It’s been more than three years since I introduced you to the Lithuanian composer Mikalojus Konstantinas Ciurlionis! I presented two symphonic poems, a few organ works and briefly mentioned his string quartets. It’s time for my readers to catch up with my exploration of his works then. Ciurlionis’ biography taken for itself is remarkable enough to fill a whole series of post. He was a painter, a composer, an essayist and he lived in an interesting time. He witnessed the end of the Russian Empire, of which Lithuania was a part, and he missed by a few years the rebirth of Lithuania as an independent country. The national awakening during the 19th century was nurtured to a great deal by Lithuania’s intellectual elite, of which Ciurlionis was a part.
So where should I start? Perhaps with the piece I picked for today’s post: Ciurlionis String Quartet in C minor. The composer wrote it in 1902. That year he stayed at the Conservatory of Leipzig and studied counterpoint under Salomon Jadassohn and composition under Carl Reinecke, one of the unknown unknowns, whom we have already met in an earlier post. Now Reinecke and Ciurlionis – that wasn’t an easy relationship. In a letter dated February 27, Ciurlionis writes: “Reinecke must have become disillusioned with my abilities. He sits listening through my score without seeing anything and simply stays silent. He found fault with one dissonance and wasted the entire lesson on it.”
Despair is reaching its climax a month later. In another letter he laments: “I can no longer get along with Reinecke and [Teodor] Wiemajer [Jadassohn’s successor]. There is a Bekanntmachung at the Conservatory to the effect that only those students who have spent no less than a year at the Conservatory are going to get certificates […] I’m completely broke. […] Sometimes I think it would be nice, during one of my walks, simply to tur my steps homewards, in the direction of the River Nemunas, the hills, the sands, the pine trees […] It wouldn’t take longer than a month, would it?”
Ciurlionis used dissonance on purpose like Franz Schubert and Arnold Schönberg, but his teachers were traditionalists and not open to modern ideas, it would appear. Ciurlionis found out that his teachers actually could not teach him anything meaningful, simply because they lived in different worlds. “How little the audience can understand the author’s intention: I’ve noticed that in Reinecke […], he notes. Reinecke often praised the parts that Ciurlionis wasn’t satisfied with and suggested rewriting those parts that the composer was most proud of.
Vytautas Landsbergis, a musicologist and former president of Lithuania, praises the string quartet as a valuable concert piece of romantic-classical texture. Originally it comprises four movements, however only the first three have survived to this day. What I appreciate most is the quartet’s balance between dark and sombre parts and gentle and light sections. It is well-balanced and it shows that Ciurlionis was not afraid to use counterpoint in his chamber music. If you listen closely, you will find multiple phrases where the different voices go separate ways and come back together. A witty piece, lovely to listen to, especially late at night!
The String Quartet in C minor has been recorded by the Vilnius String Quartet.
© Charles Thibo