Reflections on Worship and Organs in Latvia and Sweden
Faber, Trudy, The American Organist
IN 2009, 1 was privileged to receive a grant from Wittenberg University in Springfield, Ohio, to do research in Sweden and Latvia. My project was twopronged: (1) Since the state church in both countries has been officially Lutheran, I was interested in aspects and styles of worship in these churches, and (2) I wanted to learn about the organs in these countries.
Prior to this trip, I knew next to nothing about Latvia. What I learned, witnessed, and experienced was surprisingly uplifting and enriching beyond all expectation, especially given the history of suppression of this country. Latvia has been invaded and occupied by the Swedes, Germans, or Russians for most of its history. Riga, the country's capital, was founded in 1201. The Germans invaded in 1522 and brought the Reformation to the Latvians. With the Swedish occupation during the 17th century, the state church in both countries was decreed to be Lutheran. By 1795, the Russians had gained control of the entire country. Throughout the 19th century, Riga was the third most vital industrial city of Czarist Russia. The Russians retained control until the Germans took over Latvia in 1917. In 1921, Latvia became an independent country, but their independence was short-lived. Latvia fell to the Russians in 1940, to the Germans in 1941, and was taken over by Communist Russia in 1944. During their brief period of freedom, the Latvians built a Freedom Monument in 1935 in the center of a street called Freedom Way, quite near where the old and new parts of Riga meet. The monument is close to the National Opera House, Latvia University, and three of the most important churches in the Old Town of Riga. Following World War II, when Latvia was under the control of the Soviets, anyone caught merely laying flowers at the foot of the Freedom Monument was summarily sent to Siberia.
Before my trip to Latvia, I had gotten in touch with Guntar Pranis, director of music at the Dom (Cathedral) Church of Riga, which is not only the most important church in the city but has the most important organ in the country. The organ was built in 1883-84 by E.F. Walcker & Co. Franz Liszt wrote his Festival Music on the Chorale Nun danket alle Gott, S. 61, scored for organ, trumpet, trombone, timpani, and mixed choir, for the dedication ceremony. In 1962, the organ underwent repairs by organHermann Eule; then in 1984, there was extensive renovation by Flentrop. Guntar Pranis was extremely gracious. Knowing he would be in Germany during the time I would be in Latvia, he put me in touch with Talivaldis Deksnis, head of organ studies at the Latvian Academy of Music, who also gives monthly recitals on the Dom organ. Although, not surprisingly, he said that to arrange an official recital required about a two-year lead time, he was kind enough to arrange that I could play the organ on the Saturday morning I would be in Latvia.
My husband and I met with Deksnis on a Tuesday morning. He did not speak much English, but, thanks to my husband's fluent German, we managed quite well. I was brought to a rather small but well-appointed hall with raked seating that had a fine Sauer (East German) organ in the front. There were several other Sauer organs in practice rooms. We were joined by Vita Kalnciema, a female organ professor who spoke good English. After I had been given time to play the organ, we were taken for lunch to a bright basement cafeteria, which could have been in any American college. Deksnis told me that he currently had only five organ students. Both he and Vita explained that during the Soviet occupation the churches were no longer used for worship. Those with good organs were used as concert halls. Interestingly, during that time, there were more organ students than now. They wanted to learn to play the organ in order to perform recitals.
Deksnis then asked if I would return the next evening to hear the preliminary recitals of two candidates for organ degrees - one for the equivalent of an American BM degree and the other for a master's degree. …