Under the Sign of MKČ

Speaking of the influence exerted by the work of Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis (1875–1911) on Lithuania's cultural life, one cannot but admit that the entire present-day cultural environment is basically steeped in the spirit of Čiurlionis. The reasons for this are historically and culturally not difficult to explain: he was the starting point for the development of a Lithuanian professional school of art. To this day his pioneering efforts in mediums as diverse as painting, graphic art, music, literature and photography offer an exceptional array of reference points, and the symbolic nature of his work reveals endless scope for interpretation. Today's artists continue to seek inspiration in his multitalented personality, idealistic devotion to Lithuania, and emotionally dramatic life. He has become a symbolic figure in Lithuanian consciousness – a kind of genetic code that holds the essential characteristics of the nation's art, one which is handed down from one generation of artists to another, and one which to this day distinctly defines not only the style of these different artists but also their overall ideological tendencies, thinking, and world perception.

Commemoration this year of the 130th birth anniversary of this great Lithuanian art and music classic brings up the question of his influence and scale thereof vis-a-vis today's Lithuanian artists. To collect more specific evidence of this influence, it was decided to organise a poll for composers, consisting of a short questionnaire in which they would mention their works based on or inspired by those of Čiurlionis, and indicate which aspects of Čiurlionis' work they chose to reflect. This short survey takes into account but a small part of 78 listed works written by 48 Lithuanian composers over a period of past forty-five years (1960-2005), and focuses mainly on the aspects of Čiurlionis' creativity and personality which most affected Lithuania's composers.

Ahead of His Time

Over a decade of very intense productivity (1899-1909) spent in Warsaw, Leipzig, Vilnius and St. Petersburg, Čiurlionis not only created more than 300 musical works and nearly the same number of paintings and graphic art works, he also wrote literary texts, directed choirs, and participated in the founding of Lithuanian associations of artists and composers. He was the first Lithuanian artist to break out of the narrow scope of provincial interests, and at the beginning of the 20th century his creative ambitions and his knowledge were truly at the level of the most original world artists of that time. The psychological-literary symbolism in his paintings was replaced over a period of several years by a somewhat more abstract expression, and by unique series of musically inspired 'sonatas'. The traditional romanticism in his musical works gave way to serial and modal experiments, and his salon pieces to laconic contrapuntal preludes, variations, and series of musical landscapes built on ostinato themes.

Although his work and ideas were quite beyond the cultural level of Lithuanian society at the time (as a result of which the composer was in a constant state of want and lack of acknowledgement), they continue to play a significant part in ideology of Lithuanian art to this very day. Succumbing to pneumonia at the age of 35, Čiurlionis acquired cult-like status only after his premature death. He never achieved his goal of establishing a centre for the arts or a conservatory in Lithuania, but in recognition of his endeavours to nurture a national school of art, Lithuania's oldest and largest art museum, and a prestigious arts college – the M. K. Čiurlionis National Museum of Art (Kaunas), and the M. K. Čiurlionis National School of Arts (Vilnius) – were named after him in the 1940s–1950s. Numerous societies, clubs and events have been honoured with his name, as have countless streets in Lithuanian towns, a bridge in Kaunas, a plateau in Franz Josef Land, a peak in the Pamir Mountains, and an asteroid.

Painterly Inspirations

It appears that Čiurlionis' most obvious influence is through his art works (which is what he is internationally most known for), not his musical legacy. Composers' replies on the questionnaire refer to the names of 38 of his paintings and sketches, some even within the titles of their works. The first pieces born under the influence of Čiurlionis' paintings are three legends for piano (1960) called Forest, Deluge and Funeral by Vladas Švedas (b. 1934); they are probably the first examples of a Čiurlionis reflex in Lithuanian music in general. Alongside the works based on specific paintings, Svedas' compositions (including also two large-scale works – Symphony No. 2 M.K.Čiurlionis for baritone, choir and orchestra, 1974; and Symphony No. 4 Open Pages for string orchestra, 1992) are probably also the first to express the influence of Čiurlionis' musical language before his music had found a foothold in the public music life. The greatest influence on Vladas Švedas' work came from Čiurlionis' late piano works which displayed rudiments of serialism and principles of basso ostinato.

