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Jēkabs Jančevskis is a young Latvian composer and an exponent of that thrilling, accessible brand of choral writing which flourishes in the Baltic States as nowhere else, and which has become something of an established Hyperion enthusiasm.
Founded in 1994, the school bears a crest consisting of a white lily, the Riga Cathedral Boys’ Choir acting as its guiding light as it treads the path forged by the renowned Emīls Dārziņš Secondary School Boys’ Choir. The founder and long-time director of the school was Jānis Erenštreits—a brilliant teacher and seasoned conductor who, alongside like-minded colleagues, established a creative environment where bright minds could thrive. The school was named in honour of the erstwhile Riga Cathedral School, which was founded in the early thirteenth century, and for several hundred years was one of Livonia’s best educational institutions.
Jurģis: 'When we were at school, Jēkabs and I found ourselves on the same wavelength right away, speaking the same language as we still do today.'
This unspoken connection is maintained even in their free time, when they can afford to spend a day on the road, perchance wandering through a flea market, or trying out a new eatery (there is power in food!).
Jēkabs, in your work do you find yourself coming back to recurring compositional themes and idiosyncrasies, or do you continue to develop and make new discoveries?
Jēkabs: 'I’m not worried about the idea that people might learn too much about me, otherwise I wouldn’t compose. But I am afraid that if I were to become aware of my trump cards, I might start using them in every new composition. I wouldn’t want to become famous in this way.'
Jurģis, would you be able to pick out a composition of Jēkabs’ among ten others?
Jurģis: 'I think I could place one amongst the top three.’ Jēkabs ‘If there were whistling in the golden ratio, it would be that one…’
The composer and conductor enjoy exchanging views on music and life; however, when working together they make economical use of language, as things are usually clear without the need for analysis.
Jēkabs has said he would like to learn conducting in more depth with Jurģis, whilst Jurģis would happily compose a choral song with some help from Jēkabs.
Odpływ (‘Ebb tide’) was commissioned by The State Choir Latvija for their Amber Vein choral programme, which examined historical amber trade routes through the poetry of twelve internationally recognized poets from a variety of countries, and compositions by twelve Latvian composers.
While writing this work I tried to drill down into the Polish language, phonetically shaping every syllable of every word in this laconic poem. Alongside my work with phonetic colours and their symbolic similarities in music, I came to wonder at the beauty of amber and appreciate the historical significance of the ancient amber trade routes. It is through these routes that amber from the Baltic Sea came to Rome and, in all likelihood, entered the historical record through the work of Pliny the Elder.
Atsalums (‘Coldness’) is based on my own selection of traditional Latvian songs about a young woman, obsessed with power and money, who gives her hand in marriage to a rich man whose status and privilege allow him to take advantage of her. At the end she understands that she has been foolish to yield to the material world and, upon realizing, sings in praise of the importance of the traditions and values of her family and wider community.
This work’s lesson and emotional message are closely linked with the ever-growing number of Latvians leaving their home country. Since the renewal of Latvian independence in 1990, the population of Latvia has declined by almost half a million from around two million as a result of out-migration. Many leave because they are disillusioned with the government, while others have simply gone in search of a better life. Through this mindset many have come to deny traditional Latvian values.
Alongside this theme in Atsalums, I also explore the eternal question of the meaning of material culture, and the role of possessions and money in family life and in decision-making. With their performance of the work under the direction of Jurģis Cābulis at the 2016 Stasys Šimkus Competition in Klaipėda, the choir Vēja balss won a special award for the best performance of an original composition by a composer of their native country.
Mater amabilis is a prayer written during a difficult period in my life as I sought to find an unknown tomorrow in the world of music. Aeternum, by contrast, was written for the centenary of Latvia’s independence. I find that the terse poetry of Pēters Brūveris presents an outstanding poetic formula for musical composition. A between-the-lines reading of the eleven words Pēteris offers us opens up a cosmically infinite space that tears down our imagined boundaries of time-space.
The motet O lux beata Trinitas is inspired by an historical event from the early thirteenth century when the Letts (Latgalians) of Beverīna in Northern Latvia were besieged by Estonian attackers. This was described by the Catholic priest Henry of Latvia in the document known as the Livonian Chronicle of Henry.
At that point in time the Latgalians had already been converted to Christianity, while the Estonians were still considered ‘barbarians’. In the heat of battle the Latgalian priest stepped up to the castle wall and prayed to God while playing an unnamed musical instrument. Upon hearing this instrument the Estonians ceased fighting, and instead began to enquire about the reason for such rejoicing. The Latgalians replied that they were praising the Lord who was defending them. A period of silence ensued before the Estonians began speaking of peace. In this composition I wanted to depict historic events, the brutal spirit of battle and, principally, the magical power of music in the victory over sin and violence.
The work When was written for twenty-four voices and one cello. In this work I employed an excerpt from Act III Scene 2 of William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, where these exquisite sentences are uttered by Juliet in Romeo’s absence. The work was premiered in April 2016, exactly 400 years after the death of Shakespeare.
I wanted to create a meditation and did my best to expand the boundaries of time-space by choosing a distinctly slow tempo to achieve a sense of infinite eternity. The work is a dialogue between two dimensions: the secular (main choir) and the eternal (semi-chorus), with the cello creating a bridge of light between the two.
Ar zvaigžņu kluso gaismu (‘Silent starlight’) is dedicated both to those who perished in the collapse of a suburban Rīga supermarket and to their families. Fifty-four people lost their lives in the tragedy that took place on 21 November 2013. I came to the realization that it was impossible for me as a composer to remain silent in the face of this disaster.
The work is written in two parts that are linked by the voice of the kokle, the Latvian psaltery. In mythological understanding the kokle is built of wood that holds the soul of a departed person. Some scholars link the kokle with funeral traditions.
The button is based on poetry describing the inconceivably difficult life circumstances experienced by Knuts Skujenieks, who, in my view, is one of Latvia’s most illustrious poets and thinkers. In 1962 Skujenieks was convicted of anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda, and was sentenced to seven years in a strict-regime Mordovian concentration camp. His only keepsake from the land of his birth was the shirt on his back and the button his wife had sewn onto it. When all hope seemed lost Skujenieks wrote The button.
The poet said thus: ‘This was a tribute to my wife. However, when I later read this poem in Stockholm, Paris, Kraków and elsewhere, the audience made me realize that it does not just belong to the two of us.’ Skujenieks returned to his wife after his years in prison, and they are still together.
This poem affected me so deeply that, even after composing The button, I met with him several more times. I have only the deepest regard for his strong, unbreakable spirit and courageous personality.
Jēkabs Jančevskis © 2020
The Mixed Choir of Riga Cathedral Choir School and the works of Jančevskis yield an exquisite combination—one that allows me to aspire to what I see as my unachievable goal: the ideal choral sound. Yet I continue to hope that the singers’ long-cultivated vocal skills, emotional vulnerability, youthful perfectionism and the ability to carry out even the composer’s most intricate directions will invigorate Jēkabs’ music and enable us at least to approach the unattainable.
Jurģis Cābulis © 2020