LITHUANIAN QUARTERLY JOURNAL OF ARTS AND SCIENCES
Copyright © 2013 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.
Volume 59, No.2 - Summer 2013
Editor of this issue: Elizabeth Novickas
Ancient Songs at Millennial Moments
EMILY DAINA ĐARAS
EMILY DAINA ĐARAS is an MA candidate in Sociology and Social Anthropology at Central European University in Budapest, Hungary. Her work in Lithuania, in the field of national and cultural identity, has been supported by Fulbright and US Embassy grants.
The Lithuanian folk song festival of the Vilnius Cultural Capital of 2009, Millennium, serves as an exaggerated case study of the general trend of state-sponsored folk music festivals attempting to foster nationalist spirit through the mystification of ancient culture. Celebration and state sponsorship of the “authentic” Lithuanian folk song tradition is not a recent phenomenon. However, since Lithuania declared independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, the traditions surrounding the genre of Lithuanian folk music have come to serve a new, “enchanted” function within Lithuanian nation building, as a result of the flourishing of the festival as a new major cultural form. This transformation mirrors the change witnessed by contemporary society in the conceptualization and function of the nation-state under “millennial capitalism” as defined by Jean and John Comaroff. The Lithuanian Ministry of Culture funds the promotion, practice, and public performance of Lithuania folk music, not only to preserve a contestable notion of the country’s “ancient” national past, but also to help launch Lithuania into the future as a financially strong and nationally stable European Union member state.
Throughout the last two decades following Lithuania’s recent establishment of independence, the Lithuanian Ministry of Culture has featured the performance of dainos, or folk songs, in much of the country’s state-sponsored arts and culture programming. This celebration and state sponsorship of the “authentic” Lithuanian folk song tradition is not a recent phenomenon. Mapping the relationship between the shifts in governmental power and the changing nature of the Lithuanian folk song canon as a “national” commodity over the past hundred and fifty years reveals the variety of functions this art form has served. The celebration and exploitation of this tradition has served entirely different, and sometimes opposing, political goals and functions over time, despite very little change in the collection or performance of the music itself. Intrinsically connected with the Lithuanian national identity, the folk song canon has been used during periods of occupation to mediate the relationship between nationalist Lithuanian sentiments and the unification aims of the Russian Empire and later the Soviet Union. During periods of revolution and resistance against occupying forces, the performance of these folk songs has been a preservation methodology through which nationalist Lithuanians have maintained their national identity, particularly within the protests of the nonviolent Singing Revolution of the late 1980s. During periods of independence, folk songs have catapulted beyond identity preservation into the realm of identity construction, supporting the introduction of new systems and initiatives (such as capitalism) in defining the Lithuanian nation. Since Lithuania declared independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, the traditions surrounding the genre of Lithuanian folk music have come to serve a new, “enchanted” function within Lithuanian nation-building as a result of the flourishing of the festival as a new major cultural form. This fluctuation mirrors the change witnessed by contemporary society in the conceptualization and function of the nation-state under “millennial capitalism” as defined by Jean and John Comaroff. 1 The Lithuanian Ministry of Culture funds the promotion, practice, and public performance of Lithuania folk music, not only to preserve a contestable notion of the country’s “ancient” national past, but also to help launch Lithuania into the future as a financially strong and nationally stable European Union member state.
