Some pieces make me forget time and space. Ludwig van Beethoven’s Violin Concerto for instance. Franz Schubert’s song cycle “Winterreise”. Some books make me forget time and space too. Books like Reiner Stach’s biography on Franz Kafka. Three volumes and an annex, several thousand pages, a wonderful gift. Diving into Franz Kafka’s world, diving into the life in Prague at the turn of the 19th century and into the mysteries of the mind and the emotions of this enigmatic writer – what a pleasure! I discovered Kafka very late, in the summer of 2017, by now I rank him as one of those writers that fascinate me most.
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.
“It’s good! Awfully emotional! Too emotional, but I love it.” Edward Elgar wrote those lines about his Violin Concerto in B minor, Op. 61. The composer was right. It is emotional. It is very good. And I love it too. A few days ago, I was walking to my car. It was the beginning of a grey and wet day. I had the opening bars of the first movement in the ear and I was thinking about a girl I once loved. It was an impossible love, of course. She lived in the former Soviet Union when we first met; I was still a student. I wrote her long and passionate letters, but she had more common sense than I had. She knew perfectly well she would not leave her country. She studied at a college in her country, her family was poor and she would not travel anywhere.
The first movement sounds at first like a cry of despair, a confused, agitated mind looking for help, for orientation, for the light at the end of the tunnel. A slow transition to a kind of monologue, a mind wandering into unknown territories, the pizzicato* introduces a phase of consolidation and of consolation. The second movement has the texture of a prayer, a lullaby, a long, drawn-out sigh expressing a certain resignation, a certain peace of mind, albeit on the background of an overall depressed and confused mood. Occasionally gentle, optimistic figured for the violin are pitched against the darkness, but they cannot prevail. The last movement however has a hopeful, playful general mood and finishes on a strident, agitated repetition of the central theme giving the third movement a bitter aftertaste.