The Modern Music of Lithuania: Past & Present

The history of Lithuanian professional music is indeed short, spanning about 100 years only. This could seem rather paradoxical, bearing in mind that already the establishment of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania (1236) had a favourable influence upon the development of music at the court of the ruling Grand Duke. When the greater part of Lithuania had adopted Christianity (1387), professional music came to the fore. In the 16-17th centuries Vilnius, the capital city of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, was an important scientific and cultural centre of East Europe. The historical sources witness a lot of musical activities in this period, including church choirs, court orchestras, and luxurious stagings of Italian operas. The greatest part of the musicians, and especially composers, were either invited from abroad, or belonged to different national groups integrated into the multi-national Grand Duchy of Lithuania.


It was only the end of the 19th century when the rudiments of the Lithuanian professional music tradition appeared, together with the building of the new Lithuanian national identity, while struggling against the Russian tsarist government. The various cultural societies that were coming to life at this time set up choirs, orchestras, organized concerts and lectures, musical contests. The arrangements of folk songs for choirs and sacred hymns constituted the greatest part of the creative activities of the Lithuanian composers of this time; many of the composers were also church organists and choir leaders. They were writing quite traditional, even old-fashioned music, mostly in the style of the first half of the 19th century. The only exception was the composer and artist Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis (1875-1911), a forward-looking artistic personality, who is considered the founder of Lithuanian national music - and the pathfinder of Lithuanian modern music as well, because of his luminous imagination, highly individualistic pursuits of innovations, and at the same time, the parallels with the very modern trends in Western music.
Čiurlionis studied music composition in Warsaw and Leipzig, and later, fine arts in Warsaw. The bulk of his work consists of symphonic (poems "In the Forest" and "Sea") and piano compositions in a style typical of music of the beginning of the 20th century: late romanticism developing into original expressionistic and constructivist explorations. In his late piano works, there are found early prototypes of the serial techniques, and even a unique example of something that one could call the concept of 'fractal music', dated back as early as 1905! The peculiarity of Čiurlionis' artistic personality is that he was both composer and painter, therefore he often modelled his musical expression after the inner laws of visual art, and vice versa.


During the years of the First Lithuanian Republic (1918-1940), a most significant group of composers worked in a late romantic style laced with folk music patterns, and making use of the modern techniques they were aware of (foremost, characteristic of the early German modernism). The leader of this group was the founder of the professional Lithuanian composers' school, and probably its best-known figure, Juozas Gruodis (1884-1948). He graduated from the Leipzig conservatoire and founded the Kaunas conservatoire. The majority of the 20th century Lithuanian composers are erstwhile students of his (or their students, in turn). In his works (orchestral, vocal, piano) one can found romantic, impressionistic and expressionistic features combined with Lithuanian folk melodies - an attempt to develop a 'national style'. This is also an identifiable tendency in the music of his contemporaries and followers who later emigrated to the USA (Vladas Jakubėnas, Kazimieras Viktoras Banaitis and others). Gruodis was the first who paid attention to the 'modern' sound of the sutartinė - old Lithuanian type of multipart singing which features dissonant second intervals, syncopation, and elementary scales distinctly different from the major-minor system.

In this period there also worked a more radically modernistic group of composers, namely, Vytautas Bacevičius, Jeronimas Kačinskas and Julius Gaidelis, all of whom emigrated to the USA during WW II. Vytautas Bacevičius (1905-1970) was the brother of the famous Polish composer Grażyna Bacewicz (they were born in a mixed Lithuanian-Polish family). Bacevičius studied in Poland and Paris. In his works (seven symphonies, many works for piano, piano concertos, etc.) the expressionistic and constructivist features are distinct, the music is atonal and athematic. In his late period, Bacevičius wrote (after his own definition) 'cosmic music' ("Poème cosmique" for piano, "Rayons cosmiques" for organ).
Meanwhile, Jeronimas Kačinskas (1907-2005), studying in Prague with the inventor of quartertone music Alois Hába (who appreciated Kačinskas as the most tallented among his students), began to write quartertone music himself, later abandoned it and subsequently worked in a free, atonal and athematic (non-reprise) style.


