Although – and the name itself suggests it – the Singing Revolution was mostly a phenomenon occurring within folk and popular music, it would be a mistake to underrate the role played by art music and composers, who in fact may have anticipated the phenomenon (at least in spirit), or simply joined it on a few occasions. One may think at least of Bronius Kutavičius’ work with the poet Sigitas Geda (in particular: the operas Kaulo senis ant geležinio kalno (Old Man Bones on the Iron Mountain, 1976) and Strazdas – žalias paukštis (Thrush, the Green Bird, 1980)) and the cycle of four oratorios (Panteistinė oratorija (Pantheistic Oratorio, 1970), Paskutinės pagonių apeigos (Last Pagan Rites, 1978), Iš jotvingių akmens (From the Yotvingian Stone, 1983) – all three employing national folk poetry – and Pasaulio medis (The Tree of the World, 1986)); Algirdas Martinaitis’ works Cantus ad futurum (1982), Gyvojo vandens klavyras (Clavier of the Life-Giving Water, 1983) and Sakmė apie šūdvabalį (The Tale about the Dung-Beetle, 1990); and Feliksas Bajoras’ works, in particular the opera Dievo avinėlis (Lamb of God, 1982), and the oratorio Varpo kėlimas (The Bell Raising, 1986). But, really, the list is quite long.
In art music, too, it is reasonable to suggest that genres themselves were used as a metaphor of protest. It should not be surprising, indeed, that so many oratorios (that is, works with religious contents) were appearing in the composers’ output. To be religious, as we know, was in itself a condition not appreciated by the Soviet authorities.
The Lithuanian part of the Singing Revolution revolved around the so-called Sąjūdis (‘movement’), a group of 35 intellectuals and artists established in 1988 to support the perestroika and glasnost processes. Conceived as a way to modernize the USSR and soften its policies, perestroika had for many Soviet countries the effect of re-awakening the national consciousness, and became an (if not the) actual catalyst for the various independence movements throughout the Union. Indeed, after the initial support of perestroika and glasnost, Sąjūdis soon replaced its action with specific claims on national independence (restoring the centrality of the Lithuanian language, conducting campaigns of environmental protection, revealing facts and documents about Stalinism, disclosing the secret protocols of the Nazi-Soviet pact, etc.). In the turning of a few months, Sąjūdis had become the locomotive of the independence movement in Lithuania.
The uniqueness of music, within the Lithuanian Sąjūdis, becomes even more evident when we consider that its acknowledged leader, and first president of the independent Lithuania, was Prof. Vytautas Landsbergis, a pianist and musicologist, and member of that other well-kept Lithuanian secret, the artistic movement Fluxus (born in America, and usually known because of Yoko Ono’s and John Lennon’s involvement, but as a matter of fact founded and animated by Lithuanian artists such as Jurgis ‘George’ Mačiūnas and Jonas Mekas). Landsbergis in those days was undoubtedly the most active and representative figure of the independence movement. One should not underrate his strong interest (in both performance and musicological research) for Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis, himself a symbol of Lithuanian patriotism.
The list of Sąjūdis members involved in music does not end with Landsbergis: there were the composer Julius Juzeliūnas, the opera singer Vaclovas Daunoras, and most of all Algirdas Kaušpėdas, an architect who became a singer, author and leader of the very influential band Antis. A true opinion leader, Kaušpėdas was behind four important stages of the Singing Revolution:
1) He was a co-founder of Sąjūdis, and one of its most proactive members;
2) He was instrumental in helping the resurrection of pre-Soviet Lithuanian tunes (including the national anthem, which is the one currently used), by touring Lithuania and literally asking local inhabitants (particularly elderly people) to sing them (there is a very nice sequence from Giedrė Žickytė’s documentary How We Played Revolution, which portrays him in this particular activity);
3) He co-organized and headlined the Rock March event (1987–1989); and finally
4) He was the leader of this particular band, Antis.
During the years of the Singing Revolution, Antis produced four albums, and nearly every song in them referred to some aspect of Soviet oppression and ‘life.’ When independence finally occurred, Antis felt they had accomplished their mission, and amicably disbanded. Except that the demand for their music was so high (coupled with a desire, from many people’s side, to keep the memory of those feelings and values alive), that the band first reunited shortly on two isolated occasions (in 1996 and 2003), and finally, in 2007, became a fully-operative band again, still remaining active as these lines are written (in fact, a new album was recently released).
There is a flipside to the coin, however. There is a high chance that these lines will be read by a foreign visitor, willing to learn more about Lithuania and Lithuanian music. My ideal question to this reader is: Did you know about the Singing Revolution? Did you know about all this?
Certainly, it is not irrelevant that the entire movement (Antis, first and foremost) was animated by a rightist-conservative intelligentsia. Studies on protest songs (and, to say it all, the whole area of popular music studies) is literally dominated by leftist scholarship, most members of which are still having one or two issues in admitting that the Soviet Union was also a dictatorship, and that – therefore – a democratic protest can also originate from the right side of the political spectrum; let alone music per se, where the notion of ‘protest’ seems to be possible only if a songwriter plays a guitar with the inscription “This machine kills fascists.”
