‘All of my creative inspiration comes from music, from euphony that acts as an ideal reflection or embodiment of a homeland. Aspiring for this ideal is the most important theme in my work.’
This is the motto of the Latvian composer Georgs Pelēcis, to whom the Amstel Saxophone Quartet has dedicated a full CD. This will be presented at Orgelpark Amsterdam on 10 December 2021.
Georgs Pelēcis was born in Riga in 1947 and started out his musical career at the Emīls Dārziņš Music School, the junior department of the Riga Conservatoire (today called the Jāzeps Vītols Latvian Academy of Music). He was a chorister in the renowned Dārziņš School boys’ choir, and also took lessons in piano and violin and studied composition with Ģederts Ramans.
After finishing this musical college he moved to Moscow, to study composition with Aram Khachaturian at the Piotr Tchaikovsky State Conservatory. In 1970 he graduated with the Double Concerto for Balalaika, Baritone-Saxophone and Orchestra. He returned to Riga, where, much to his surprise, he was at once invited to teach polyphony at the Music Academy. ‘I didn’t have any particular interest in the subject. On the contrary, I had passed the exam and was happy it was over’, he confessed in an interview with his composer colleague Jānis Petraškevičs in 2018.
Yet Pelēcis felt honoured by the request and accepted the position anyway, even though a serious methodology for teaching polyphony was not at hand. After having taught the subject for four years, he realized that he ‘did not know anything’, and decided to move back to Moscow.
He studied with Professor Vladimir Protopopov, fnishing his studies in 1977 with a dissertation on the Flemish polyphonist Johannes Ockeghem. Hereafter he quickly developed into one of the foremost researchers in this field, publishing over thirty academic works. In 1993 his study of Pierluigi Palestrina was awarded a medal by the International Palestrina Centre.
It proved not always easy to balance his research with his compositional activities, though. In the seventies and eighties there were times when he feared he might never compose again. Yet, while he never gave up his position as a professor of counterpoint and fugue at the Latvian Academy of Music, he soon realized that ‘writing music is definitely my priority’, and concentrated more on composing.
Georgs Pelēcis: ‘Minimalists such as Steve Reich and Simeon ten Holt make euphony a colossal source of joy.’Tweet
Pelēcis is a great admirer of the clever and intricate polyphony of Bach and Palestrina and is averse to the quest for innovation that so long dominated the musical avant-garde. To his view composers must not approach music in a dialectic way: rather than feeling obliged to always be in a metaphoric ‘military front line’, he chooses to also cherish the achievements of the past. The influence of early music clearly shines through his own music, which is always melodic and euphonious.
This does not mean he rejects all modern developments, though. He highly values the repetitive patterns of minimalists such as Steve Reich and Simeon ten Holt. ‘They make euphony a colossal source of joy’, he confided to Petraškevičs in 2018. ‘All of those rhythm patterns they play around with, it’s a creative and perceptive joy!’ In his own compositions he makes abundant use of repetitive patterns, though he would never call this approach ‘minimalist’. He prefers the term ‘maximalism’, for after all, the composer squeezes a maximum of musical material from one single pattern.
Though using polyphonic techniques, the music of Pelēcis is never ponderous or academic. He creates a simple, open and sometimes humorous voice that immediately speaks to our heart and soul. Because of its spiritual connotations his work is often mentioned in one breath with that of composers such as Arvo Pärt or John Tavener. To his own detriment he is sometimes even dubbed ‘the naïvist of Latvian music’.
This epithet does not do justice to his warm and lively style that is brimming with zest for life. As the Latvian composer and teacher Imants Zemzaris once suggested, we should rather speak of ‘new consonant music, where euphony is the harmonic ideal’. Or, to quote tenor saxophonist Bas Apswoude of the Amstel Quartet: ‘Despite its simplicity the music of Pelēcis is never superficial, perhaps because of its sincerity, effective use of counterpoint and sophisticated rhythmicality.’