To contextualize the role that the Lithuanian traditions of folk singing have played in Lithuania’s more recent history, it is important to first explore the origins of the Lithuanian national obsession with ethnic folk music. However, it is difficult to determine precisely when the concept of Lithuania itself was established and tracking the changes in this particular cultural identity, which birthed the Lithuanian singing tradition, is a challenging task. Following many territorial conflicts between tribes in the Baltic area prior to the formation of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, several key political occupations and border shifts have redefined Lithuanian territory: the augmentation of the territory of the Grand Duchy that preceded the Crusades, the treaty that established the political connections between Lithuania and Poland in 1413, the Union at Lublin in 1569 that established the Polish-Lithuanian Confederation, and the division of the territory of Lithuania between the rulers Maria-Theresa of Austria, Frederick of Prussia, and Catherine of the Russian Empire between 1772 and 1795.2 These borders continued to shift as additional partitions were established throughout these two decades. As John S. Loppato writes, the border changes that took place during this time were reflected within the society and culture of this region: “the Prussianization of German Lithuania and the Russification of Russian Lithuania marched hand in hand.”3 The region continued to change as Lithuania sided with Napoleon in his campaign against Russia in 1812 and as Lithuania was unsuccessful in the 1831 insurrection against Russia, both done in an effort to resist this pattern of cultural erasure and political control.4 When he appointed General Mikhail Nikolaev Muraviev as the Governor General of the Northwestern Empire of the Russian Empire in 1855, Tsar Alexander II ordered the general “to crush the Polish-Lithuanian insurrection,” so as to erase the Polish and Latin influences in religion and culture, and decreed that Russian (and Lithuanian written in Cyrillic script) were the official languages within the educational system.5 Overall, these several centuries of Lithuania’s contested history brought many cultures, languages, and political systems into this geographical territory, indubitably fusing (or confusing) the various cultural traditions in this region. Neither a particular Lithuanian national history nor a specific Lithuanian cultural tradition were clear throughout this period, and the national tradition of folk song was not yet a particular scholarly or political focus.
As this brief summary of Lithuania’s early history demonstrates, the concepts of Lithuanian ethnicity and nation have been dynamic in nature even prior to the drastic political changes that took place in the twentieth century, yet fin de siècle Lithuania experienced a shift in understanding this national history. Driven in part by the abolition of serfdom between 1861 and 1865, the Auđra era (meaning “dawn,” or “reawakening”) of Lithuanian nationalism blossomed, drawing from roots in the movement of German Romanticism, and throughout this period the fascination with “pure” Lithuanian ethnicity developed among historians, artists, and musicians.6 Politically, Lithuanians fought for their independence from the Russian Empire at the Lithuanian Diet in December 1905 and finally achieved independence after World War I.7 This newly independent state capitalized on a new wave of Lithuanian Romanticism for primordialist political gains; it turned to ancient historical roots to rediscover the nation’s “ancient” cultural past, prominent Lithuanian historians and scholars began to document traditions, art, and music, manipulating them to form what would become a historically recurring sentiment of the “regilding of Lithuania’s faded glory” throughout the following century.8 Folk music served as an effective tool for helping to construct the identity of a “Lithuanian nation” since the performative, living aspects, like all musical traditions, were “a particularly potent representational resource… a means by which communities are able to identify themselves and present this identity to others.”9 Historians and musicologists described “immortal dainos” and distinctly Lithuanian instruments as the preserved survivals of a pure ancient Lithuanian culture – one that, as previously demonstrated, had never fully existed in the region that became the Lithuanian state, due to a complex cultural and historical past.10 Musicologists found the work of Lithuanians “to be unusually rich in number and in signs of creative talent,” and have claimed that the Western classical composers Schubert, Chopin, and Schumann incorporated folk song motifs from Lithuanian dainos into their compositions.11 This political independence was ultimately short-lived, as the Baltic States (including Lithuania) became part of the Soviet Union under the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact in 1939, remaining so until the early 1990s. The obsession with Lithuanian folk music as one of its independent, unique cultural traditions when compared to those of nearby ethnic groups had already been established.
