A Musician with Lieutenant Colonel’s Insignia

A Musician with Lieutenant Colonel’s Insignia
Kaspars Garda, Riga 2014
Fit men in uniforms, rhythmic, uplifting music – when people see the National Armed Forces’ Orchestra march, they involuntarily straighten themselves and even the most sceptical passers-by stop to admire the marchers. At the head of the Orchestra is Lieutenant Colonel Dainis Vuškāns – a musician of quite a high rank and with significant military experience. He is the host for an unprecedented event in Latvia – the International Festival of Military Bands on the 5th and 6th of July, part of the “Riga 2014” Programme’s thematic line “Freedom Street”.

“This weekend, six skilled professional orchestras from the United States, Georgia, the Netherlands, Germany and Norway will be performing together in Latvia. This is the first time since the restoration of independence that such a large number of military bands is in Latvia at one time. Listeners will obviously enjoy the parade programmes the most. They are like a dessert, which you always like more than everything else. The concert will be in Ķīpsala Hall, where spectators will be seated in amphitheatre to watch the performances from above,” says Dainis Vuškāns.

The lieutenant colonel has arrived for our meeting at the “Riga 2014” office dressed in a parade uniform and wearing white gloves. He is very happy that such a large number of his colleagues is visiting Riga during the city’s European Capital of Culture year, and he emphasises that all the National Armed Forces Orchestra members are very well educated, all with a bachelor or master’s degree from the Academy of Music, or still studying for their degrees. “Our professional level is on par with that of our foreign colleagues,” says Dainis Vuškāns, “our ranks, in a way, symbolise what we can do besides being orchestra musicians and culture workers.”

“At the beginning of the 1990s, when the work on setting up the National Armed Forces Orchestra had just begun, we often visited military music festivals abroad, and watched with great envy how popular these festivals were, how many people turned out to see them and how attractive foreign military bands’ parades were. Now time has come for Latvia, too. It is the third time that the International Festival of Military Bands is organised in Latvia, but the first two times it was held in Daugavpils, whereas now it is Riga’s turn to host it as the European Capital of Culture.”

Lieutenant Colonel Vuškāns’ way to becoming the Armed Forces Orchestra’s head began even before he started to consider a military career. He first learned accordion at Ilūkste Music School, later trumpet. After the secondary school, he had opportunity to study in the Military Conductors School of the Moscow Conservatory.

“I was very lucky to be able to give it a try back in 1984. In the Soviet system, all conservatory graduates were sent to work in various parts of the country, no one was left without a job, and I had to go to Kalinigrad Oblast, where I ended up in the Kaliningrad Oblast Staff Orchestra. And so it all began, and is still continuing,” says the head of the Armed Forces’ Orchestra.

“The history of military music is a very interesting subject, and much less researched than symphony music. The oldest military bands in the world are not hundreds, but thousands of years old.

One of them is the “Mehter” military band in Turkey, an orchestra over two thousand years old, that is still active. This unit has a very interesting history, unique traditions, uniforms and repertoire,” Dainis Vuškāns offers us a brief insight into the history of military music.

“In the past, soldiers had to serve all their life in Turkey’s armed forces – service continued for at least 25 years, until you became old and ailing. That is why these soldiers’ songs and marches, preserved to these days, are very sad – as a rule, they are always in a minor key. They reflect the hard life of a soldier in the Ottoman Empire – constant wars and being away from homeland. It is the “Mehter” orchestra from which Ludwig van Beethoven borrowed the bass drum, cymbals, timpani and zurna for his Ninth Symphony. All these instruments remain part of a symphony orchestra to this day, except zurna which has been replaced by oboe. This is not the only such example showing that military music had a profound effect on symphony music,” explains the Armed Forces Orchestra’s head.

The beginnings of military music in Latvia go back to 1915, when Emperor Nicholas II issued a decree permitting establishing of Russian army units according to the ethnic principle.

A popular slogan at that time was, “Come Together Under Latvian Banners!”, as a result of which the first battalions were formed that later became eight riflemen regiments. And each of them, as per the rules, had its own orchestra. But if you have a national battalion with own orchestra, you also need to have your own individual music. That’s how first Latvian military music compositions were created under Latvian bandmasters. These were very simple adaptations of Latvian folksongs to the rhythm of march, waltz and polka.

“Speaking of the definition of military music, it is quite rarely mentioned in music studies. The definition is as follows: military music is all music performed by a uniformed military band. Which means that we can play rock and roll, jive or some serious opus, and it will automatically become martial music,” says Dainis Vuškāns to dispel the popular belief that military music is only made up of marches. Besides, quite many marches have been composed for civilian orchestras, especially for various festive occasions, for instance, Gunārs Ordelovskis’ marches marking the hundredth anniversary of the Song Festival.

“The entire repertoire of the National Armed Forces’ Orchestra can be divided in two parts: the official repertoire, where we perform compositions at various ceremonies by heart, and the other part – concert repertory, which we play from sheets,” says the orchestra’s head.

The Latvian public can always see the National Armed Forces’ Orchestra during the 18th of November Independence Day parade and at the Song Festival, and there is a number of other events that have become traditional for the orchestra.

“First of all, we perform on the 6th of February to mark the establishment of the Latvian Army Orchestra. Almost every year, we try to play a two-act concert in some of the Latvian cities or towns at the beginning of February. The 8th of March concert in Sigulda concert hall “Baltais flīģelis” has become a nice tradition for us. The Sigulda public know us and wait for the concert every year. This is our special musical present to women in not only Sigulda but in all of Latvia. Following the Ministry of Defence’s initiative, we give a military parade in some of the regions of Latvia on the 4th of May, and perform in Cēsis on the 22nd of June to commemorate the Cēsis Battles. I could go on for a long time like this.”

As we already reported, the International Festival of Military Bands performances at Ķīpsala Exhibition Centre will be on the 6th of July, whereas on the 5th of July, the military bands will march through Riga’s Old Town, give concerts at the Freedom Monument and the culture chalet “Esplanade 2014”. On Sunday, the military bands will also perform in the regions – in Sigulda, Ogre and Jelgava, as well as in Riga. For more information about the festival’s concerts, see this section of our portal!


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