With 900 works in his oeuvre, Alfrēds Kalniņš has been called the most prolific and versatile Latvian composer of the first half of the 20th century according to Arnolds Klotiņš, a researcher of Kalniņš’ work. One of the main genres in which Kalniņš worked was solo song, composing approximately 250 songs. Kalniņš was the founder of Latvian national opera and is also known as a composer of refined, poetic piano music, symphonic music and ballets of a national character, ballad-like and idyllically elegiac choral music and virtuosic organ music.
Kalniņš began learning to play the piano at the Rūdolfs Mīlmanis (Rudolph Mühlmann) Progymnasium in his native town of Cēsis. He first played the organ at St. John’s Church in Cēsis at age nine. By the age of sixteen and seventeen he was already writing his first songs and compositions for piano, although he later destroyed these. He enrolled in Louis Homilius’ organ class at the Saint Petersburg Conservatory in 1897. During his years of study, he became friends with other students at the conservatory, such as Emīls Dārziņš and Emilis Melngailis, as well as with a number of emerging Latvian artists (Jūlijs Madernieks, Teodors Zaļkalns, Gustavs Šķilters, Rūdolfs Pērlis, etc.). He was particularly inspired by the newest trends in the visual arts, in this sense being something of an exception among Latvian composers.
“I must admit that I sometimes gain more from looking at a painting than from listening to a hollow piece of music,” Kalniņš said. Even though he did not study composition at the conservatory, many of his early songs and compositions for piano have stood the test of time. Trīs liriski gabali (“Noktirne”, “Šūpļa dziesma”, “Rudens”) (Three Lyrical Pieces [“Nocturne”, “Lullaby”, “Autumn”]) for piano was the first music by Kalniņš to be published after he moved to Riga in 1901, and it has remained consistently popular. “The union of sophistication and often pastoral colour in this piece represents the main individual characteristic of Kalniņš’ early lyrical instrumental work. In terms of psychological nuance, Kalniņš fully followed the late-19th-century demand for chamber music to reflect the most subtle movements of the soul...” (A. Klotiņš, Alfrēds Kalniņš, p. 60). Kalniņš’ first four books of solo songs were also published during this Riga period and were equally popular. During this time the composer often accompanied Malvīne Vīgnere-Grīnberga and Pāvuls Jurjāns in concert.
Kalniņš moved to Pärnu in 1903, where he worked as an organist, choir director and pedagogue until 1911. In October 1904 he organised the first solo concert by a Latvian composer in Riga. Kalniņš’ compositions were also warmly received by the German music press, which emphasised the emotional richness characteristic of the Northern psyche in its contact with nature and referred to Kalniņš as a poet of sound with a feel for unspoiled nature and a very personal, if not to say national, style. Already then he was compared to Grieg and Sibelius, based on the power and freshness of the primal musical elements found in folklore, the combining of the diatonic and ancient modes with folk rhythms and sounds, the richness of mixed metres and structural elements, and especially the rugged, archaic, epic mood of his music.
Kalniņš participated in the 5th Song Festival (1910) with his songs “Imanta” and “Līgas svētki” (Līga’s Celebration) for choir as well as his symphonic work Pie Staburaga (At Staburags). In 1911 he moved to Liepāja for four years to serve as the organist at St. Anne’s Church. He conducted choirs, organised concerts and wrote music reviews. He also worked in Liepāja in 1918–1919.
In 1914 Kalniņš set off on a journey across Europe. He met the Latvian poet Rainis in Castagnola, Switzerland, and together they began work on the opera Indulis un Ārija (Indulis and Ārija). However, the libretto for the opera’s second act was lost during the First World War, and thus the work was not finished. Kalniņš lived and worked in Tartu during the war. In 1916 he went on a concert tour with Ādolfs Kaktiņš and Pauls Sakss of the cities along the Volga River; he also performed in Cēsis, Tallinn, Saint Petersburg, Arkhangelsk and Moscow. In the autumn of 1919 he moved back to Riga, where he headed the music section of the Art Department of the Ministry of Education (1919–1920), worked at the National Opera as the director of the literary department (1919–1920) and member of the board (1925–1926), served as the organist for St. Jacob’s Church (1920–1923), led the music department at the National Theatre (1923–1925) and was the conductor for the Dziesmuvara choir (1925–1927).
In 1920 Kalniņš participated in the preparations for the premiere of his opera Baņuta and also conducted it. He again organised annual concerts of his own music, which featured approximately 100 new solo songs, and regularly performed as an organist. He was a principal conductor of the 6th Song Festival.
Kalniņš emigrated to New York in October 1927, where he worked as a choir conductor and pedagogue and also performed as a solo artist. He organised concerts of his own music in Philadelphia and Boston. While in the United States, he composed more than twenty solo songs with lyrics by Edgar Allan Poe and other American as well as Latvian poets. There he also composed works for organ and piano as well as his Jūra (The Sea) cantata with lyrics by English and American poets. After returning to Riga in 1933, Kalniņš resumed his work as an organist. A year later he began holding regular radio concerts of organ music, which continued until 1945 with only brief pauses.
In his monography Alfrēds Kalniņš, Klotiņš describes the unique manner in which Kalniņš played at the time: “First and foremost, his manner of playing – whether performing as a soloist or as part of the church ritual – was concert-like instead of emphasising the applied (and therefore ecclesiastical) side of organ music. This was still quite a rarity at the time... His greatest feature, and yet the most difficult to describe, is said to have been the extreme plasticity of the manner in which he played. The texture of the sound, its expressive and clear contours, were reported to have been so audible and enjoyable that it seemed one could almost touch the music. This was achieved through a full but very skillfully measured and beautifully proportioned use of the entire range of sound. Also with the formation of timbral contours and the combination of two seemingly incompatible features of his performance style, namely, technical precision and free, metro-rhythmic elasticity. J. Sudrabkalns spoke of ‘Kalniņš’ violin-elastic organ’, which he commanded by ‘powerfully preserving strict preciseness and gently alighting on the very limits of silence’. Kalniņš’ improvisations on topics suggested by the audience, with which he usually concluded his concerts, became a thing of legend.”
A new production of Kalniņš’ opera Salinieki (The Islanders) was staged by the Latvian National Opera in 1933, this time under the title Dzimtenes atmoda (The Homeland’s Awakening). Baņuta was also staged a second time, in 1937, with supplementary material and a new instrumentation. Kalniņš began work on his ballet Staburags in 1940, which premiered in 1943.
Kalniņš served as the rector of the Latvian State Conservatory from 1944 until 1948; he was a member of the board and the organising committee of the Latvian Composers’ Union from 1945 onward. Near the end of his life, he composed Variācijas par Jāzepa Vītola tēmu (Variations on a Theme by Jāzeps Vītols) for organ as well as works for piano and several symphonic works, including In memoriam and Desmit latviešu tautasdziesmas (Ten Latvian Folk Songs).
Kalniņš died on December 23, 1951.