, only on the second day the schoolchildren joined in the musical programme complementing it with gymnastic show.
The second event received both positive and negative opinions in the press. The Celebration was praised for a slightly more professional performing technique, but criticised for a lower artistic value and a shorter programme compared to the first event. Actually, there was no willing to argue, but to devote all resources for the 1930 Song Day….
The decision was taken to dedicate the third Song Celebration to the 500th death anniversary of Vytautas Magnus. However, despite the great occasion, challenges had to be overcome. First of all, the composition of the organising group in a short time changed, another challenge was the lack of time for preparation. Interesting to note that two celebrations used to be organised: a national secular one and another one organised by Catholic youth organisations.
One month left until the celebration Catholic youth organisation had cancelled their event and asked for a separate united performance in the Song Celebration’s programme.
The press was announcing that the scale of the Song Celebration equalled the 1928 event, while its programme hardly differed from the previous ones (out of 24 compositions only 7 were new). It remains unexplained why the united performance of religious choirs was not held. And it was a pity, because it took a very long time until the next meeting.
After the end of the war, in 1946, the preparation for the fourth Song Celebration began. Already in the end of February the Folk Creative House of the Republic (currently the Lithuanian National Culture Centre) shared the plans on the forthcoming celebration with all the choirs and even announced a part of the repertoire. The choirmasters immediately got to work and started rehearsing the old songs. However, the organising committee set itself the task to collect new songs for the celebration and with this aim announced the contest which received 60 entries. The best songs were selected for the repertoire of the Song Celebration.
The preparation was led with great responsibility – in the middle of April the consultation in Vilnius hosted over 100 choirmasters. A part of repertoire was not only disseminated among the participants, but also lively presented. Concerts were given by the State Song and Dance Ensemble, the Philharmonic Choir, also a theatre performance was presented. This time the unity of the celebration was clearly felt – the repertoire and methodical commentaries were broadcasted in the media; the choirmasters were consulted by the methodical specialists of the Folk Creative House of the Republic and the Celebration’s key conductors.
The primary prognoses on a number of participants had been modest – 5 thousand singers, but in reality, twice as many – almost 12 thousand (188 choirs) gathered. There were few novelties introduced: the contest of choirs, where 39 choirs competed, and later the same year the publication of the Song Celebration’s photo album.
Thus, the Song Celebration held on 21st of July 1946, at the “Spartakas” stadium in Vilnius was welcomed with much joy, a plenty of spectators, the greatest singers and choirmasters – the press of that time was full of such eulogy.
After the change of regime, the Song Celebration’s tradition survived and acquired new meaning both in Lithuania and abroad. In 1953 the Lithuanian deportees gathered to a song celebration in Igarka, Siberia, while in 1956 the American and Canadian Lithuanians organised their song celebration in Chicago, USA.
The Lithuanian Song Celebrations had been growing progressively. Did you know that the Song Celebration of 1955 was so popular, that the limits on the number of participants had to be introduced? The growing interest was also the impulse for the new selection practice. The selection rounds to the National Song Celebration were introduced at the song celebration of towns and districts. The Song Celebration of the same year introduced the performances of folk instruments’ orchestras. Moreover, all the participants of the Celebration (around 35 thousand) had come on stage wearing traditional costumes, specially woven for the event. The traditional costumes had then become inseparable attribute of each consequent Song Celebration.
During Soviet times organisers of Song Celebrations had been strengthening the structure and content of the event every time introducing innovations. For the first time the Song Celebration of 1960 was held under the specially written scenario and with the participation of Vilnius and Kaunas symphonic amateur orchestras, but also on the new open-air amphitheatre capable to hold around 20 thousand singers in the Vingis Park, which was specially constructed for the Celebration. It is worth to mention that the organisation of the first Schoolchildren Song Celebration in 1964, which was inevitable answering the growing involvement of the schoolchildren choirs and the repertoire to be more properly adapted to the group of this age. In 1970 the theatrical evening of folk song and dance ensembles was organised for the first time, which has remained as part of the contemporary programme. The same year another novelty – the festive procession of Celebration’s participants joined by city dwellers and guests marching to the Celebration’s premises – the Vingis Park – was held.
Few years later in 1975 the Song Celebration received plenty of guests from abroad: USA, Canada, Brazil, even Australia. The event started attracting the attention of international media. The choirs were singing Maironis’ “Lietuva brangi” (Lithuania, precious) and these were the signs that Lithuania is waking up for the new phase of statehood.
The programme of the 1980 Song Celebration already resembled the traditional Song celebration’s structure: processions, concerts of guests, the Ensembles’ Evening, the Song Day, the Dance Day. The last Song Celebration of the Republic of 1985 rallied 38 800 participants. The Soviet authorities were especially suspicious about this event, the reason for it might had been the anti-communist moods lingering in the air. Understanding the meaning of a folk song and dance for the Lithuanians, such fear was reasonable… The Song Celebration was like a rehearsal on the eve of the Singing Revolution.
What an honour to hold a Song Celebration in the independent Lithuania! Serious financial difficulties brought by the economic blockade did not influence the determination to organise the Song Celebration in 1990. The Song Celebration’s structure was enriched with an additional element, namely, the National Evening (currently Folklore Evening). In general the Song Celebrations organised after the regaining of Independence were often dedicated to important occasions related to the Statehood, while the artistic parts were created relying on a unifying theme, usually eminent Lithuanian personalities; for example, the 1998 World Lithuanians’ Song Celebration was dedicated to the 80th anniversary of restoration of the Lithuanian State, the 2003 Celebration - to the 750th jubilee of the Lithuanian State (coronation of the King Mindaugas), the 2009 Celebration – to the millennium anniversary of the first mention of the name of Lithuania, the 2014 Celebration’s Theatre’s Day theme was inspired by the 300th birth anniversary of Kristijonas Donelaitis.
In 34 years of independence the Song Celebration has not only expanded in volume: from the kanklės’ concert (first time held in 1998) to the chamber vocal music concert (first time held in 2018), but it has also consolidated in the (global) Lithuanian mind as a sign of identity. The nation, which has liberated from oppression, knows how to celebrate the song from the heart.
For every Lithuanian the centenary Song Celebration organisation’s tradition undoubtedly relates to a special respect and love to the song and dance, which have united the nation during difficult historical phases and have contributed to the wakening of patriotic feelings, tacitly resisting the oppressive regimes. It is a nationally universal cultural phenomenon, which has served as a peaceful means to express the nation’s political position and solidarity.
The event is also inseparable from folklore, having evolved from the agricultural roots, but still capable finding linkages with the Western cultural world. The singing art, dance, music and other genres developed in the Song Celebration help the generations to exchange knowledge and learn worldviews by the means of traditions and folklore art.
Each time the Song Celebration unites not only Lithuanians of all age groups, living in Lithuania and abroad, but also communities of other nationalities, having find home in Lithuania.
We are a proud nation, unique in the global context - on the 7th of November in 2003 UNESCO has declared the Estonian, Latvian and Lithuanian Song Celebration Tradition a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity, and in 2008, this tradition was inscribed on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.