Folk music was a genre used by Lithuanians within the Soviet Union to construct an ancient past for the purposes of preserving their former independent national identity. Whether a nation is or is not officially recognized as independent, cultural customs and traditions are often imagined as “the cultural property of the nation, products of the collective genius of its nationals… important to their identity and self-esteem. They are of the nation and cannot be alienated from it.”12 Surely, music was a strong part of Lithuanian life under the Soviet empire, but the government attempted to forcefully control the direction of the folk song tradition through strategic documentation techniques and support of musical performances. Soviet song festivals had been held since 1948, but they necessarily included the performance of Russian folk songs alongside Lithuanian ones, providing “a popular outlet for national feeling” in front of the overarching Soviet backdrop.13 This particular folk festival environment afforded an opportunity for state-sponsored ethnologists to investigate the “evolutionary” development of culture as a linear progression from simplicity and primitiveness towards high culture over time.14 Stalin’s concept of internationalism was that the multiethnic Soviet state would allow diverse cultures to develop together, from pagan and folk roots through increasingly complex forms of culture, and ultimately amalgamate into one merged, uniform state, so that the original traditions of the separate cultures of the Soviet Union could be “ethnically engineered.”15 Contrary to sociologist Jean-Louis Fabiani’s description of “the most important cultural festivals… [which] allow a fair space for critical discussions, not only about cultural tastes but also about political issues,” these festivals provided the Soviet state with a mechanism for slowly stifling the nationalist spirit expressed through performance of Lithuanian folk music, promoting conformity, and quelling notions of independence instead of encouraging debate.16 The Soviet system continued to flourish for several decades, encouraging ethnic groups to define themselves in terms other than class or religion, and music was one cultural category through which the Lithuanian people could continue to understand their culture and ethnicity while part of the USSR.
However, this practice took on an new aim as the movement for independent Lithuania, which became know as the Singing Revolution, and the political organization called Sŕjűdis grew stronger with Gorbachev’s glasnost policy in 1987.17 The public demonstration of nationalist sentiments, including events such as the Baltic Way and the Vilnius Television Tower actions that were accompanied by the peaceful performance of folk songs by demonstrators, were part of the actions that broke down the communist system.18 Lithuania became the first nation to declare independence from the Soviet Union in January of 1991 March 1990 In his book Nations and Nationalism, Eric Hobsbawm asserts that “Nations do not make states and nationalisms but the other way around,” and following from this, folk music became one of the key tools through which developing Lithuanian nationalist sentiments have helped to construct the modern Lithuanian state and a new corresponding independent and free national identity.19 The performance of folk songs alongside Sŕjűdis actions and protests has been increasingly glorified as a grand ritual, taking on new significance that ritualizes the demonstration of independence today. Today in post-Soviet capitalist countries this involves not simply ideological, but also financial support, since “state support of artists suggests direct financial support, through fellowships, purchase of art works, or funding of arts organizations.”20 Now more than ever, there is a strong trend in Lithuania towards manipulating its national history through public, performative presentations of national culture.
Two decades after the fall of the Soviet Union, and nearly a decade after Lithuania became a member of the European Union in 2004, Lithuanians use their musical tradition to display their ancient ethnic roots, imagining that their folk songs are living relics of their ancient past. Lithuanians demonstrate and celebrate these primordialist sentiments at folk song festivals that reflect national and pan-Baltic regional pride. This new use of folk culture, not just to determine a past, but to project a mystical, mythical form of nationalism into the future, is much in keeping with the themes of John and Jean Comaroffs’ 2001 essay “Millennial Capitalism: First Thoughts on a Second Coming,” which served as the introduction to their volume. The authors discuss the fervent nature of what they term “millennial capitalism,” signifying both the new nature of capitalism during the decades surrounding the year 2000 and the way that capitalism has manifested itself and become mystified. 21 Explaining millennial capitalism’s connection to mystical trends, occult movements, and other particular features of contemporary society, such as the changes in the relationship between production and consumption, these authors demonstrate that this shift is ultimately changing how labor and capital interact, which in turn has a profound effect on the nature of social classes and political and economic environments.22 Imagined communities based on nationality and ethnicity are often envisioned through a primordialist lens.23 Cultivation of the Lithuanian folk music community today by the state is “a means of accounting for the way in which locally produced musics become a means through which individuals are able to situate themselves within a particular city, town or region.”24 Combined with the new uses of “primordialist thought,” and in connection with the Lithuanian folk song canon, is the revived phenomenon that mythologizes the past to establish definitions of national identity that reinvent the future – and certainly we can understand this as a “millennial,” mystical turn in capitalist cultural practices.25 Sometimes, these details of the past are not based on fact, but are part of invented occult, pagan Lithuanian legends. It is precisely this complex, community-grown, primordialist process that has led folk music and twenty-first century politics in Lithuania to become grossly conflated.