The second problem is that popular music studies are no less alien to ethnic and cultural biases than traditional musicology. If studies on classical music are infamously Euro-, male-opus- and many other things-centric, popular music studies are glamorously Western- and particularly Anglo-American-centric. To make a specific example related to protest songs, in a 2008 book called Story Behind the Protest Song, Hardeep Phull analyzes 52 supposedly historically-crucial protest songs, with the suspicious result that only two of them are not from either the UK or the USA: The Wailers’ Get Up, Stand Up (Jamaica, still an English-speaking country) and Nena’s 99 Luftballoons (Germany). Let alone the Baltic States, but the fact that songs like Senzeni Na? (a sheer anti-apartheid anthem in South Africa) or Inti Illimani’s El Pueblo Unido have to be ignored to give room to Michael and Janet Jackson’s Scream or Pulp’s Common People (no disrespect meant: I am only pointing out the historical relevance of these songs within any movement of political protest) is only another confirmation that before criticizing the (many) biases of traditional musicology, popular music studies should take a serious look at their own.
Having said that, the rest of the responsibilities, I am afraid, have something to do with Lithuanian cultural policies and their operators. At a national level, there are some (not even many) studies written in Lithuanian: then, as we move into the field of international exposure of such an important phenomenon, emptiness dominates. No Lithuanian scholar has ever bothered to write a history (or an analysis) of the Singing Revolution in English. Other cultural objects, too, are generally missing from the picture. Two Lithuanian movies (the mentioned documentary How We Played the Revolution and a fiction film called The Children from the Hotel America) address the topic of the Singing Revolution, and they were also presented in film festivals abroad (therefore, English subtitles do exist!): but when the DVDs were released, only Žickytė’s documentary featured English subtitles, preventing the other movie from having any impact whatsoever on the international market (in other words: taking for granted that it will not).
Finally, if this (lack of) literature review was an award, the winner in the category “best missed opportunity to talk about the Singing Revolution” would probably be Gražina Miniotaitė’s 2002 Nonviolent Resistance in Lithuania: A Story of Peaceful Liberation. The amazing fact, here, is that this book is programmatically written to talk about the “nonviolent resistance” in Lithuania: so, the book that has the perfect historical and thematic frame to discuss the Lithuanian Singing Revolution, devotes no more than five (!) lines in the whole text (pp. 30 and 31) to any topic related to the Singing Revolution: the organization of the first Rock March. And, to make matters worse, the event is erroneously called “Rock’n’Roll March”: as if Bix and Katedra came to play Tutti Frutti and Blue Suede Shoes instead of punk and metal.
As a result, little by little, the Singing Revolution is turning from a Baltic into an Estonian-only phenomenon, and, needless to say, this is also what the international community, by reflex, perceives (e.g., the Canadian documentary Cultures in Conflict focuses entirely on the Estonian Singing Revolution, with basically no mention of Lithuania or Latvia). Latvia has recently made a significant step, with the publication of the very informative The Power of Song: Nonviolent National Culture in the Baltic Singing Revolution by Guntis Smidchens: by now, thus, Lithuania remains the only country not to have properly presented its contribution to the Singing Revolution to the international community.
Also, there is no doubt that it was also (perhaps mostly) thanks to all the pacific and/or artistic initiatives promoted by the three independence movements that the international community became increasingly aware of the national claims of these countries, ultimately acknowledging their right to exist as independent states. Iceland, notoriously, was the first one (on February 11, 1991), then in September, the USA, Hungary, Bulgaria, Italy, Poland, Malta, San Marino, Portugal, Romania, Ukraine, Latvia and Estonia followed in domino effect. On September 17, Lithuania was welcomed as a member of the United Nations along with Estonia and Latvia. This detail should not be considered marginal: history has proven that when a group of people makes its case about freedom and independence with violence, guerrillas or terrorism, the international community is much less eager to acknowledge its claims, no matter how legitimate. I do not say this from any particular political or ideological standpoint, nor in a hippie ‘peace and love’ mood: the point is purely strategic.
The Singing Revolution was one of the most relevant sources of soft power for Lithuania, promoting the country as such (and not as a Soviet Republic), with all its values, characteristics, customs and choices. Being what it was (that is, a musical phenomenon), it certainly was particularly effective in raising international sympathies. To paraphrase Žickytė’s documentary, the revolution was not made, fought, organized or else. The revolution was ‘played.’ Few other strategies could have been as powerful as this one, once we are comparing a 3-million-people country against a country 260 times bigger and 50 times more populated.
Also, and possibly more than any other action taken during the Sąjūdis, the Singing Revolution was for Lithuanians the strongest reminder of what they used to and wanted to be: an independent country, with those values, that flag, that language, that identity. And those songs, of course. Leonidas Donskis, as we have seen above, may not have elaborated too much on the topic, but he provided a very fitting definition of the Singing Revolution (and Sąjūdis in general) as the ultimate Lithuanian embodiment of the “generous and noble-spirited traditions of the Romantic ethos of liberal nationalism,” up to becoming the actual highlight of recent Lithuanian history.
Indeed, it was.
HISTORY & CONTEXT | Lithuanian Music Link No. 18