Onutė Narbutaitė: Melody in the Garden of Olives

In terms of international performances and new commissions, Onutė Narbutaitė (b. 1956) is considered one of the currently most active and successful Lithuanian composers of the middle generation. Her Sinfonia col triangolo, commissioned by the Kaustinen Chamber Music Week, and premiered by the Ostrobothnian Chamber Orchestra in 1997, was recently released on CD by Finlandia Records. Centones meae urbi, one of her most important large-scale works, has been highly lauded by performers, critics and audiences in Lithuania and Germany, granted the Lithuanian National Award in 1997, and released on CD in 2000. Last year has seen two premieres of her most recent chamber pieces. The premiere of Autumn Ritornello. Hommage à Fryderyk, commissioned by the Vilnius Festival, was highly acclaimed by internationally renowned soloists Vadim Repin, Yuri Bashmet, David Geringas and Mūza Rubackytė. Sonnet à l'amour for tenor and guitar was commissioned by and premiered at the Europäisches Musikfest Münsterland last August by Reinbert Evers and Christoph Prégardien.

Onutė Narbutaitė talks about her new work, Melody in the Garden of Olives for two string quartets and trumpet, which will be premiered in Cracow on Oct. 25 at the international contemporary music festival 'Velvet Curtain'.

The title of this piece suggests the New Testament story of Christ praying in the Garden of Olives. Given that Cracow is the centre of European Spirituality this year, one could ask what role the occasion played in this association?

In that respect, this work emerged thanks to a lucky coincidence: I would in fact perhaps have started to write similar music for a slightly different setting right about now. Naturally I had to concretize my associations, inspirations, and allusions more, as otherwise I might not have done so. In referring to the New Testament, I specifically note Christ's last prayer before he is apprehended in the Garden of Olives. One can even decipher an association on the level of the form of this work: Christ goes to pray three times, his apostles fall asleep each time - and thus the form is composed of three sections. On the other hand, I avoid direct connections, and would like to say that it is without a doubt my own melody. I make absolutely no attempt to convey the Biblical situation - it's simply a very personal melody in my own field of associations.

The programme of the 'Velvet Curtain' festival seems to disclose the meaning of its mysterious title: it presents music only from Central and Eastern Europe, i.e. from the former so-called 'communist block' countries. How do you relate to this idea, to the attempt to conceptualize the festival programme in this way?

I think that a political agenda is a matter for the organizers to deal with. I've never been a politicized composer - not back then, not now. I tow a completely different line. In this case, I wasn't at all thinking about the festival organizers' ideas and what they have in mind when talking about spirituality - a sense of, or the situation being a turning point - when I was writing. All of that is more a subject for philosophical or journalistic debates. My work is pure music, arising from song, from hymns. Like the singing of the soul. Of course it does have certain aspirations and moods. Simultaneously - a lot of despair and of hope.

The initiators of the concert requested that the music would be in some way connected to the word. You have said that in writing this composition you in fact drew inspiration and ideas from written texts: from the Bible, and from the poetry of Tomas Venclova and Rainer Maria Rilke. Why did you then decide to limit your work to an instrumental composition?

I wanted to write purely instrumental music. The announcement that the Silesian Quartet would be taking part in the concert was accompanied by a request that the basis for the composition should include string quartet, or at least a part of it. Later I found out that the Dafô String Quartet would also be playing. I could have added several other instruments (no more than eleven performers at all), or voice. Instead of the latter, I chose the trumpet which fits perfectly here. The title is Melody in the Garden of Olives because the source of the melody is the human voice, it is singing. So although it is an instrumental work, it also has the air of being sung. Talking about inspirations, in the program note I mention not only those sources, but Johann Sebastian Bach as well. Not because this is the year of his anniversary, and not because I would use his work in some way (I don't). Mood-wise, as in the music of Bach, my composition goes beyond the temporal, and so the emotion becomes difficult to define in everyday terms. That is the kind of association that comes to me, and that's why I refer to it and think about it, but there's no citation or dedication, or any other more specific connection. It's simply eternal things, which composers of all generations carry on in their own way.

Were you able to avoid the 'direct line' and mechanical repetition form-wise as well?

My music is probably more like resistance in that respect. Because I'm using two quartets, it includes a lot of reverberations, echoes, imitations. But I've rejected automatism, so they sound a bit different each time. It's very supple music, there's absolutely nothing mechanical about it. Although the instrumental parts are fairly complicated, the whole structure is very clear. The first section is taken up by one quartet playing the melody in unison, while the other quartet just gives it a background, plays an occasional chord. In the middle section they both blend in an eight part polyphony. The trumpet joins in during the last section and takes over the entire unisonous melody of the first section, which has by now, however, taken on a slightly different nuance: it starts by polyphonically blending in with the quartet, and later plays on its own. It dissolves, disappears, or slows down. The trumpet simply stops playing, but the phrase is not interrupted - the motif ends, but it's as if something else should keep going. My works are often open-ended. This time I also wanted the ending not to appear like a breaking off, but also not to end at a clear point.

© Veronika Janatjeva

Lithuanian Music Link No. 1