An Overview of Baltic Repertoire

Guest author Dr. Heather MacLaughlin-Garbes takes us on a journey through Baltic repertoire. Dr. MacLaughlin-Garbes is currently an Affiliate Assistant Professor at the University of Washington.


The importance of song and choral music to the cultural life of countries in the Baltic States has led to an abundance of choral music and choirs with varied voicings and purpose. From casual singing at the beginning of a town meeting to the use of song as a means for revolt against the former Soviet regime, choral singing has long been a part of Baltic culture.  It has been used to maintain cultural identity throughout times when other elements of life were restricted. These songs are used to pass on the traditions and stories from one generation to the next.

This region has been invaded and occupied numerous times during its history due to its ideal location for shipping, fishing, and military bases.  Folk songs and national poetry were used during these times to assist people in maintaining their cultural identity while conforming to the restrictions of the occupying government. Traditional song forms, such as regilaul in Estonia, and dainas in Latvia and Lithuania became the basis for songs composed in this region[1] The text of these songs focused on life, love, and nature, the seasons, and the natural progression of life.[2] Choral music based on traditional folk songs is studied in the schools as well as small community ensembles from numerous workplace groups, such as the mechanic’s choir.  Singing is such an important part of the culture that one out of twenty people in this region currently sings in a choir and one out of ten have sung in a choir at some point.[3] Song Festivals became a way for Estonians to meet and share in their national spirit under the close watch of the government. Begun in 1869 in Tartu, Estonia 1873 in Riga, Latvia, and 1924 in Kaunas, Lithuania, these festivals allowed the Baltic people to gather in song and spirit to celebrate their unity in times of oppression. [4]  They continue today with over 15,000 singers along with dancers and instrumentalists at each event.

This long-standing tradition of singing and choral music has produced generations of outstanding composers from each country. Creative harmonies and innovative voices are encouraged and celebrated in compositional exploration and the Baltic region continues to push the boundaries of the choral genre through their use of sound and text. There have been a few “superstar” composers, such as Ēriks Ešenvalds, Veljo Tormis and Vytautas Miškinis in the last few decades, but there is such a depth of quality literature that has not been heard regularly outside of that region. This article with introduce not only choral composers from each country, but also resources on where you can access their scores.

Estonia

Estonian choral music is benchmarked by two composers, Veljo Tormis and Arvo Pärt. Many conductors are familiar with their works and both Tormis and Pärt have made their scores more accessible through international publishers. The Estonian Music Information Centre (emic.ee) is a wonderful place to start for an overview of the wealth of musical activities, composers, and publications in Estonia. The other challenge that some conductors have had when beginning their initial search not knowing the Estonian keywords. Here is a list of some of the words that will help in your search: Laulupidu (song festival), laul (song), koori (choir), mees (men), naine (women), segakoori (mixed choir), lapsedkoori (children’s choir).

  • Ester Mägi (1922-2021)
  • Evelin Seppar (b. 1986)
  • Helena Tulve (b. 1972)
  • Galina Grigorjeva (b. 1962)
  • Marianna Liik (b. 1992)
  • Rene Eespere (b. 1953)
  • Peep Sarapik (1949-1994)
  • Gustav Ernesaks (1908-1993)
  • Cyrillus Kreek (1889-1962) Tõnu Kõrvits (b. 1969)

Latvia

Latvian choral music has been put on the map by Ēriks Ešenvalds (b. 1977) in the last few decades. With the premiere of “Northern Lights” at the ACDA National Conference in 2013, Ešenvalds paved the way for contemporary Latvian music to be performed in the United States. His regular use of English and Latin texts made his music more accessible to a broader audience as many conductors do not know of the resources to sing in Latvian that are now available. The publishing company Musica Baltica (musicabaltica.com) is a wonderful resource for Latvian choral music and many of the scores are print on demand, making it easier than having to have things shipped from Latvia. Keywords for searching for Latvian choral music include: dziesmu svētki (song fesfival), dziesma (song), koris (choir), vīru (men), sieviešu (women), jauktais koris (mixed choir), bernū koris (children’s choir).

  • Laura Jēkabsone (b. 1985)
  • Dace Aperāne (b. 1953)
  • Selga Mence (b. 1953)
  • Maija Einfelde (b. 1939)
  • Santa Ratniece (b. 1977)
  • Gundega Å mite (b. 1977)
  • UÄ£is Prauliņš (b. 1957)
  • Ansis Sauka (b. 1963)
  • Rihards Dubra (b. 1964)
  • Jēkabs Jančevskis (b. 1992)

Many of these composers use various voicings, as well innovative instrumental accompaniments, such as jaw harps, tuned glasses and unusual percussion instruments.

