In 1992, just a few months after Lithuania had regained its independence from the Soviet Union, I visited my longtime penfriend Jolita Grizickaite in that Baltic republic, heir to the now forgotten but once mighty Polish-Lithuanian kingdom.
I had made her acquaintance back in 1989. At the time she was part of the independence movement “Sajudis”, and my first attempt in 1991 to get to Lithuania – then still a Socialist Soviet Republic – had failed. After the brutal repression of the independance movement by Soviet troops, Moscow had denied me a visa. In the summer of 1992 I made it to Vilnius and Kaunas, where Jolita introduced me to the Lithuanian composer and painter Mikalojus Konstantinas Ciurlionis (1875-1911).
Kaunas hosts the M. K. Ciurlionis National Art Museum and it is there that my friend made me discover Ciurlionis’ paintings and his music that complement each other. In the museum you could watch the paintings and hear recordings of the matching music at the same time. The quality of the sound was poor, as the recordings were on old, old cassette tapes, but still good enough to stimulate my interest in this artist.
Two symphonic poems
Back home after a month and a half, I tried to find recordings of Ciurlionis pieces. It took weeks to dig something out – few people in Western Europe had heard of the Lithuanian composer – but I found a recording of Ciurlionis’ symphonic poems “The Sea” and “The Forest”. Though the composer picks up naturalistic subjects, he does not try to describe the subjects as such, but rather the effect they have upon him. His style reminds me somehow of Franz Liszt’s symphonic poems. “The Forest”, strongly influence by the Romantic era, evokes in my ears a trip through a haunted forest, but a forest populated rather by good spirits than by wolves or dragons. The first bars of “The Sea” suggest – unsurprisingly – a voyage on a ship. When the ship leaves the harbour the sea is calm. It is only later that a violent storm breaks out, but even as the general mood becomes more violent, the initial theme is still present.
Studies in Warsaw and Leipzig
Ciurlionis studied music between 1894 and 1899 at the Warsaw Institute for Music. In 1900/01 he composed “The Forest”, “The Sea” followed in 1907. In 1902 he studied counterpoint and composition, the latter under Carl Reinecke. This may explain certain parallels to Liszt, since Liszt was one of Reinecke’s paragons. Ciurlionis is sometimes described an expressionist artist, but as it is with impressionism, I find it difficult to compare styles of painting with styles of composing. His paintings certainly have an “expressionist” flavour, but the term was coined as late as 1908, three years before the composer’s death. The movement “Die Brücke” saw the light in 1905, “Der Blaue Reiter” followed in 1912. Perhaps Ciurlionis was simply ahead of his time! His music is rather a direct heir to Liszt, Mendelssohn and Schumann.
Pieces for organ and piano
As interesting as his symphonic poems are, I would however like to single out several other pieces. Ciurlionis short works for organ for example have a distinct sound unlike any other organ works I know. I like the Prelude in F Major. Prelude in A Flat Major reminds me of a melody composed for Scottish pipes while the Fugue in C Minor follows a festive spirit. The Lithuanian composer has composed over 40 pieces for piano in the tradition of Liszt, some of which are really nice, light-hearted and not troubled by any dark “expressionist” mood. Examples: Four pieces Op. 3, Two Pieces Op. 8 and Four Preludes Op. 34.
The symphonic poems have been recorded by the Vilnius Quartet in 2006 and the Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra. The organ works have been recorded in 2012 by the Quartet Do-Minor. The piano works have been recorded by the Lithuanian pianists Aldona Radvilaite, Augustinas Maceina & Birute Vainiunaite. Those are the albums I know about. However the Lithuanian researcher Vytautas Landsbergis mentions in a study that many more pieces are know, but had never been performed, at least not until 1992 when his study was printed. The Juilliard School has published an interesting paper on Ciurlionis in 2011. Any reader knowing of additional recordings is kindly invited to share his knowledge with me. I would be very grateful for that!
© Charles Thibo