A conducting baton of Haralds Mednis
A baton is more than just a conductor’s tool – it is the symbol of their work too. Magnificent batons were given as gifts during the 19th century and the early 20th century to orchestral conductors and choral conductors, and sometimes also to favourite music teachers on their birthdays; however, batons were most often given as gifts when a conductor was retiring. Choral conductors would usually use their hands for conducting, using a baton only when conducting an orchestra.
The most significant event taking place in July 2018 – and one of the central events of Latvia’s centenary celebrations – is of course the 26th Song and Dance Festival, whose history reaches as far back as 145 years ago. Latvian people are preparing for this event on a grand scale, which leads one to wonder – can there be life after the Song Festival?
The Song Festival changed the life of the excellent conductor Haralds Mednis. Haralds Mednis, a provincial Latvian teacher and conductor of a local choir, began to pursue music on a professional basis after winning a national contest in which rural choirs competed to participate in the 9th Song Festival in 1938. His work as a conductor forms a significant entry in the history of Latvian choral culture and choral singing.
Throughout the history of the Song Festival, different awards have been a part of it; usually, such awards were given to choirs upon winning a national contest of choirs. In 1993, the Ministry of Culture introduced a Song Festival Baton, presented to conductors in recognition of their life’s work. The first and so far the only person to have received this award is the chief conductor Haralds Mednis. The award was designed by the artist Jānis Mikāns in 1992, and it is in the form of a baton – a replica of the baton used by the prominent conductor Teodors Reiters. The original is held at the Museum of the History of Riga and Navigation. Haralds Mednis received this award on 4th July, 1993, during the closing concert of the 21st Song and Dance Festival.
Haralds Mednis’s entire life was dedicated to choral songs and the traditions of the Song Festival. The inscription of the award also states that was presented “for a life’s work invested in the cultivation of Latvian choral singing and the traditions of the Song Festival”. It could be said that the maestro-to-be developed together with the choir, perfecting his skills and proving himself fit for the task. Haralds Mednis became a conductor unexpectedly and in an unusual way: he was only nineteen years old when his father, the teacher and choral conductor Pēteris Mednis, passed away. After that, Haralds Mednis took his father’s place, both at school and in front of the choir.
His victory in the national contest in which rural choirs competed to participate in the 9th Song Festival in 1938 marked a turning point in his life. After that Jāzeps Vītols asked Haralds Mednis to join the conservatoire in Rīga. This turn of events brought new opportunities into the young conductor’s life, leading him down the path of professional music. Working as a choirmaster at the Latvian National Opera became Haralds Mednis’s main occupation. He conducted the Klaustiņš choir and the Chamber of Labour of Latvia choir; the maestro also conducted the Dziedonis men’s choir, the mixed choir of the University of Latvia (later known as Juventus), and the men’s choir of the University of Latvia. As it turned out, the Tēvzeme men’s choir and the Rīga teachers’ choir (later known as Skaņupe) would be the two collectives that the conductor would work with his entire life. Each of these also meant countless hours of rehearsals, concerts, and, of course, participation in the Song Festival.
In 1950, Haralds Mednis was appointed as the chief conductor of the Song Festival. The honourable title meant more than just a few hours in the limelight at the rostrum in Mežaparks. Becoming the chief conductor involved a lot of “heavy lifting” in between the song festivals, such as coordinating and training choirs in various locations around Latvia – in Rīga and Valka regions, as well as the central district of Rīga.
Throughout his long life Haralds Mednis navigated, like the captain of a song-filled ship, the traditions of choral singing and the Song Festival, from the first independent Latvian state to the second, renewed one; through five different governments; past cliffs and shoals; following signals of different colours from lighthouses. The name of Haralds Mednis is inseparably connected with a composition by Jāzeps Vītols, “Gaismas pils”. This composition unites four symbolic events – four full circles of a single song – in the maestro’s life. The first time was in 1938, when it was compulsory to perform “Gaismas pils” at the national contest of choirs; the second time took place in 1980, when the massed choir, conducted by H. Mednis, sang it in the presence of Annija Vītola; the third time took place during the legendary year of 1985, when the massed choir requested the conductor to come up to the rostrum to conduct “Gaismas pils”; and the final and the fourth time, during the Song Festival of 1998, when the song was included in the repertoire, and Haralds Mednis attended as an honorary chief conductor, but without being given songs to conduct. However, once again, the massed choir requested the 92-year-old maestro to come up to the rostrum, and “Gaismas pils” rose up – symbolically, because this was the conductor’s farewell to the festival.