The Soviet occupation (1940) and the period of war suppressed the natural development of Lithuanian music. Music and, indeed, the whole of cultural life, was regulated by the state institutions according to directions issued by Moscow. Music and other arts had to serve the official ideology and propaganda. Everybody had to follow the leading Soviet composers and 'great masters of the past'. Those composers who went beyond the bounds, were charged with 'formalism' and victimised, as Jonas Nabažas (1907-2002), a student of Nadia Boulanger in Paris, highly intelligent and inventive composer, who almost ceased his creative activity as he wouldn't feel like to agree to any compromises.
Nevertheless, contacts with modern Western culture were renewed little by little. The contemporary music festival, "Warsaw Autumn", held in neighbouring Poland, served then as a window to the world for the Lithuanian composers who used to attend, first as listeners, and later as the authors of works performed at the festival. Thus, some of the more modern trends of the 20th century music (serialism and structuralism, aleatory composition, collage, early instances of electronic music) found their way into Lithuanian music.
This turn in music was triggered at the beginning of the 60's by the older generation composers, namely Eduardas Balsys (1919-1984), whose music is distinctly expressionistic, and Julius Juzeliūnas (1916-2001), who tends more to neo-classicism. It was then continued by younger authors such as Vytautas Barkauskas (b.1931) and Vytautas Montvila (1935-2003). The most radical iconoclast of that time was considered Antanas Rekašius (1928-2003) who used a great deal of aleatoric methods in composition and performance to achieve grotesque and parodical effects.


Another distinct turning point in Lithuanian music came at the beginning of the 70's when the pursues for individual style and non-traditional forms of composition and performance, became more active. A penchant for epic large-scale works and massive sound of big orchestras receded and the amount of music written for small chamber ensembles increased abundantly. In contrast with previously written music, often overcrowded with texture and expression, the tendencies of minimalism and new simplicity began to prevail. Among the most distinguished composers from that period of changes we could highlight Vytautas Barkauskas, Bronius Kutavičius, Feliksas Bajoras, Osvaldas Balakauskas, and Anatolijus Šenderovas.

Vytautas Barkauskas (1931-2020), a graduate both in mathematics and composition, once was probably the most active adherent of avant-garde music in Lithuania. Greatly influenced by Krzysztof Penderecki, Witold Lutosławski and György Ligeti, he explored bravely the diversity of attributes of Western musical modernism, from serial techniques to aleatoric composition and collage. Later the composer withdrew from his rigid avant-gardist attitudes and turned towards more intuitive approach, striving to make his music expressive and emotional. Starting from the early 80's, he wrote rather conventional concerto-type works, well-balanced and favoured by many performers in Lithuania and abroad.

The creative work of Bronius Kutavičius (b.1932) stands out in the unique way of treatment of musical time and space. This composer is considered a harbinger of minimalism in Lithuanian music (some call it 'expressionistic' or 'ritualistic' minimalism). Paying special attention to the spatial organisation of music, to the placement and movement of performers, he aims at involving the listeners inside of the musical process. These tendencies began to appear in his music in 1970 when he wrote "Pantheistic Oratorio", the first of a series of works called 'oratorios' (the others, "From the Jatvingian Stone", "Last Pagan Rites", "The Three of the World"). They are all highly theatrical, like reconstructions of ancient folk rituals and ceremonies. Archaic folk instruments and even 'sounding objects' (stones, nails, etc.) are used, the musical material is reduced to rather elementary archetypal patterns, and the hypnotizing pulse of persistent rhythm is brought to the front.

The creative work of Feliksas Bajoras (b.1934) shows different, though equally close connections with folk music. His compositions seem to be more traditionalist, and more intuitive. Sometimes Bajoras' music is called 'new folklorism' although there is no reconstruction or stylization of folk music. The composer thinks that the folk idiom and the modern techniques of composition should coexist in harmony. So in his works one can hear imprints of different styles simultaneously, such as neo-romanticism, expressionism, neo-classicism, and sometimes even popular music, along with the persistent feel for Lithuanian folk music. What distinguishes his work is the organic development of melodic parts in which one can feel the intonations of spoken language; the melodies closely resemble folk songs, maintaining the specific manner of the folk singers, with free rhythm and many meaningful rests.

Osvaldas Balakauskas' (b.1937) music and creative philosophy are completely different. He is one of the very few Lithuanian composers (along with Juzeliūnas) who have developed their own unique and precise system of music composition. The composer named his technique 'dodecatonic', it can be defined as the formation and elaboration of new tonal connections in the strict serial structures. The composer uses different tone-rows invented by himself, from 1-tone 'monotonic' up to 12-tone "dodecatonic", along with strictly calculated rhythm progressions. Nevertheless, Balakauskas is always able to infuse a certain recognizable stylistic flavour into his mathematically built constructions - paradoxically, they could sound as similar to neo-romantic or impressionist music, as to jazz. The large creative output of Balakauskas is dominated by instrumental music - symphonies, concertos, works for orchestra or different chamber ensembles. The synergy of intellect and elegance is what distinguishes Balakauskas' work.