By turning to ancient historical roots to find an “ancient” cultural past, sentiments of nationalism have increased, and folk song traditions have become a cultural commodity that is now marketed by the Lithuanian state to draw attention and financial benefits from sources in the international capitalist market. Keeping in mind Lithuania’s history of oscillating between an occupied and an independent status over the last several centuries, it proves useful to examine how authentic Lithuanian folk culture has been imagined and performed over time. In order to serve the Lithuanian state agenda of nation building, the performance of folk songs has been used to strengthen Lithuania’s image as a capitalist independent country. As the governmental structure has changed from one of communism to capitalism in Lithuania, the arts as a whole have struggled to become a viable privatized business sector, and this struggle between the artists and the state to find a compromise have led to an understanding that “art should be state-supported but not state-controlled.”26 Although not all events are controlled per se by the Lithuanian Ministry of Culture, performances of folk songs have been used through the Lithuanian state’s exploitation of the festival as a major cultural form to expose the nation to fellow European Union member states and the greater international market. By developing a strong national folk music culture through sponsorship of festivals that feature this music, the state employs folk music as a political tool to bridge Lithuania’s contested past and its national future, despite the series of occupations and border shifts that have taken place in this nation. Annual pan-Baltic folk song festivals and international student folk song festivals, both held during the warm and sunny summer months that draw tourists, also receive state funding, which encourages cooperative participation in both local folk song groups and larger-scale international festivals, and also trains the millennial generation in the folk song tradition.
The most intensive state exploitation of folk festivals for political gain took place during the UNESCO European Cultural Capital of 2009 festivities centered in Vilnius, Lithuania’s capital. Dalia Bankauskaitë, the Executive Director of the Vilnius European Capital of Culture 2009 Bureau responsible for organizing the cultural programming for the event, spoke of the honor as “one of the most important for [the] country. It’s like the Olympic Games.”27 Folk art events, as scholar Howard S. Becker states, “involve elaborate networks of cooperation,”28 and in the Capital of Culture programming, this included financial cooperation intended to ultimately benefit the Lithuanian economy while playing “a significant part in the process of nation building.”29 Without a doubt, this trend reflects a larger international pattern of cultural policies: “the development of a discourse about culture as a real economic sector.”30 The total budget for the Capital of Culture projects had been estimated at thirty million euros, 60 percent of which came from the Ministry of Culture and 40 percent from the Vilnius Municipality.31 Bankauskaitë reported that, of the total, the European Commission was expected to grant approximately 1.5 million euros.32 Such an influx of money into the economy of this Eastern European country was an opportunity for growth and the promotion of this perfectly timed, state-sponsored, UNESCOapproved, and mystified musical look into Lithuania’s cultural past. In his essay in the Lithuanian magazine Liaudies Kultűros (Folk Culture), published by Vilnius University, titled “It’s 1,000 years old now,” scholar Saulius Liausa captures this obsession with Lithuania’s mystical connection between its past and its future.33 This millennial celebration in 2009 conveniently reached around the centuries of territorial conflicts in the region that had taken place since the Golden Age of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Instead, the main June 2009 festival – itself called Millennium – simply connected present-day Lithuania directly to the unknown group of people vaguely documented in the annals of St. Bruno as the Lituanea in 1009, to which notions of authentic culture have been mythically ascribed.