Lithuania

Lithuanians are predominantly Roman Catholic and there is a wealth of service music because of that tradition. Lithuanian choral music draws from the daina (folk song) and sutartinė song traditions. Sutartinės are multi-part songs that were traditionally sung by women that have a basic melody of two to five notes and then a second section that is the layering of these melodies and counter-melodies along with rhythmic enhancement.[5] Both Vytautas MiÅ¡kinis (b. 1954)  and Vaclovas Augustinas (b. 1959)  have compositions that are currently published, distributed and performed in the United States. The other well-known Lithuanian composer is Mikaojus Konstantinas Čiulionis (1875-1911) who is known for both his compositions as well as artwork. Lithuania has two outstanding online resources: musiclithuania.com and the Music Information Centre Lithuania (mic.lt). Keywords to help with research include dainų Å¡ventė (song festival), daina (song), choras (choir), vyrų (men), moterys (women), miÅ¡rus choras (mixed choir), vaikų choras (children‘s choir).

  • Kristina Vasiliauskaite (b. 1956)
  • Nijolės SinkevičiÅ«tes (b. 1956)
  • Onutė Narbutaitė (b. 1956)
  • Žibuoklė Martinaitytė (b. 1973)
  • Loreta Narvilaitė (b. 1965)
  • Jonas Tamulionis (b. 1949)
  • Juozas Naujalis (1869-1934)
  • Giedrius Svilainis (b. 1972)
  • Algirdas Martinaitis (b. 1950)
  • Vidmantis Bartulis (1954-2020)

Along with the main extensive online resources listed above, the University of Washington Baltic Choral Music Library, established in 2005, is a collection of over 1,000 scores and books from the Baltic countries of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. This library was established to provide greater access for American choral musicians to the wealth of these musical traditions and to be an archive resource for the Baltic Diaspora, and a repository of Baltic choral history in the United States. The University of Washington Baltic Choral Library has a long-standing and collaborative relationship with all three Baltic National Libraries. Books, recordings, and materials are sent from each institution to the University of Washington and in return, the UW Libraries send items and resources to them. This arrangement has helped the Baltic Library collection continue to grow while helping the National Libraries of the Baltic States rebuild their collections in a time of limited money and resources.

Conductors from all over the country are encouraged to search the University of Washington Libraries catalog with the keynote words above to explore the collection. If you are interested in a specific composition, please email me, Heather MacLaughlin Garbes: garbeshm@uw.edu and I am happy to send scans of parts of the pieces as a perusal copy to you. If you chose to purchase a piece, I can also assist with connecting you to the publisher/distributor and can work with you on rights approvals if the piece is out of print.

I also offer both pronunciation and translation help through IPA outlines of text, recordings of text pronunciation and word-for-word and poetic translations. These services are part of a focus to make the Baltic Choral Library at UW more accessible for not only students, but choral conductors throughout the world.

I hope that this overview has inspired you to start or continue your exploration of the music and traditions of the Baltic region. It is an area of tremendous history and culture that can be shared with the rest of the world through music.

Resources List

Estonian Music Information Centre: emic.ee

Latvian Music Information Centre: lmic.lv

Music Information Centre Lithuania: mic.lt

Musica Baltica: musicabaltica.com

Music Lithuania: musiclithuania.com

University of Washington Libraries: lib.washington.edu


1 Mimi Daitz, Ancient Song Recovered: The Life and Music of Veljo Tormis. Pendragon Press, 2004.

2 Topics include herding, milling, weddings, haymaking and swinging songs. Collections of songs relating to the events of the calendar year are also very popular.

3 Normet and Vahter, Soviet Estonian Music: Ten Aspects of Estonian Life .and

4 Ratassepp, Estonian Song Festivals

5 Ich.unesco.org. Sutartins-lithuanian-multipart-songs


Heather MacLaughlin Garbes received her Doctorate of Musical Arts degree at the University of Washington. While at UW, she helped to develop and maintain the UW Baltic Choral Library, the first collection of its kind in the United States. This research has allowed her to present at College Music Society’s National and International Conferences, AABS conferences, the Baltic Musics and Musicology Conference in Canterbury, England and The Latvian Archive and Material Culture Conference at the Library of Congress. She has recently published her work in the chapter “Baltic Languages: Latvian, Lithuanian and Estonian” in the book The Use of the International Phonetic Alphabet in the Choral Rehearsal (Scarecrow Press), a collaborative effort with Dr. Duane Karna and Andrew Schmidt. Dr. MacLaughlin Garbes has worked at Lake Forest College and The Shepherd School of Music at Rice University and serves on the board of the Greater Seattle Choral Consortium and the Washington State American Choral Directors Association, as well as on the international initiatives and performance national committees of the College Music Society. She is the conductor of the Mägi Ensemble, a professional women’s vocal ensemble that performs and records music from the Baltic regions as well as the conductor of the Seattle Finnish Choral Society.