History & the Cantata

The Singing Revolution                                                                                         

“Lithuania, you have risen with song” 

The text below appears in Lithuanian at the beginning of the musical score of The Singing Revolution offering a description of the historical events upon which this cantata is based.  The text was written by Rugile Kazlauskaite and Kestutis Daugirdas, the cantata’s lyricist and composer.  The cantata is comprised of five movements.  Each movement corresponds to a year of The Singing Revolution (1987-1991) and focuses on a key event of that year.

 The first three movements, 1987-1989, all focus on events that took place on August 23rd. That is no coincidence. On that day in 1939, shortly before Germany invaded Poland, Hitler and Stalin signed a non-aggression pact with secret protocols, dividing areas in Eastern and Central Europe into potential annexations to Germany and the USSR respectively. This agreement - the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact - was illegal.   Public acknowledgement of the protocols’ illegality, and the resulting illegitimate Soviet presence in the Baltics, became a rallying point for increasingly larger demonstrations over the years of The Singing Revolution.

 The opening page of the musical score for The Singing Revolution, translated from the Lithuanian by Ona Daugirdas:

“Lithuania, you arose with a song!”

Singing has always been a vital part of Lithuanian identity, especially during times of oppression and occupation. Songs gave the Lithuanian people strength and comfort, unity and purpose. During the political upheavals of 1987-1991, Lithuania’s quest for freedom from the Soviet Union became known as the “Singing Revolution,” because the people won not by armed insurrection, but by courageous non-violent resistance – by daring to sing a forbidden song.

In 2015 we celebrated the 25th anniversary of the re-establishment of Lithuania’s independence. The 5-part cantata “The Singing Revolution” was specially commissioned to commemorate that struggle. The piece is grounded in five historical moments from 1987 to 1991, each a reflection of the character of a nation on the road to independence.

I. “Tiek metų kentėta” - “So Many Years Suffering” 

Aug. 23, 1987. The first anti-Soviet meeting in Lithuania 

  The first public anti-Soviet demonstration in Lithuania was held on August 23, 1987 in a public square in Vilnius. It was “Black Ribbon Day” – the anniversary of the infamous 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop treaty. By virtue of secret protocols attached to this treaty (consistently denied by the Soviets), Hitler and Stalin determined the tragic fate and subsequent occupation of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia.

The square was surrounded by KGB operatives, but the demonstrators were determined to speak. Disregarding threats to their own safety, they publicly condemned the unlawful Soviet occupation and refuted the prevailing Soviet lie that Lithuania willingly chose to join the USSR. They dedicated their protest to all those who had been imprisoned, deported, and killed by Stalin and the Soviet regime during 50 years of occupation. The irrepressible spirit of freedom was wakening ...   After the speeches, this small but resolute group of protestors bravely raised their voices and sang the patriotic Lietuva brangi and the traditional hymn Marija, Marija, which begs for Divine protection from “the terrible enemy.” The first part of the cantata begins mournfully, reflecting on the past: “For so many years we have suffered, with our heads down. For so many years, we have lived in darkness.”  But it brightens, as “the winds carry forth the first song” of a determined nation. The Singing Revolution had begun.

II. “Į rytojų keliame akis” - “We Lift Our Eyes to Tomorrow.” 

Aug. 23, 1988. The greatest Sajudis meeting in Lithuania.  

Exactly one year later, on August 23, 1988, Lithuanians demonstrated again, but this time at Vingio Park, a vast public space in Vilnius. The park was packed with 150,000 peaceful protesters, gathered to demonstrate their united will to be free. People waved yellow, green, and red Lithuanian flags and sang the national anthem. Hope had always been alive, but now it had become real...  In one short year, many significant events had taken place – the Reform Movement or Sąjūdis had been founded, the national flag had been restored to its official status, and countless protest meetings and demonstrations had been held. Rock musicians organized two “March of Rock” festivals – touring cities and towns and stirring up the popular imagination with their revolutionary lyrics. The entire nation was on its feet.

