With Latvia located between many larger powers, it is no surprise that many armies have crossed over and trampled Latvia throughout the centuries. War is also a recurring theme in Latvian folksongs – while some Latvian folksongs are heroic and are about the excitement of being a soldier and fighting in battle, there are many more songs that are tragic – about the toll that war takes on a person and a nation. Songs like ‘Div dūjiņas’ or ‘Es karā aiziedams’ reflect on the sadness and loss that results from war, as well as the inevitable heartbreak for families.
Latvian composer Gundega Šmite, using the wealth of folk material about war in Latvian folk songs and dainas, wove together what she calls a ‘folksong mystery’ – a chamber music work that combines both vocal and instrumental segments into a ‘story about the soul’s battle’, a work that is ‘dedicated to the souls that have been and continue to be extinguished by senseless war.’ Šmite enlisted the vocal instrumental ensemble Arcandela to perform this work, and a recording of Es, karā aiziedams was released in 2021.
The Arcandela ensemble is an eclectic collection of instruments and voices. The group, founded in 2015, is made up of soprano Aiga Bokanova, bass-baritone Kārlis Saržants, violinist Liene Brence, double bassist Oskars Bokanovs, Māris Rozenfelds on accordion and pianist Rihards Plešanovs.
Es, karā aiziedams has fourteen sections, with ten folksong interpretations and four instrumental interludes. It is often unsettling and harsh, and though it is based on Latvian folksongs, these are decidedly unmelodic interpretations and performances of them – as if to place emphasis on the text itself and the tragedy it describes. The burst of accordion that begins this performance, in ‘Kur tecēsi, mēnestiņi?’ is immediately unnerving and filled with dread, and the accordion is then supplemented by ominous sounds from the piano and violin, then joined by Bokanova and Saržants, singing folksong lyrics about the moon going to help young men in battle.
Many of the songs have themes of the soldier and his bride, about the sadness of them having to part, and potentially not seeing each other ever again. In ‘Lai ziedēja vainadziņš’, the bride and soldier have a dialogue, the bride questioning why the soldier wanted to marry her, and the soldier says he chose the girl who wept most sorrowfully. Bokanova and Saržants, with their expressive singing, illustrate the despondence of both. A similar atmosphere is generated in ‘Kara vīra līgaviņa’, where a mournful violin is joined by Bokanova’s disconsolate vocals in a song about a bride waiting (possibly in vain) for a soldier to return.
The hopelessness reaches a crescendo on ‘Labāk mani karā kāve’, a lament about how it would have been better to have been drowned as a child than to be raised as a soldier. Here Saržants sings in an almost grotesque manner, with the words themselves being pulled and squeezed, all the while a percussive hammer strikes (Šmite returns to this theme of a blacksmith in the final section of the work).
Es, karā aiziedams, Šmite’s vision of the nightmare of war and how it ruins lives and brings only sorrow is presented in a very expansive, almost explosive way at times, but elsewhere in an intimate and introspective way. It is difficult listening, full of harsh sounds and performances, but it will remain with the listener long after. The ensemble Arcandela vividly perform this vision, resulting in an almost cinematic performance. It remains vague what the ‘mystery’ is that is hinted at in the title of the work, but perhaps that is more meant to be a ‘mystery’ about why war and its associated heartbreak and tragedy is necessary. Šmite’s reinterpretation of these folksongs accentuates the sorrow and sadness contained within them. At times uneasy, at other times even frightening, Gundega Šmite and Arcandela have created an atmospheric and memorable Latvian musical perspective of war.