Encyclopedia of Romantic Nationalism in Europe

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Oral literature : Latvian

  • Popular culture (Oral literature)Latvian
  • Cultural Field
    Ķencis, Toms

    During the long 19th century, Latvian oral literature underwent simultaneous processes of heritage cultivation, written codification and genre hybridization. First collected and interpreted by local Baltic-German intellectuals inspired by Herder, and later by members of the emerging ethnically Latvian middle class, the collecting efforts culminated in multi-volume editions of songs and tales towards the end of the century. At the same time, motifs from oral literature were incorporated in written literature and to some extent appropriated in visual imagery (book illustrations, fine arts); songs were also arranged for choral performance.

    The second volume of Johann Gottfried Herder’s Volkslieder (1779) features the first widely known publication of Latvian folk songs; this triggered collecting activities in the Latvian-speaking provinces of the Russian Empire. Although Herder published only 11 Latvian songs out of the 78 specimens he acquired, his stay in Riga (1764-71) and his documented visits to country manor houses bespeak his general agenda of researching and celebrating vernacular traditions. Herder did not do any fieldwork himself but drew on a network of correspondents such as August Wilhelm Hupel, a clergyman based in Oberpahlen, Livland province (present-day Põltsamaa in Estonia), the publisher Johann Friedrich Hartknoch and the scientist Jakob Benjamin Fischer, both based in Riga. A network of Baltic-German collaborators was established: the 78 Latvian song texts Hupel sent to Herder in Weimar were collected for him by other Lutheran clergymen in the provinces, among them Heinrich Baumann and Christoph Harder.

    Hupel himself authored several ethnographic descriptions of Livland’s non-German population, assisted by Fischer and Baumann, the latter also gathering his own collection of historical anecdotes, folk songs, notes and letters. Johann Harder, for his part, gathered Latvian beliefs and verbal lore, publishing a series of essays as early as 1764 for the newspaper supplement Gelehrte Beyträge zu den Rigischen Anzeigen.

    The first book-length inventory of Latvian folk songs, Erste Sammlung lettischer Sinngedichte, was privately published by one of Herder’s contributors, Gustav Bergmann, in 1807. The collection contained 238 Latvian song texts. The following year Bergmann published a second volume, Zweyte Sammlung Lettischer Sinn-, oder Stegreifs Gedichte with 249 specimens. In 1808 Bergmann published from his private printing press the collection of another Baltic-German clergyman, Friedrich David Wahr: Palzmareeschu dseesmu krahjums (“Song collection of the inhabitants of the Palzmarians/Palcmane parish district”), containing 400 songs.

    Existing interests and private networks were institutionalized in the first Baltic-German learned societies, dedicated also to the study of the Latvian language, oral literatures, history and antiquity: the Kurländische Gesellschaft für Literatur und Kunst (1815) and Lettisch-literärische Gesellschaft (1824). Appeals to readers were published in the Latviešu avīzes (“Latvian Newspaper”), the noting down of oral literature significantly increased and the next collection – Latviešu tautas dziesmas un zinģes (“Latvian folk and popular songs”, 1844), by the clergyman Georg Friedrich Büttner (1805–1883) – contained no less than 2854 verses. The last and most voluminous publication of these Baltic-German, clergy-driven song collections, over 10,000 songs bound in notebooks and published in 1874-75, was the work of August Bielenstein.

    Starting from the mid-century, there is a sharp rise in publications in nationalist periodicals by Herder-inspired ethnic Latvians. Collections by members of the so-called “Young Latvian” appear alongside a written literature inflected by oral tradition. The poets Juris Alunāns and Auseklis integrated traditional motifs in their poems and plays. Andrejs Pumpurs’s 1888 epic Lāčplēsis (which quickly gained the status of a “national epic”) similarly followed the pattern of a folk poem. A leading Young Latvian, Krišjānis Valdemārs, published a compilation of 300 humorous tales and riddles (1853) in order to encourage popular literacy. Alunāns and the man of letters Jēkabs Zvaigznīte (1833–1867) issued a Latvian almanac in 1860 containing folk songs, presented in Romantic-Nationalist style as the anonymous-collective voice of the people at large. This type of almanac became a flourishing genre in subsequent decades, not only in Riga but also in other imperial cities such as Vilnius and Moscow.

    The establishment of Rīgas Latviešu biedrība (the “Latvian Society of Riga”) in 1868 was a turning point for various cultural and scholarly pursuits by ethnic Latvians; as new genres and media of cultural expression became available, oral literature increasingly came to be seen as a tradition in danger of disappearance. Translations and original writing began to dominate the reading market, and folk songs were deemed unsuitable for the choral performance as choir song festivals grew in popularity.

    In these decades, folklore collecting and editing was directed to a significant extent by Latvians based in Russian centres like Moscow and St Petersburg. Fricis Treulands-Brīvzemnieks (1846–1907) led the first ethnographic expedition into the Latvian-speaking provinces in 1869 under the auspices of the Russian Imperial Society of Natural Sciences, Anthropology and Ethnography. This led to the publication of 1118 Latvian song texts in a Russian edition (and in Cyrillic orthography; 1873) as well as a large collection of riddles, proverbs and charms (1881). Together with his Moscow associate Krišjānis Valdemārs he initiated a project of publishing the most extensive collection of Latvian folk songs, later carried on by Krišjānis Barons (1835–1923) and mainly sponsored by the Latvian tradesman Henrijs Visendorfs (1861–1916). Barons and Brīvzemnieks themselves collected 86,000 items; Visendorfs led several folklore-collecting expeditions, gathering 28,000 additional song texts. Overall, Barons edited 271,996 texts, of which close to 36,000 were originals, and not variants; his definitive six-volume collection of Latvju dainas (“Latvian folk songs”, 1894-1915) included specimens forwarded by no less than 900 contributors. Equal in scope was the huge collection of Latvian legends and fairy tales, Latviešu tautas teikas un pasakas (1891-1903), by a representative of the so-called British anthropological school, Ansis Lerhis-Puškaitis (1859–1903). Beside a majority of freshly-collected material, it also included tales and legends from most of the previous editions stretching back to mid-century.

    Word Count: 950

    Article version
  • Amabinis, Ojārs; Latviešu folkloristikas vēsture (Rīga: Zinātne, 1989).

    Bula, Dace; “Johans Gotfrīds Herders un tautas dzejas interpretācijas Latvijā”, in Siliņa, Māra (ed.); Herders Rīgā (Riga: Doma evanģeliski luteriskā draudze un Vēstures un kuģniecības muzejs, 2005), 12-29.

    Bērziņš, Ludis; Greznas dziesmas (Rīga: Zinātne, 2007).

    Bērziņš, Ludis; Latviešu literatūras vēsture (6 vols; Riga: Literatūra, 1935-37).

    Jaremko-Porter, Christina; Johann Gottfried Herder and the Latvian voice (doctoral thesis; Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh, 2008).

    Švābe, Arveds; “Tautas dziesmu likteņi”, in Švābe, Arveds; Straubergs, Kārlis; Hauzenberga-Šturma, E. (eds.); Latviešu tautas dziesmas (Copenhagen: Imanta, 1952), 1: v-xxv.

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    © the author and SPIN. Cite as follows (or as adapted to your stylesheet of choice): Ķencis, Toms, 2022. "Oral literature : Latvian", Encyclopedia of Romantic Nationalism in Europe, ed. Joep Leerssen (electronic version; Amsterdam: Study Platform on Interlocking Nationalisms, https://ernie.uva.nl/), article version, last changed 03-04-2022, consulted 24-05-2024.