Scholars such as E. J. Harrison wrote of the Auđra period of Lithuanian history that “the Lithuanians are a musical people,” and this ethnic stereotype pervades Lithuania’s national culture today as a result of this strategic marketing of Lithuanian culture through large-scale festivals that boast hundreds of singers performing together on a single stadium stage.34 In fact, this grand folk festival tradition was perhaps the primary selling point for Lithuania’s award of the title Cultural Capital of Europe 2009, indicating that “the spirit of the Lithuanian independence movement in the year 1989 was still alive, and Lithuania had a higher purpose than mere economic reforms.”35 Analysis of the folk music at these events usually focuses on the uniqueness and national importance of the canon:
When describing this rich collection of Lithuanian folk songs we are primarily speaking of songs which were recorded in the past and songs which were sung in a natural context of everyday life up to about the middle of this century. The repertoire has survived quite well in the memory of older people throughout rural Lithuania. The songs continue to be sung on special occasions, and are recorded and documented during ethnographic expeditions. Rural folklore ensembles avidly incorporate them into their repertoire, and folk song enthusiasts in urban centers learn them just as eagerly. In this way the songs are revived and given a new life at festivals and celebrations.36
Such an account represents a twist on the imagined idea that these melodies are unadulterated connections to the mythical folk spirit of “everyday” ancient Lithuania. The Lithuanian Ministry of Culture also boasts about the breadth of the Lithuanian canon, critical to the myth-making tendencies of this millennial obsession; the largest archive of Lithuanian folklore contains over 400,000 folk songs.37 The Ministry of Culture provides “continuous national support for non-commercial music culture area, which has been cherished for many years.”38 These traditions are supported through a bolstered music education system; the Lithuanian Ministry of Culture has founded many learning centers and updated existing schools that focus on teaching music theory as well as both folk and classical performance, and supports a plethora of folk music ensembles that engage in festival singing.39 Overall, the Lithuanian Ministry of Culture operates as a critical cultural player that provides support, from space to financing, which in turn manipulates and eventually controls the tradition.
Festivals have been flourishing as a major cultural form over the last two decades, which conveniently was the period in which Lithuania developed as a newly independent nation.40 In theory, these festival-centered efforts within the Culture of Capital programming were designed to build a strong international image that would effectively bring additional revenue from tourism and cultural investment into the country. These performance festivals, for both participants and participantobservers (the audience rarely refrains from clapping and singing along with those on stage), also transmit a passion for this explicitly nationalist tradition to the millennial generation, too young to remember the nation’s Soviet past personally or to have witnessed the performance of this tradition under the USSR. Because the folk song Millennium festival of 2009 was linked with the Singing Revolution, the “spirit of 1989 [that] had evaporated… the nation of the Millennium recalled. For a moment a sense of unity and solidarity embraced Lithuanians once again.”41 The examination of “…how musicians, residents, boosters and out-of-towners creatively employ images of ‘authenticity’ to represent the city” has been an important topic in contemporary sociology, and these events were thought to effectively market the rich culture of a nation to an international audience.42 During the Capital of Culture’s summer folk song event, the performances gave rise to a “short-lived… euphoria [that] provided a sense of national rebirth by clearing the shadowy prose of the crude reality of political scandals related to unethical business practices. The rebirth was felt in the consciousness of the masses recollecting the mood of the Singing Revolution.”43 Festivals like this offer an opportunity for discourse, because they “are a privileged space for developing critical interventions about global issues, but the social limits of the audience reduces their social impact.”44 Lithuanian folk song festivals, particularly those hosted at the Capital of Culture 2009, were not meant to generate political discussions and debates. Their purpose was the arousal of patriotic feelings: the “massive participation of youth, the middle aged, and senior citizens in the stadiums for folk song festivals devoted to the Millennium celebration created an inspiring atmosphere, national pride, hope, and ambitions.”45 The development of a spiritual experience for participants and observers, which could effectively transmit a euphoric sense of new nationalism, was successfully generated by this Capital of Culture song festival.
