Talivaldis Kenins: Profilic composer exiled from Latvia in the Second World War who found a home in Canada

Talivaldis Kenins was one of an entire generation of Baltic composers whose promising careers were nipped in the bud when their countries were crushed between the imperialist ambitions of Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia. Kenins found exile in North America, becoming a valued feature of Canadian musical life. He was one of the few to live long enough to see freedom restored to his home country, and to return to enjoy the acclaim of his compatriots.

Kenins came from a cultured background: his father was a politician (Minister of Education and Justice in the Latvian republic between the two world wars), a lawyer, diplomat and educator, with a reputation also as a poet and translator, who was to be deported by the Soviets; his mother was a journalist and writer. Although young "Tali" began to learn the piano at five and was composing by eight, he was none the less intended for a career in the Latvian diplomatic service and took a first degree in general arts at the Lycée Champollion in Grenoble, becoming a Bachelier ès lettres in 1939.

He then returned home, just before the outbreak of the Second World War, to begin a course in composition at the Latvian Conservatory in Riga, where he studied piano with Arvids Žilinskis, counterpoint with Jazeps Vitols, and harmony, form and orchestration with Adolfs Abele.

The Baltic republics had their first experience of Soviet terror after the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact in 1939 handed them over to Stalin. When in 1944 the Russians invaded again, driving out the occupying Germans, the locals knew what they were in for and those who could left. Kenins fled, making his way with extraordinary difficulty through Germany to France, and in 1945 he enrolled at the Conservatoire National de Musique in Paris, where his teachers included Olivier Messiaen.

The impoverished refugee's keyboard skills now came to his aid, and he fed himself by playing the piano in theatres and dance bands and accompanying singers. He managed to stick to his academic guns, though, and graduated in 1950 with a Grand Prix, one of a number of student prizes he now had to his name. His music was beginning to attract international attention: that same year the Unesco International Music Council awarded him a scholarship which allowed him a year's post-graduate work, and his Septet of 1949 was performed at that hotbed of modernism, the Darmstadt Ferienkurse für neue Musik, conducted by no less a figure than Hermann Scherchen.

In exile, Kenins never forgot his native land and, after marrying his fellow Latvian Valda Dreimane, in 1951 an appointment as organist and music director at St Andrew's Latvian Lutheran Church in Toronto allowed him to remain in contact with Latvian culture. The choir he founded there, and conducted until 1958, became one of the most prominent church choirs in North America.

In 1952 Kenins joined the staff of the Faculty of Music at the University of Toronto as a teacher of composition and counterpoint; he was a full professor from 1973 until his retirement in 1984. Among his students are some of the best-known names in contemporary Canadian music: the composers Tomas Dusatko, Bruce Mather and Imant Raminsh, the academic Walter Kemp and the pianist Arthur Ozolins.

Kenins was active off-campus, too, in the Canadian League of Composers, of which he was president in 1973-74, the Latvian Concert Association of Toronto, which he founded in 1959, in Latvian song festivals, as a writer in exile publications, and as a frequent lecturer at Canadian and international conferences and symposia.

And, of course, he composed, generously. He produced eight symphonies between 1959 and 1986 but balked at the idea of the jinxed No 9 that had put an end to the symphonic careers of Beethoven, Mahler and many other composers, and so he wrote a Nonet instead (he called it "l'ultima sinfonia" but denied that the number of instruments was an allusion to a ninth symphony); there's also a sinfonietta from 1976. He wrote no fewer than 12 concertos, including works for piano (not least the Fantaisies concertantes of 1971; the early Piano Concerto of 1946 was never orchestrated), violin (1973-74) and viola (1998).

But this superficial categorisation gives an imprecise idea of Kenins' creative concerns: three of the concertos feature two soloists – violin and cello with string orchestra (1964), violin and piano (1987), flute and guitar (1985) – and the Second Symphony of 1967 is a Sinfonia concertante for flute, oboe, clarinet and orchestra and the Fourth of 1972 a concertante for orchestra with prominent percussion. It was Kenins' enjoyment of lean, wiry counterpoint, of the interplay of melodic lines and instrumental colour – often driven forward by powerful ostinato rhythms – that blurred the borders between genres. His chamber music, similarly, can have a symphonic drive and his orchestral textures a chamber-musical clarity.

His contrapuntal mastery led naturally to a fondness for fugue, particularly in his early works, which lessened somewhat when in the 1970s he began experimenting with some of the tools of modernism, allowing a higher degree of dissonance into his music, even (in the Fourth Symphony of 1972) an element of indeterminacy. But the instincts of his craftsmanship eventually reasserted themselves as tonality and polyphony reclaimed their sovereignty, with the Sixth Symphony, the Sinfonia ad fugam (1978), accommodating both aleatoric and traditional elements and the Seventh Symphony (1980) offering a technical tour de force in its integration of passacaglia and fugue.

Kenins often used Latvian material or stimuli in his music, particularly in his choral works, as in the Prayer for Latvia (1951) for soprano, baritone, male-voice chorus and orchestra, To a Soldier from Kurland (1953) for soprano, baritone, mixed chorus and orchestra and the Cantata Baltica (1974) for mezzo, mixed choir, two trumpets, timpani and organ. He also produced choral treatments of Latvian folksongs.

Latvia itself rediscovered Kenins, too. In 1989, as the Soviet Union lessened its grip, he made the first of three return visits to his homeland and was awarded an honorary professorship of the Riga Conservatory. Latvian television presented a documentary on him in 1990. And concerts of his music in 1991, the year Latvia regained its independence, and in 1994 drew him back again, when his visit was marked by the publication of the only book about him, Ingrida Zemzare's Starp divam pasaulem ("Between Two Worlds").

The American musicologist Paul Rapoport, who wrote more in English about Kenins' music that anyone else, recalled "a convivial and warm-hearted friend who was widely read and had both strong opinions and a lively sense of humour. He was one of the best and most prolific Canadian composers of the 20th century. His music, which often combines chamber and concertante principles to a high level, is seriously under-represented in concerts and recordings".

Martin Anderson

Talivaldis Kenins, composer and teacher: born Liepaja, Latvia 22 April 1919; married 1950 Valda Dreimane (two sons); died Toronto, Ont ario 20 January 2008.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
One Direction's Zayn Malik gazes at a bouquet of flowers in the 'Night Changes' music video
people
News
people
News
'Free the Nipple' film screening after party with We Are The XX, New York, America - 04 Feb 2014
news
Arts and Entertainment
Russell Tovey, Myanna Buring and Julian Rhind Tutt star in Banished
tvReview: The latest episode was a smidgen less depressing... but it’s hardly a bonza beach party
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Sales Manager

£35000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a unique opportunity to...

Recruitment Genius: Trainee Manager - Production

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: Trainee Managers are required to join the UK's...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales Manager

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: You will maximise the effective...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + uncapped commission : SThree: Hello! I know most ...

Day In a Page

The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

The saffron censorship that governs India

Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

How did fandom get so dark?

Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

Disney's mega money-making formula

'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

14 best Easter decorations

Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

Paul Scholes column

Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

The future of GM

The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

Britain's mild winters could be numbered

Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

Cowslips vs honeysuckle

It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss
Tony Blair joins a strange and exclusive club of political leaders whose careers have been blighted by the Middle East

Blair has joined a strange and exclusive club

A new tomb has just gone up in the Middle East's graveyard of US and British political reputations, says Patrick Cockburn