Most of the music by the Lithuanian-Jewish composer Anatolijus Šenderovas (1945-2019) is characterized by moderate modern idiom. The composer used serial techniques, as well as elements of aleatoric composition and stylistic interplay; he favoured vivid timbral and dynamic contrasts. In some pieces, emotional expression, colour and effect of the sound are particularly emphasized. Since 1990, Šenderovas' style transformed because of a deepened author's insight into musical and cultural heritage of his nation. Starting from the 90-ies, his composition often include and draw inspiration from the texts and stories from the Old Testament, while the melodies resemble both the ancient Jewish music and the traditional chants of Lithuanian Jews.


Bronius Kutavičius and Osvaldas Balakauskas, they are the two composers who have had the greatest influence on the generations of composers who appeared after them. Their works represent two distinctly different stylistic trends according to which the different generations of the younger composers can be distinguished one from another.

Outstanding in the first group which appears in late 70's (the so-called 'new romantics') are Onutė Narbutaitė, Algirdas Martinaitis, Vidmantas Bartulis, and Mindaugas Urbaitis. The essential characteristics of their work are the rather 'literary' neo-romantic ideas, a lyrical chamber minimalism manifested through archaic folk music patterns, euphony, melodic and rhythmic simplicity. The resultant nostalgic and introspective mood points to the influence of Kutavičius.

A great part of the early works of Algirdas Martinaitis (b.1950) develops into the cycle "The Book of Living Nature". From this group of chamber compositions (which includes such titles as "Music of the Last Gardens", "Birds of Eden", "Clavier of the Life Giving Water"), the chamber cantata "Cantus ad futurum" has become emblematic of the whole generation of composers. "The Book of the Beginning and the End", Martinaitis' next cycle of chamber works, is quite different - it is like huge apocalyptic, eschatological panorama, depicting the dramatic efforts of an individual to survive and to keep the faith in the surroundings of total evil, suffering and absurdity. Yet another trend in Martinaitis' music is represented by the group of more conventional sacred choral compositions in the vein of Arvo Pärt or John Tavener.

Mindaugas Urbaitis (b.1952) once was the most radical minimalist in Lithuania, scandalizing the local audience with prolonged compositions built from endless repetitions of seemingly unchanging material (such as hour-long Trio for three melodic instruments) - which attests the direct influence of early American minimalism. The works by Urbaitis of this period, characterized by particular rationalism, integrity and purity, could be compared to ornamental patterns or geometric abstractions. Starting from the late 80's, his idiom becomes less ascetic, as he started to construct his compositions around the clearly recognizable fragments of music by composers from the past (such as Bach, Mozart, Brahms, Bruckner, Wagner, Piazzolla). The composer himself uses the terms "re-composition", or "recycling", to describe his present composition method.

In his creative career, Vidmantas Bartulis (1954-2020) has traversed many fields, maneuvring between intimate chamber compositions and huge happening-type projects, academic and popular culture, sacred music and the theatre of the absurd. Musicians in bizarre masks, surrealist sceneries, threatening avalanches of electronic sounds, radio noises, banging of microphones, fireworks, circus numbers, repetitions of funeral rites - this is what one can see and hear in his compositions of 'instrumental theatre'. Sometimes the composer himself went onstage and performed one of the central roles, as in his chamber opera "The Lesson" (after a play of Ionesco), where he theatrically conducted singing actors along with his strange virtual orchestra.

The music of Onutė Narbutaitė (b.1956) is marked by wide range of subtle nuances and refined moderation. From the very beginning, the images of 'silence', 'memory', and 'oblivion' were obvious in Narbutaitė's music, also expressed in the titles of her early works. The 80's brought the formation of her musical idiom - linear in texture, unhurried in flow, and steeped in minor intonations. The composer manages to combine a variety of contradictions in her music - emotion and restraint, spontaneity and constructive logic, fragmentation and completion, the present and the past. In general, Narbutaitė's work could be described as intellectual lyricism with quite a few references to literature and visual art.


In the mid 80's, a younger generation (the so-called 'machinists') appeared. These composers rejected the romantic lyricism, rather spontaneous way of composing, and allusions to literature and nature which dominated their predecessors' work, and adopted the aesthetics of 'pure' music and 'pure' sound. Thus, their music is far more severe, and highly formalized - in some way, this attest the influence of Balakauskas to this group of composers. Their adherence to systematic approach of composing is manifested in diversity of forms, from the use of the old technique of motet, to the sctructural principles close to the early American minimalism. The persistent, minimalistic repetition of short patterns imparts mechanical, 'machinist' character, and edgy, sometimes even aggressive sound to their compositions. Particular attention is paid to enrichment of the sound colours by the use of electronics, non-typical groupings of instruments or other unusual ways of producing sound. Besides, the outward 'asceticism' in their music often does not hinder playfulness, grotesque and parody elements. These tendencies are most obvious in the work of Ričardas Kabelis, Rytis Mažulis, Nomeda Valančiūtė, Gintaras Sodeika, and Šarūnas Nakas.