In practice, however, festivals like Millennium were not as successful on other fronts. Because “art is social in character” and depends on cooperation, it also comes with the baggage of the system in which it is performed, in particular, the relatively young capitalist economy of a post-Soviet state.46 Funding was pocketed by administrators, and their personal and political aims “did not bind them together with their national responsibilities, long-term commitment, perspectives, and cultural development.”47 This sentiment is echoed in P. Timms’s recollection of the Adelaide Festival in 2002, explaining the problematic structure of the state-sponsored festival:
In Lithuania, this went to another extreme during the 2009 events. As the Ministry of Culture focused on “professional music culture dissemination” through state-sponsored programming, much of the financial support for these programs was invested, not in the performers, but in the advertising of events and national marketing materials. Employees at the Ministry of Culture and the Vilnius Capital of Culture administration were rotated, fired, and went unpaid throughout the duration of the event itself, amid the “ambivalent and fluctuating circumstances” of employment and payment for services. Furthermore, the reputation of the festival was clouded by court cases surrounding the disbursement of funds and questionable administrative practices that attracted a great deal of attention from the mass media.49 The feeling of euphoria may have been sustained socially after the close of the final concert of the Millennium folk song festival in Vingis Park in early July, 2009. However, more sustainable outcomes, such as gross financial profit on the national level, and the development of a strong international reputation among administrative bodies, such as the Capital of Culture Program and the European Union political structure, were not effectively produced, as had been hoped by the Lithuanian Ministry of Culture and overarching government.
The cultural institutions that were highlighted throughout this Millennium celebration were not stable, and, without a doubt, the events of the Cultural Capital of 2009 have permanently changed the image of Vilnius internationally. Yet these scandals were relatively invisible to the tourists and foreigners observing and participating in the folk song festivals, as “they enjoyed the façade of the celebrated city.”50 Yes, festivals such as post-Soviet folk song festivals in Lithuania “imply a particular way of ‘consuming culture’, i.e., not as mere spectators but as participants.”51 The consumption and participation of both Lithuanians and foreigners with the music itself and the millennial euphoric spirit à la Comaroff and Comaroff were important in terms of Lithuanian nation building. Yet there are more tangible, measurable implications that continue to haunt the social discourse surrounding Lithuanian cultural policies. As an art form, folk song performances are:
...considered not as objects of use (for example providing pleasure for individuals… or for provoking thought) but as commodities that can be judged by the same economic criteria [as] cars, clothes or any other consumer good. Essentially, issues of aesthetic… worth… are being replaced by those of the material and impersonal marketplace.52
The 2009 folk song festivals, and the folk music concerts and festivals that have occurred since, have suggested the need for a wider discussion of the faulty implementation of capitalist economic practices in the country.
The folk song festival of the Cultural Capital of 2009, Millennium, serves as an exaggerated case study of the general trend of state sponsorship of euphoric, millennial-centered folk music festivals that attempt to foster nationalist spirit through a mystified ancient culture. In reality, these state-sponsored festivals struggle because of the structural and financial realities of post-Soviet states. However, by reviewing Lithuania’s history, in connection with the invention and development of a particular Lithuanian culture, and documenting the changes in the performance of folk songs over time, one can see that the celebration and exploitation of this music for nationalist goals has not necessarily affected the performance of the melodies. Rather, folk music has oscillated between serving as a mechanistic anchor of identity preservation and manipulation as a tool for active identity (re)construction. Two decades after Lithuania’s declaration of independence from the Soviet Union, these songs have been highlighted in the crossroads of millennial moments: Lithuania’s celebration of its thousand-year anniversary of being documented in the annals of St. Bruno with the spirit of millennial capitalism that took hold within post-Soviet countries bridging a communist past to democracy and new memberships in the capitalist global market and the European Union. Perhaps on an individual scale, one cannot measure the impact of the folk song festival on the transmission of cultural traditions and social memories to the millennial generation of Lithuanians who cannot remember their nation under occupation. After all, as noted by scholar David Grazian, “even the most rigorous quantitative studies of consumption can fail to account for how individuals actually experience music in their moments of consumption.”53 As the spirit of millennial capitalism quells over the coming years, and Lithuania’s stability and position as a member of the European Union shifts, it will be interesting to continue monitoring the state sponsorship of folk song festivals in Lithuania and study how they are further utilized and manipulated to achieve particular nationalist, political, and cultural goals.
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