Algirdas Martinaitis: Prodigal & Pious

"As I came to my mid-fifties, it behoves me to have students and followers, to develop my own school. Instead, I take the liberty to do nonsense over and over again. Just like Adrian Leverkühn in Thomas Mann's "Doctor Faustus", who reverts to the language of Lutheran epoch, I turn back to the vernacular tradition and 'uncivilized' music."

Algirdas Martinaitis (b. 1950) plays willingly the role of a romantic hero – perhaps an unappreciated one, but nonetheless armed with a sharp tongue – by talking about his work, polemicizing on music and cultural issues in the press, or sometimes by going himself on stage, to join his performers for unexpected gags and mockery at his own work...

photo: Dmitry Matveyev

Yet Martinaitis is a true type of a romantic creator also in his heart, and remains being such in spite of his recent digressions. Back in the late 70's, when he made his debut together with the like-minded composers of 'neo-romantic' generation, his nature-inspired chamber compositions – such as Music of the Last Gardens (1979), and Birds of Eden (1981) – were distinguished for their exceptional poetic sensibility and deep emotional impact. This 'nature cycle' culminated in Cantus ad futurum (1982) – chamber cantata-concerto to the composer's own text, lamenting on the birds inscribed in the Red Book of death and sung in the extinct Latin language. Acknowledged as one of the most important works in Lithuanian music of the late 20th century, it became a manifesto for that whole generation of composers, expressing their aesthetic and ethical attitudes, their feelings, fears and hopes.

Then followed another cycle of chamber works, called The Book of the Beginning and the End. The images of evil, bestiality and the Last Judgement replaced a sad beauty of withering trees, drying rivers and vanishing birds. Now the more pronounced tragic undertones burst at times into most unexpected and bizarre acts – as in Arma Christi (1996) where the music "is being tortured" (according to the composer) by the executioner (obviously, the composer himself) armed with metal plates and electric grindstone.

At that time Martinaitis also wrote the Unfinished Symphony (1995) – one of the most successful and widely performed Lithuanian symphonic works. As the title suggests, it is homage to Schubert (loosely following the two-movement structure of his great work). Numerous allusions to other composers (including Brahms, Mahler, Mozart, Wagner, Bruckner, and Sibelius) are also heard in a series of contrasting episodes, tightly woven into a stirring and brilliantly orchestrated instrumental drama.

Martinaitis' Unfinished Symphony begins with a paraphrase of Der Walkürenritt, but soon evolves into an idiosyncratic, intense and rhythmically emphasized narrative, which grants him a place among his great contemporaries, such as Pärt or Rautavaara.
Friedemann Kluge, Der Tagesspiegel

While composing the Unfinished, Martinaitis admitted he suddenly found himself totally unprepared, deprived of any knowledge and skill. Having "sentenced the music to death" in Arma Christi, Martinaitis started calling himself an autodidact from the mid-90's. Time was ripe for another turn. All systems and preconceived frameworks were gone; "accidental", "detour", "instability", "learning to speak anew" now became the composer's keywords explaining his own creative process. This concept of "post-systematic" music eventually evolved into what he now calls "second-hand" and "ill-tempered" idiom, by increasingly getting involved with pastiche and unsafe highbrow/lowbrow hybrids – as in a series of chamber compositions written in 2003.

In the overly strange Bienenmensch for string quartet and folk singers, the ancient Lithuanian songs sutartinės are deliberately presented as some obscure stuff, degrading in cultural importance, rather than examples of a unique folk tradition and an etalon of beauty; the composer himself presents here a character engaged in rather absurd activities, such as taking honey out of a beehive in the form of a grand piano, and then committing hara-kiri for no apparent reason. Capriccio on the Return of the Prodigal Son, as if alluding both to J. S. Bach's Cappriccio on the Departure of the Beloved Brother and to a Biblical story, is a lightsome, jazz flavoured up-tempo piece intended for pleasure of the listeners and performers alike. Except for one annoyance: during the performance the composer acts as if in a rehearsal room, pointlessly asking musicians to repeat some passages, until they, in the burst of irritation, shout him to "get outta here!". The cabaret-like Haetera Esmeralda, essentially a grotesque exaggeration of operatic clichés, is based on a few sentences from "Doctor Faustus", where Adrian Leverkühn tells his story in the end of his days. He admits having fallen in love with the 'butterfly' named Haetera Esmeralda, who gave him fatal disease. "His tale is so syrupy", muses the composer, "and as Leverkühn practically tells nonsense when speaking about his life and work, so my music is a certain form of nonsense, too."

Martinaitis avoids any esoteric jumble and writes contemporary music for the masses, not for the academic elite.
Volker Tarnow, Berliner Morgenpost

The aspects of well- and ill-tempered music language are even more perplexing when it comes to Martinaitis' religious works. They have accumulated to form an important bulk of his oeuvre since 1993 when he began composing the cycle of The Book of the Beginning and the End. Comprising now numerous liturgical hymns as well as large-scale concert pieces, they present a combination of the raw expression of folk church singing and religion-inspired music of contemporary Western tradition as exemplified by Messiaen, Pärt, Tavener, Górecki, and Kancheli. On top of that, he sparsely adds his trademark tricks, perhaps in the vein of a medieval burlesque, to shake up the overall solemnity. The list of his sacred oratorios – St. Francis' Canticle of the Sun (1996), Pieta (1998), and A Letter to All the Faithful (2001) – will soon be extended with Sefer Zikaron to be premiered on April 16 at the Lithuanian National Philharmonic Hall.

Martinaitis: "It might be a sequel to the cycle, but I never plan my cycles ahead. The previous oratorios were based on the texts from St. Francis' writings and the New Testament. Now the time has come for the Old Testament. I cherished this idea for about five years, contemplated on texts and subjects; as in many of my works, the text here triggers the whole idea of a composition. Texts for this Book of Memory are from different books of the Old Testament, and will be sung in Hebrew, except one fragment in Lithuanian, documenting the catastrophe of the Holocaust. The music proceeds in persistent climaxes, as rain and thunder: the storm abates for a short while, and then the lightning strikes again from heaven. For everything comes from Heaven – the teaching of Moses, the Holy Spirit, and the rain."

© Linas Paulauskis

Lithuanian Music Link No. 10