Most people today no longer possess beliefs, love and ideals. The spiritual dimension has been lost. My intention is to provide food for the soul and this is what I preach in my works. (Peteris Vasks)
Peteris Vasks was born on 16 April 1946 in Aizpute in Latvia as the son of a Baptist pastor who was well-known in Latvia. Vasks began his musical education at the local music school in Aizpute. He subsequently produced his first compositions and also studied the double bass at the Emils Darzins Music School in Riga (1959-64). Vasks continued his double bass studies with Vytautas Sereika at the Lithuanian Conservatory in Vilnius up to 1970 before his one year of military service in the Soviet Army. Vasks orchestral career had already began as early as 1961 as a member of various symphony and chamber orchestras, including the Latvian Philharmonic Orchestra (1966 to 1969), Lithuanian Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra (1969 to 1970) and the Latvian Radio and Television Orchestra (1971 to 1974). From 1973 to 1978, Vasks additionally studied composition with Valentin Utkin at the Latvian Music Academy in Riga. During the following years, he was a music teacher in Salacgriva, Zvejniekciems und Jelgava and has taught composition at the Emils Darzins Musikschule in Riga since 1989. During the Soviet period, Vasks suffered under the repressions of Russian cultural doctrine due to his beliefs and artistic convictions, but the Latvian composer’s works have swiftly achieved widespread recognition during the past few years. Choral music of major importance within Vasks Œvre. His instrumental works are performed around the world by renowned musicians and frequently used by choreographers.
Vasks compositions incorporate archaic, folklore elements from Latvian music and place them within a dynamic and challenging relationship with the language of contemporary music. The works are frequently given programmatic titles based on natural processes. Vasks’ intentions are however not so much a purely poetic praise of nature or showy tone painting, but rather the pursuit of themes such as the complex interaction between man and nature and the beauty of life on the one hand but also the imminent ecological and moral destruction of the world which he expresses in musical language. Frequent reference is made to his personal biography and the recent history of suffering on the part of the Latvian people. The brass quintet Musik für wegziehende Vögel composed in 1977 can be understood as the yearning hope for freedom of travel which at that time was not permitted by the Soviet occupation, whereas the Musica dolorosa for strings dating from the year 1983 describes the extremely personal and intense mourning on the death of his sister.
Vasks also views his three symphonies – the 1st Symphony for strings (“Stimmen”, 1991), the 2nd Symphony (1998/99) for large orchestra and the 3rd Symphony (2005) for large orchestra – as reflections of recent political events in the Baltic states and their effects on man and the environment. Cragged and disjointed clusters and aleatory sounds representing intimidation and destruction are contrasted with tender imitations of birdcalls in the wind section and simple melodies in a folksong style – frequently embedded in primarily minor harmonies – and mystically shimmering string textures. As exemplified by the violin concerto Distant Light, performed for the first time in 1977 by Gideon Kremer, a reference to the possibility of a better “more ideal world” is never absent: a hint of musically accentuated hope which at times takes on auspicious voluminous dimensions.
Peteris Vasks was appointed as the Main Composer of the Stockholm New Music Festival in 1996. The same year, he was awarded the Herder-Prize from the Alfred Toepfer Foundation and the Baltic Assembly Prize. Vasks received the Latvian Great Music Award on three occasions: for Litene in 1993, for Distant Light in1998and for the 2nd Symphony in 2000. Vasks was created as an honorary member of the Latvian Academy of Sciences in 1994 and a member of the Royal Swedish Music Academy in Stockholm in 2001. In 2002, the composer became an honorary senator of the Latvian Cultural Academy in Riga. In 2005, he received the Cannes Classic Award for recordings of the violin concerto Distant Light and the 2nd Symphony. Vasks was Composer in Residence at the British festivals Presteigne and Vale of Glamorgan in 2006.