Part II of the cantata begins with a feeling of new empowerment and a belief that the time has come to “turn the page on this painful chapter of history.” The choir sings the soaring line “we lift our eyes to tomorrow,” which is then taken up by children’s voices (the future of a nation) and evolves into an insistent chant of “Lietuva, Lietuva!” (Lithuania, Lithuania). The piece increases in intensity to a resolute finale with the words “Freedom is the will of the people!”

III. “Baltijos kelias” - “The Baltic Way” 

August 23, 1989 

  It was called “The Baltic Way.” On August 23, 1989, almost 2,500,000 people in Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia linked arms to form a living chain that stretched more than 600 km, joining the capital cities of Vilnius, Riga and Tallinn. It was a bold and vivid statement to remind the world of the 50th anniversary of the shameful Molotov-Ribbentrop treaty. An estimated one million Lithuanians turned out to line the streets and highways. Organizers provided free bus rides and directed people by special radio broadcasts so that the chain would be unbroken.

Airplanes flew along the route, showering supporters with flowers from above. People joined hands, sang songs, and lit candles in memory of the nation’s heroes. The Baltic Way became a galvanizing symbol that moved observers around the world.

Part III begins with the bass voices quietly chanting, “the Baltic Way – the path to freedom.” The other voices join in with their own mantras, ebbing and flowing like the waves of our beloved Baltic Sea. Just as the human chain of the Baltic Way grew more powerful with every link, the music also gathers energy and power, until the choir proclaims:

“Brother, sister, together we stand, hand in hand for Freedom!”

  IV. “Tu prisikėlei” - “You have arisen” 

March 11, 1990. The restoration of Lithuania’s Independence.  

  The political situation was evolving quickly. While Moscow was struggling to deal with the effects of glasnost and perestroika, Lithuanians kept pushing for greater reforms and independence. Spearheaded by Sąjūdis – the Reform Movement – the people elected a pro-independence Supreme Council. On March 11, 1990, the Council passed the Act of the Re-Establishment of the State of Lithuania, and abolished  the Soviet constitution. It elected Sąjūdis leader Vytautas Landsbergis as its first chairman. Within seven months of the Baltic Way, Lithuania became the first Soviet state to declare its independence. After 50 years of occupation, Lithuania had risen again!  Lithuania was free!  Part IV expresses this joy with a melody that is majestic and beautiful, but also introspective and fragile. “You rose again, Lithuania ... white like the springtime, powerful and sacred. My heart sings with you.” This feeling of joy soon dissipates into an uneasy orchestral dissonance, foreshadowing the dramatic and terrible events of 1991.

V. “Tikėkime vienas kitu ” - “Let us believe in each other”  

January 13, 1991. The battle for Lithuania’s freedom.  

The Soviet Union was not going to let go easily. On January 10, 1991, Lithuania received an ultimatum demanding that it restore the Soviet constitution. Soviet tanks, armored vehicles, and soldiers began their threatening advance towards Lithuanian government buildings and communication centers.

People poured into the streets and city squares to defend their homeland. They had no weapons, but they were armored – with faith, a sense of unity, and with voices joined in song. Throughout the cold, dark night of January 13, 1991, the ominous rumble of tanks and the crack of gunshots echoed in the streets. By morning, the terrible cost of freedom became known: hundreds were wounded and 14 Lithuanians lost their lives. But the strength of the people held.

Part V of the cantata begins tensely, as “dark clouds gather.” With thundering accents, the chorus tells of the approaching tanks and rises to a fortissimo as “death rips through the night.” As the echoes of the tragic drama dissipate, we hear a quiet invocation: “Tikėkime, tikėkime” (Let us believe). Above the prayers, we hear an original radio recording from that historic night – Vytautas Landsbergis addressing his countrymen:  “We must believe – in Lithuania and in each other. And if a dark night should fall, it will not be long – Freedom is dawning ...”  In the cantata’s joyful finale, we celebrate the spirit of the Singing Revolution, as the choir repeats, ever rising:   

“Lithuania, you arose with a song!”


balt way.jpg

Baltijos Kelias (The Baltic Way) LRT, 2:48 minutes. Original footage, produced by Lithuanian Television, showing a Lithuanian section of the 600-kilometer human chain that stretched from Vilnius, Lithuania through Riga, Latvia to Tallinn, Estonia in 1989. Movement 3 of The Singing Revolution.