Ričardas Kabelis (b.1957) is probably the most enigmatic figure in Lithuanian music. The striking austerity, characteristic of the major part of his compositions, seem to flow from the underlying formal procedures he employs such as meticulous reduction of musical material. Quite a few of his works are based on the exposition of a certain single isolated musical parameter (such as rhythm, harmony, or timbre), eliminating the others. Since the early 90's, he delves thoroughly into the subtleties of microtonal music and puzzles of its rhythmic arrangement. Hardly audible changes of timbre, microintervals and acoustic intensity in his compositions immerse the concentrated audience into an endless space/time continuum. Clearly off the mainstream of contemporary music, however, Kabelis' oeuvre is considered neither easibly performable nor listenable.

Rytis Mažulis' (b.1961) work is marked by a particular stylistic purity, integrity and symmetry of a musical texture based on a counterpoint techniques (mostly canons). The structural isomerism and homogeneity of his music is determined by the composer's attempts to discover the mathematical and physical relations between time, space and sound. According to this overall minimalist concept, the composer chooses instrumentations consisting from identical instruments or voices, and the range of expression in his work spreads from ethereal vocal compositions to monstrous hyper-canons for computer-piano. Like Kabelis, Mažulis is also concerned in the most subtle micro-interval divisions of pitch and the simultaneous pulsations of mathematically calculated different tempos. Somewhat more acceptable to the unprepared listeners, the music of Mažulis seamlessly absorbs them into its lengthy cyclical motion, almost unchanging in time and space.

The strictly calculated music of Nomeda Valančiūtė (b.1961) is, however, absolutely not technological in its nature - her compositions are all based on some not easily explained creative impulses which are later matured through methodical work with sound material and then given a precisely polished form. Valančiūtė's minimalist idiom is related to some degree to the medieval isorhythmic techniques. A closer look to the composer's works and their conceptual stimuli reveals a balance of internal opposites: open emotion - and its suppression via uncompromisingly rigid structures; a crystal clarity - and the conscious avoidance of 'beauty' (the use of sharp dissonances, intentional 'out of tune' sound of prepared piano, etc); the stance of a 'pure music' adept - and the multidimensional picturesqueness of her music, its oddly theatrical expression, and a certain 'bittersweet' glamour.

Gintaras Sodeika (b.1961) is best known for his music for theatre productions. At the beginning of his career, Sodeika's work was informed with unconventionality - happenings, site-specific works, sound installations, compositions of instrumental theatre. The concert trend of his music is also noted for certain theatricality and references to contemporary popular culture. The composer himself describes his works of recent years as 'academic techno' - a whimsical combination of traditional musical values with new technologies. Works of Sodeika often combine elements of minimalism and jazz, and are not void of bizarre humour and self-irony.

Šarūnas Nakas (b.1962) is one of the most radical contemporary Lithuanian composers. At times, his musical language approaches standards of hyper-complexity, delevoped in the modern Western music in recent decades. Nakas first caught attention of the local music community with his electro-acoustic compositions "Merz-machine" and "Vox-machine" in 1985. It is thanks to these works (which were a kind of homages to the German Merz-artist Kurt Schwitters), together with the "Twittermachine" by Rytis Mažulis, that Šarūnas Nakas and his contemporaries were labeled as 'the machinists' by the music critics. Many of Nakas' compositions exhibit huge sound masses, concentrated energy, and long-lasting tension. The composer pays special attention to the colour of the sound, using unconventional instrumentations, tunings, articulations, transforming sound electronically and adding digital programming.


Vykintas Baltakas, Raminta Šerkšnytė, Vytautas V. Jurgutis, Ramūnas Motiekaitis, Marius Baranauskas, Justė Janulytė, Egidija Medekšaitė are among the most distinguished young Lithuanian composers of today. Raminta Šerkšnytė's (b.1975) oeuvre is dominated by neo-romantic idiom, occasionally enriched with some elements of minimalism and jazz. Many of her orchestral and chamber compositions tend to colourful soundscapes seemingly inspired by the elevated reflection of nature. Vytautas V. Jurgutis (b.1976) is at the moment the most advanced maker of electronic music in Lithuania. Having mastered some sophisticated techiques of sound programming, he often adds computer-controlled multimedia shows to the performances of his electronic works.