Cantabile for Strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performances.
"I think it is very important that a musician speaks passionate feelings about his homeland," composer Peteris Vasks said in an interview. "For me," he continued, "what is important is to speak as a representative of a very small, unhappy but courageous country which has suffered much. In my music I speak Latvian. Our roots are full of sadness and suffering, just as they are in many other Eastern European countries. But in artistic terms, our tragic history has given us a terrific impulse to be creative, to express our emotions."
The sadness and suffering of Latvia about which Vasks speaks have had a centuries long and virtually uninterrupted history. Helpless to defend itself, the tiny country was forced to live under the domination of many foreign powers, Poland, Sweden, and most recently Russia. Devastated during World War I, the country enjoyed a brief period of independence until 1940, when it was annexed to the U.S.S.R. After almost a half century under the Soviets, the Latvian people were moved to overt protests, joining together to confirm their resolve to be free. In a courageous action the Latvian parliament voted for independence from the Soviet Union, and in August 1991 Latvia was recognized by the U.S.S.R. as an independent state.
Peteris Vasks’s entire life, as a student and then as a practicing musician, has been lived under the shadow of Soviet domination, which we know from the experiences of such composers as Shostakovich and Prokofiev was extremely traumatic and hazardous to free creativity. Apparently Vasks did not attempt to escape the Soviet prison that his country had become. He attended the Riga Music School and graduated from the Lithuanian State Conservatory in Vilnius in 1970. His instrument was the double bass, which he played in the Latvian State Philharmonic, but he largely gave up performing to study composition, in Riga, where he has lived as a free-lance composer.
Vasks’s sense of nationalism is apparent from his words quoted above, but he has also expressed a more universal outlook that brings him into a world consciousness. "My music," he says, "contains a great deal of idealism. I want to tell people about beautiful ideals, high goals, show them that there is not only the drab everyday, that there is more than mere pessimism… Every honest composer searches for a way out of the crises of his time… shows how humanity can overcome the passion for self-annihilation that flares up. Perhaps my music contains sadness, but it also contains a great deal of optimism and idealism. Beauty and harmony are rare in life, but in music they are possible. I go through pessimism finally to confirm at the end that I say ‘Yes’ until my last breath to the beauty of the world."
In Vasks’s Cantabile, composed in 1979, beauty and harmony coexist with an intense brooding not far removed from the emotional realm of Barber’s Adagio for Strings and Górecki’s notoriously popular Symphony of Sorrowful Songs (pieces that really don’t have much more in common than their tone of seriousness). When the music becomes rhythmically agitated, the influence of Lutoslawski seems apparent. The deep sonorities of the music arise from the preponderance of pedal points (long-held bass notes) in the lower strings. This compositional method as well as the aleatoric technique, which has the musicians playing at will until directed, imbues the music with a kind of sensual, other worldly atmosphere.
Vasks ideal in the Cantabile, "to express how beautiful and harmonious the world is," is achieved in a kind of wonderfully floating stream of consciousness but controlled manner that is enveloping and, for all its brevity, emotionally satisfying.
Orrin Howard, who annotated Los Angeles Philharmonic programs for more than 20 years while serving the Orchestra as Director of Publications and Archives, is currently the Philharmonic’s Archives Advisor. He continues to contribute regularly to the Philharmonic program book.