The oratorio The Poet and the Mermaid by Imants Kalniņš and Imants Ziedonis is at times beautiful, at times a little coarse, somewhat psychedelic and somewhat of a true story about that threshold by the river where the ants’ path ends and the fish path begins. There, where the poet is with his mermaid, the one you can’t phone nor post a letter to. It’s balanced by César Franck’s impressive monolithic symphony like a tapestry with a unicorn in a storm.

On the LNSO podium for this concert we have the Head of the Jāzeps Vītols Latvian Academy of Music’s Opera Department, Professor Viesturs Gailis, under whose guidance the current Musical Director of the LNSO, Andris Poga, developed as a symphonic music conductor.

Performing the roles of the Poet and the Mermaid – the bright, darting, top notes of Jolanta Strikaite from the classical music world and the explosive, energetic Daumants Kalniņš from the non-academic world, represent two divergent aspects, gravitating towards each other, just like in Kalniņš’ oratorio.

César Franck was born in Liège. His father was a Walloon of German ancestry, and his mother, German. He became a real Frenchman of his own accord in 1873. He was an upright citizen for thirty years: as an organist at the Sainte-Clotilde Church in Paris, he became a member of the committee of the National Music Association (this committee fought for the status of French music against the influence of other, especially German music) founded by Saint-Saëns, and for many years worked as a teacher of organ music at the Paris Conservatoire.

Amongst his French students are Vierne, Pierné, Chausson, Duparc, and d’Yndi who can be considered as the professor’s hagiographer. However, as a composer, Franck, wasn’t particularly famous until 1880 when he achieved great recognition with his Quintet for Piano and Strings. Franck’s biographer Léon Vallas says: “This Belgian man with German ancestry, living a modest, somewhat isolated life, in the twilight of his life would come to directly or indirectly influence the musical life of his adopted homeland, France, deeply and enduringly.”

Franck’s Symphony in D Minor is his life’s end opus. It’s is dedicated to Franck’s student Henri Duparc (1848–1933) who gave up composing in 1885 due to a nerve illness and turned to family life and painting. In the middle of his life, he destroyed his opera Mermaid (based on Pushkin’s motifs) and in the second half of his life he became blind and lived to the age of 85.  Henri Duparc is considered to be the greatest master of the genre of French solo songs where his only competitor is the matureGabriel Fauré.

Franck’s Symphony in D Minor is the crown of his creative life and the most profound realisation of the so-called “cyclic principle”. It can be read in studies by various French musicologists that this Symphony must sound in one breath, for this cyclic principle to be evident in performance. Formally, a symphony has three parts but actually the four rational parts can be heard – the 2nd part unites the Andante and the Scherzo. In keeping with the idea of the cyclic form, the finale is the resume of the whole opus. The musicologist Rémi Jacobs writes that in this Symphony, “the spirit of the chorale, a cyclic unity, a Beethoven-like structure and the poetic universe of Liszt are unequally synthesized.” 

Imants Kalniņš (1941) and Imants Ziedonis (1933–2013), this is a significant collaboration. Both masters have created choral music, theatrical poetry performances, the opera Spēlēju, dancoju and rock music together.

The oratorio The Mermaid and the Poet is a dedication by the composer to the poet.

Naming Imants Kalniņš the last romantic, and at the same time, the first neo-romantic in Latvian music, Ingrīda Zemzare praises the oratorio as follows: “This is a special piece not only in the repertoire of Imants Kalniņš and Imants Ziedonis, but also within Latvian culture. Its uniqueness lies in its cosmogonist mysticism, the revelatory worldview of a poet and a composer, original imagery and its unusual musical language. Of course only a poet and a composer know that “two worlds co-exist”. Of course, they are the only ones with sufficient courage to go in there – that other unknown – to meet the mermaid, the symbol of creative freedom”.

Various witnesses of the time expressed an opinion that the text of the oratorio wasn’t entirely pleasant for Soviet authorities. What does the title, open to various interpretations, of the 1st part From Theremean? Could it be the new breath of the rotten capitalist world? Who are the similar ones and who are the “others”? What are Cain and Abel doing here? Who needs half-women who can’t be phoned or letters sent to? They say that the premiere of the oratorio was delayed for a number of years. That was known only by the few who were involved. When it was allowed, it was sung.

The key to understanding the oratorio is one of Imants Ziedonis’ epiphanies – a delicate, thought-provoking essay.

“Father, there was a party at our place. The mermaids with their little mermaids were there and we were three mermen. One of them has a father, his father was caught by a mermaid on the moon night when he teaches swimming.. He died at our place, you might say he drowned. He was laid to rest by the edge of the marsh near the miller’s stone behind which there lies a great plain of white sand. Flat plaice lie there; God has twisted their mouths – for aping. He goes to his father’s grave to play, and everyone knows, that he has a father.

We two don’t know our father. From time to time, we wander close to the coast, hide behind the green rock and watch how the scuba divers swim. At times I want to shout – perhaps you are one of them, but then the other merman boy catches me and covers my mouth. We have been told: while you are small, don’t talk to strangers, you can be caught and taken ashore.

Mother loves me. She always calls ne her little scuba diver. That’s how they call me, when the other mermaids can’t hear. The other mermaids call me adopted. I’d been found on a sandbank in the foam. I like it, but apparently it’s also something bad.

The other boy wasn’t loved by his mother as much I was by mine, she says: you monster with glasses! He doesn’t have glasses, but sometimes he is a monster – he finds bits of metal and stabs fish with them. He gets like that sometimes, and he strangles eels.

I often think: if only you would swim out to the fourth sandbank and take me by the hand, all the mermaids would know I have a father. And if then they still had something to say, I would leave everything behind and and go with you. Sometimes I think that I have a human heart just like yours. And surely I could learn to breathe.“

Imants Kalniņš is a composer with a completely original style. It’s equally recognizable both in his classical works and other genres. Brilliant in a symphony as well as in a pop song. Many ostinati and embellishments of tiny melodies or the main theme, and no lack of characteristic harmonic sequences and cadenzas. In the beginning, his work was expressionistic and somewhat grid-like, but later, the crystal clarity of texture and a classical mode of thinking tend to dominate. Expanded forms fare well in this works: “I like a longer conversation with the audience.” Possibly unwittingly, Kalniņš with his music has given us a yardstick, which, for specialists and music lovers alike, has become something of an archetype.

Concert at friday, 14 November, Riga Great Guild 7PM

We are welcoming our listeners to pre-concert talks in the Riga Great Guild White Hall at 6PM. Curated by Orests Silabriedis. Special guests – Ingrīda Zemzare and Uģis Brikmanis.

Tickets here!

18 Nov

17.30 / Tuesday / Vidzeme concert hall "Cēsis"


Daumants Kalniņš - baritons

Valsts Akadēmiskais koris “Latvija”


Viesturs Gailis


  • César Franck Symphony in D minor
  • Imants Kalniņš Oratorio The Poet and the Mermaid I

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