The sound of resistance

Using folk melodies and bracing discords, Baltic composers railed against Soviet dominance

It was a mark of the cultural importance of the event that the Lithuanian embassy in London should have played host recently to the release of four CDs of music by as many composers from the Baltic states. The nibbles flew, the wine flowed, and His Excellency the ambassador spoke briefly, followed by a young Lithuanian cellist performing contemporary music from neighbouring Latvia, which, besides conventional bowing, involved beating her instrument and scraping agonised tones from the short strings below the bridge. Three of the composers are living; the fourth, Vytautas Bacevicius (Lithuania), died in obscurity in New York in 1970.

Bacevicius was touring Argentina in 1939 when the Germans invaded his homeland. He never returned, but settled in the US, where he taught and tried to get his music played, usually unsuccessfully. Under Soviet rule, Lithuania ignored him and it is only since his death that he has been recognised by his countrymen.

He would have been gratified to know that the present CD, dating from 2005, was paid for by Lithuania's ministry of culture, performed by the Lithuanian State Symphony Orchestra, and produced by recording engineers at Lithuanian Radio. It's an excellent sound. The Second Symphony, Della Guerra ("of the war") couldn't be clearer in its stark expression of anger and anxiety at the European folly. Bacevicius drives his dissonance on a powerful pulse and his funeral andante contorts with slow-burning agony into a weeping harp solo. In works written before his exile, the "Poème Électrique" and the Piano Concerto No 1 on Lithuanian themes, Bacevicius shows himself to be both modernist and Romantic. But the use of folk melodies is a red rag to the bull of oppression. Empires soon discover that trying to extinguish a subjugated people's culture only strengthens resistance.

Composers in any society appreciate the use of folk song as an esoteric means of communication with their public. What the distant censor does not understand may often pass. The CD of music by the Latvian composer Peteris Plakidis opens with his exciting, Bartók-inspired "Music for Piano, Strings and Timpani", composed in 1969, which borrows a theme from a folk song, unknown to Soviet ears, about oppressive foreign landowners. Though the words are not set, the tune is well enough known by Latvians to summon them anyway and the piece becomes a vehicle for nationalist and separatist feeling.

Even though it is nearly 20 years since the collapse of the USSR, Moscow still expects a certain deference from the former satellite states. In April, violent riots erupted after a statue of a Russian soldier was removed from the centre of the Estonian capital, Tallinn, and re-erected in a cemetery outside the city. Yet the resurgent Russian Orthodox Church, like Roman Catholicism after the disintegration of the Holy Roman empire, has maintained a psychological hold on former territories despite the loosening of pol itical control. Patriarch Alexei II has reminded Orthodox adherents of their obligations and loyalties to the wider Slavic fraternity in Russia and eastern Europe, and has accused Estonia of lacking respect for those who defended the "one Motherland" against Nazism.

The opening track by the octogenarian Estonian composer Ester Mägi is a serenely contemplative piece for strings entitled "Vesper", inspired by a visit to St John's Church in central Tallinn. It is profound and personal, a rich exploration of advanced harmonies and, at an ideal broadcast length of seven and a half minutes, something of a hit on Baltic radio stations. Appropriately for a culture with a patriarch at its head, the Estonian establishment found it hard to accept the idea of a female composer. "How can a woman conceive such aggression?" commentators asked in 1968 on first hearing Symphony, the short, punchy work that concludes Mägi's disc.

The Baltic states are united annually by a 150-year-old revolving choir festival so important and popular that neither the Nazis nor the Soviets dared abolish it. The final disc features work for unaccompanied male voice choir by the Estonian composer Veljo Tormis (76), who is a key figure at the festivals. His reputation has already spread to Britain, where he is performed by the BBC Singers. Tormis writes bracing discords, chant-like melodies and rhythms emphasised on a shaman's drum. The opening number, "Taboo", is a hungry incantation of that single word, so often uttered under censorious regimes. The "Men's Songs" suite celebrates masculinity with an ironic slant: "We do not fear drowning or falling into a well," it boasts, as if that were an everyday likelihood. The last track, "Curse Upon Iron", with melodic lines like sirens, rails against man's millstone - the burden of work.

At the embassy, we smirked at the muscular pride and frowned at the universality of experience in the songs. We were struck by the depth of passionate feeling running through both the music and the performances on all the discs. The chat continued; the pile of CDs and the Lithuanian crisps disappeared; the ambassador shook hands with the departing guests. Many governments today would use ephemeral rock music to represent themselves. "Things Can Only Get Better" blasted Tony Blair into Downing Street. The Baltic states, however, are agreed: on serious music for serious situations.

"Vytautas Bacevicius", "Peteris Plakidis" and "Ester Mägi" are out this month; "Veljo Tormis" is released on 20 August (all on Toccata Classics)

This article first appeared in the 09 July 2007 issue of the New Statesman, The new terror