Jānis Ivanovs: the preeminent Latvian symphonist of the 20th century

If you looked in a music history textbook for great European composers of the 20th century, you would find great geographical diversity – composers from Western Europe to the Czech Republic and Hungary to what is now Russia are all represented in the concert hall. However, perhaps due to their decreased importance within the Soviet Union, the Baltic states – Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania – were overlooked for decades as a hotbed of symphonic writing; it was not until the final quarter of the century that the minimalism of Arvo Pärt, Pēteris Vasks and Lepo Sumera came to prominence.

While Baltic composers from the mid-20th century are rarely mentioned in Western music history, this lack of recognition outside the USSR did not stop them from writing excellent music. The composers Heino Eller and Eduard Tubin became renowned national figures in Estonia; in Soviet-era Latvia, meanwhile, the main musical torchbearer was the subject of this post, Jānis Ivanovs.

Image result for janis ivanovs
Jānis Ivanovs (courtesy of Musica Baltica)

Ivanovs was born on October 9, 1906, in southeastern Latvia near the town of Preiļi; little is known about his early life. In 1931, he graduated from the Latvian State Conservatory, studying with the then-preeminent Latvian composer Jāzeps Vītols for a further two years and subsequently taking up work as an audio engineer. By the time of his graduation, Ivanovs had already begun to develop an individual style, fusing the folklore from which many of his contemporaries drew inspiration with the late Romanticism typified by Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff.

Important pieces from Ivanovs’ early period include his first string quartet, completed in 1932, and his first symphony, “Poema Sinfonia”, written in 1933. Although written for vastly different ensembles, both works show the lyricism and expressiveness which characterized the composer’s music throughout his career.

As with many composers who reached their maturity in times of war, Ivanovs was significantly affected by the outbreak of World War II. In 1940, the Soviets occupied  Latvia, and Nazi Germany invaded the country the following year – these events dramatically altered Ivanovs’ compositional style. From 1941 onward, his work, while retaining the influence of Latvian folk music, became imbued with influences of neoclassicism – a transition aided by his exposure to the music of Stravinsky, Honegger, Respighi, and Bartok while working for Latvian radio.

Ivanovs’ first major work in this new style was his monumental 52-minute-long fourth symphony of 1941, subtitled “Atlantis”. Riveting from the first minute, the symphony, inspired by the titular mythical island, takes you on a long and tortuous musical journey that features a prominent saxophone section and a female choir. Listening to “Atlantis”, one senses that Ivanovs himself might have felt the world he knew sinking around him, just as the island of Atlantis legendarily submerged into the ocean…

Unfortunately for Ivanovs, both his fourth symphony and his equally dramatic fifth, written in 1945 after his appointment to the Riga Conservatory’s faculty, fell victim to Andrei Zhdanov’s anti-formalism campaign in 1948 – the ban on performances of these works for many years likely contributed to the continuing neglect of his music. Like many composers and artists at the time, Ivanovs was forced to toe the Communist Party line, and his sixth symphony, which depicted his native Latgale region of Latvia, won the USSR State Prize in 1950. Soviet and Latvian reviewers were quick to praise Ivanovs’s new work; the Latvian composer and music critic Marģeris Zariņš remarked that “Jānis Ivanovs is like thunder and lightning cleansing the air with his Luciferic sounds. His symphonies are like ancient Greek tragedies, filled with ecstasy and purification.”

Unlike composers such as Gavriil Popov, whose music irrevocably changed as a result of Zhdanov’s denunciation, Ivanovs managed to recapture the intensity of his earlier work following Stalin’s death in 1953 – his ninth, tenth (included here) and eleventh symphonies follow this trend, and he also completed his twelfth and thirteenth works in the genre by the end the following decade.

Although Ivanovs was primarily renowned as a composer of symphonies, he also wrote several pieces of film music which merit performance in their own right; particularly attractive are his film scores from the 1950s, such as his music for the 1956 Soviet film “The Late Frost in Spring.”

In his orchestral works from the late 1960s onward, Ivanovs entered a third phase of his career, initially looking toward simpler forms and later combining his flair for the dramatic with more complex harmonies that utilized polytonality. The last fifteen years or so of Ivanovs’ life, as illustrated in his music, were years of self-reflection; as he himself wrote about his final completed symphony, his twentieth, “these are memories, if you are willing to know what you are today, you should remember what you have been and should know what road you have followed…”

On March 27, 1983, after a lifetime of contributions to Latvian music as a teacher and pedagogue, Jānis Ivanovs passed away at the age of 76. In addition to twenty-one symphonies (the last of which was left incomplete at his death), Ivanovs wrote five symphonic poems, three string quartets, concerti for piano, violin, and cello, and various vocal and piano works. Many of these wonderful pieces, including all of Ivanovs’s symphonies and concerti, can be found on the YouTube playlist I’ve created at the bottom of this post – I’m planning to continue making these playlists for every composer I cover from now on.

Thank you as usual for reading – if you haven’t already, please like, follow, and or comment if you enjoyed this or other posts on my blog. Until next week!

(The information in this post was derived from Ivanovs’ Wikipedia page, a Musica Baltica article, and a dissertation on the composer by Hyerim Jeon of the University of Kansas.)

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