History of the Song and Dance Celebration
The tradition of holding Song and Dance Celebrations in Latvia is a continuous creative process. Folk art ensembles, professional artists, and those knowledgeable in traditional cultural all collaborate in this process. Over the years, the National Latvian Song and Dance Celebration has become an important celebration of Latvian national culture and identity. During the celebration, each region of Latvia and representatives of each artistic genre associated with traditional culture demonstrate their achievements, allowing residents and guests to enjoy the diverse manifestations of Latvian culture. In accordance with its mission, the Song and Dance Celebration has become a kind of Latvian national pilgrimage; many people, young and old, from all regions of Latvia and from abroad, come to celebrate. The event has become a powerful unifying force, bringing the Latvian people together.
The most important aspect of the celebration is the enormous choir concert, its artistic quality based on the a cappella tradition of singing. The celebration that grew up around this singing tradition has become an ambitious and multifaceted event that incorporates a variety of artistic genres and forms of expression—the choir movement and tradition of singing together; folk dancing and the enormous joint-ensemble dance concerts; instrumental music, brass band shows and kokle concerts; choir, dance, and brass band competitions, performances by folklore ensembles, as well as exhibitions of traditional crafts and applied art. New traditions of singing and dancing have been added during the 145-year history of the song festival: gatherings of men’s choirs, women’s choirs, and boys’ choirs, the Youth Song and Dance Celebration, a gathering of brass bands. New regional celebration have also grown out of the song celebration traditions—the Gaudeamus Student Song and Dance Celebration, which has taken place in one of the Baltic countries every five years since 1956, and the Nordic–Baltic Choral Festival, which was founded in 1995 and takes place every two years, contributing to inter-cultural dialogue and cooperation among the Baltic Sea region countries.
The Song and Dance Celebration traditions of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia have been acknowledged at the international level. In 2003, the Song and Dance Celebration was included on the UNESCO list of Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.
The origins of the song festival can be found in Germany, Switzerland, and Austria in the first half of the 19th century. One of the most ambitious festivals of this kind took place in Leipzig in 1848, where a joint men’s choir of 5000 singers gathered.
During 1930–1950 many amateur choirs were founded among the Baltic Germans living in Baltic cities; events were organised for them to come together and sing. An important milestone in the cultural life of Riga was the Daugava River Music Festival that took place in 1836. This was the first festival of its kind in the Baltic States. Choral concerts took place in concert halls and parks throughout Riga. Other festivals followed, in Reval (later renamed Tallinn) and again in Riga. The idea of the song festival was taken up by Baltic German clergyman and author Juris Neikens, and in 1864 he organised the first gathering of Latvian men’s choirs in Dikļi. Six choirs of 120 singers and school children participated. Similar festivals took place in Matīši (1865), Rūjiena (1866), Jaunpils (1867), Smiltene (1868), and Cesvaine (1869). In 1870, Jānis Bētiņš organised the Kurzeme Song Festival in Dobele; 400 singers and a 40-member orchestra participated. The festival in Kurzeme is often called the dress rehearsal for the Nationwide Latvian Song Celebration.