Music Treasure - unique collection of priceless Latvian cultural materials

  • 2000-04-27
  • By Edgars Kariks
An amazing collection of music materials which was a major resource in the West is back in Latvia. Edgars Kariks reports.

In 1983 Latvian-Israeli musicologist Joahims Brauns of Bar Ilan University wrote in the Journal of Baltic Studies about "Two unique Baltic music collections," the Latviesu Muzikas Kratuve (Latvian Music Collection) and the Juozas Zilevicius Library of Lithuanian Musicology.

"Both collections concentrate on one particular Baltic musical culture; both are located at opposite ends of the World from their native roots - the LMK in Adelaide, South Australia and the LLM in Chicago, USA. Both archives possessing unique Baltic cultural materials which until recently were not available on Baltic soil," Brauns wrote.

In his detailed description of these Baltic music collections, which may well have been the first report on the subject in English, Brauns posed the question: "Do these unique collections, which we cannot even begin to evaluate at this stage, receive enough attention from the musical community, from cultural-musical organizations, and from general Baltic spiritual and material resources?"

Roberts Zuika in "Latvju Muzika" (Latvian Music) # 24, 1995, reported on the life and work of Eriks Biezaitis, curator of the LMK in a retrospective following the death of Biezaitis in December 1994. Zuika recounted how Biezaitis, who, on arrival in Australia in 1949, already had in his possession some 400-500 handwritten choral songs from the Latvian repertoire. On arriving in Adelaide, he almost immediately founded the Adelaide Latvian Male Choir and within two years had founded the Adelaide Latvian Mixed Choir.

On the other side of the world, in Canada, the renowned Latvian Opera singer Mariss Vetra in 1955 had also noted the need for a Latvian Music Center and in a press article expressed the call for help - "beyond my personal musical needs, I can see that we have a serious lack of Latvian music materials in exile. The majority of our collections are in manuscript form, evidence that we have many composers actively working, but there is no way for artists to access their music for performance.

"There is no central archive of manuscripts, and if an artist comes across some arrangement of music there is no guarantee that it has not been written or rewritten by various hands and errors also crept in ....there is the question of authenticity," he said.

For 10 years Biezaitis had already administered the musical arts section of the Australian and New Zealand Latvian Association (LAAJ), when finally in March 1961, with the assistance of the LAAJ, he established the LMK, the first repository of its kind outside Soviet occupied Latvia. The original purpose of the LMK was (a) to collect any and all Latvian music manuscripts, regardless of place of composition, and (b) to provide a resource for all artists interested in performing and propagating Latvian music.

Biezaitis' relentless pursuit of his mission finally began to bear fruit with the support of composers and publishers such as Janis Medins, Talivaldis Kenins, Janis Kalnins, and many others. During his vacations Biezaitis traveled all over the world to the Latvian centers in Canada, United States and Europe. In 1976 and 1979, he visited the Lettica Collection at the University of Helsinki which thankfully contained a multitude of valuable, ancient Latvian folk music materials. Similar fruitful results came from a visit to the Herder Institute in Germany where Biezaitis found three until then unknown piano compositions by Jazeps Vitols, the first rector of the Latvian State Conservatorium of Music.

In the LMK are preserved museum and archival materials including letters and belongings of some of the great Latvian musicians of the century, including Andrejs Jurjans, Janis Medins and Volfgangs Darzins, as well as document files of Latvian composers, singers, performers, choirs, song festivals in exile, Australian Latvian Arts festivals. In 1994, the LMK catalog of holdings included: 10,900 choir songs, 6,100 solo songs, 2,000 works for piano/organ, 1,900 works for chamber or orchestral groups, 1,080 phonograph recordings, 175 reel-to-reel tape recordings, and 450 cassette recordings. The entire collection was so precisely catalogued that items could be accessed within minutes of request.

Among Biezaitis' last wishes was that the archive which he, his wife Margarita and family had worked on for over thirty years, be returned to Latvia. As early as in 1979, upon receiving the Krisjanis Barons award for service to the Latvian community in exile, he had said, "I have worked in complete faith that Latvia will once again be a free and independent country and that this collection will return to its rightful place in Latvia..."

The LMK has since been transplanted to Latvian territory and is housed in the Raina Literaturas un Makslas Vestures Muzejs (The Rainis Museum of Literature and Art History).

The transplant of this massive archive from Australia to Latvia was accomplished so successfully that it is still possible to access any and all materials within minutes of request, a brilliant achievement not only in the Australian context but also in the overall logistics of such a massive transplantation of cultural materials.