Čiurlionis' paintings fuelled composers' imagination in a later period as well. They became a basis for Algirdas Bružas' series of 12 piano miniatures, The Light of Čiurlionis (1989), and Anatolijus Šenderovas' 10 piano miniatures M.K.Čiurlionis Sketches (1994); in the latter series, each miniature is based on an individual drawing and can be played in random sequence. The structure of Čiurlionis' painted sonatas is reflected in two earlier sonatas for piano: Grass Snake Sonata (1968) by Giedrius Kuprevičius and Spring Sonata (1972) by Leonas Povilaitis. The seven movements of Bronius Kutavičius' sonata for organ called Ad patres (1983) reflect the seven paintings in the Čiurlionis' series "Funeral Symphony". Vytautas Germanavičius' piano quintet, Pyramid Sonata (2000), was inspired by a like-named diptych, and in keeping with Čiurlionis' painted sonata, "contains two states, two episodes – adagio and scherzo: tranquil, meditative and rapid, arrhythmic". It also imitates the pyramid form ("rising to a culmination, and descending or slowly melting") and colouration ("one can discern various layers of colour in the painting as well as in the music – through changes in the quality of sound").

The titles of Čiurlionis' paintings are also borrowed for two symphonies composed by Jurgis Juozapaitis (b. 1942) in the 1970s – Rex (1973) and Zodiacus (1977) – classified among the most distinctive symphonic works of that time (Rex won the State Award in 1978). Here Čiurlionis' inspiration is a point of departure in the composer's search for colouristic possibilities of orchestral sound. The three-part majestic Rex symphony makes extensive use of what were then innovations in musical vocabulary – quartertones, extended playing techniques, aleatory, and textural polyphony. Devised as a sequel to Rex, the Third Symphony, Zodiacus, reflects on man's relationship with the universe – a theme which runs through Čiurlionis' entire creation.

Čiurlionis as a Legend

The effect of Čiurlionis' paintings on the work of various composers is also felt in more generalised ways. These compositions are not inspired by specific art works, but more by the possibilities for interpretation that lie therein. "A sensation of space [...], a peculiar, cosmic-like synthesis, and the multi-layered aspect of Čiurlionis' paintings" are what manifest in the works of Vytautas Barkauskas (b. 1931) who has come back repeatedly to Čiurlionis for more than thirty years. His list includes altogether eight compositions that are somehow connected to the work of the painter, though only one of them (i.e. Journey of the Princess. A Fairytale for string quartet and piano four hands, 2000) is actually based on a specific painting. The best known of the eight are his three Legends about Čiurlionis (1972, 1988, 1993), which are among the most popular works of Lithuanian piano repertoire. The composer has this to say about the impulse behind his three Legends: "For me Čiurlionis is in a certain sense legendary, a lovely personality from our past. His artistic world is both real and unreal, fantasy-like, mysterious and legendary."

Another composer of the older generation, Vytautas Montvila (1935-2003), dedicated seven of his works to Čiurlionis. It was Čiurlionis' feeling for nature, his pantheistic world view that had the greatest effect on this composer – which is why his output (among them his piano pieces entitled Nature's Lyricism, 1965; Sonata of Towers, 1979; Sonata of the Dawn, 1983; Four Mirages, 1987) contains so many works inspired by nature and Čiurlionis' pantheistic images.

In the Wake of Čiurlionis' Ideas

Associative connections, not so much with specific paintings as with Čiurlionis' art and the ideas behind it, are evident in works by other composers. For example, Osvaldas Balakauskas' Mountain Sonata (1975) for piano and orchestra was inspired by the idea that "there are a variety of painted 'sonatas' in Čiurlionis' work, but there is no Mountain Sonata. My piece represents yet another possibility, a musical one, with no quotations or structural connections." There are no direct connections in Feliksas Bajoras' piece Sun Path (2000) for string orchestra, either – "it's an allusion to The Path of the Sun which winds its way across Druskininkai, the hometown of Čiurlionis, and to the path of the sun as a vision, an idea, our future." In Loreta Narvilaitė's Open City (1996) for symphony orchestra, the pretext for a 'painterly' reflection comes from the theme of Čiurlionis' Prelude Op. 7 No. 4 for piano. According to the composer, this simple theme "is split into segments of several sounds, which, as they are repeated, draw a magnified curve of the primary melody. An 'architectural' form is built of 'blocks' of orchestral colours, based on the repetition of these segments, rising, albeit with interruptions, towards an emotional climax. Like in M.K.Čiurlionis' visions of fantastic cities – towards towers and accents of light."

Čiurlionis' Folklorism

When measuring the overall impact of Čiurlionis on Lithuanian composers, it would appear that his strongest effect is manifest via the very ideas outlined in his article "On Music", which extols the value of Lithuanian folk songs and invites future generations of composers to recognize their worth. According to the composer Anatolijus Lapinskas, "Čiurlionis' influence is probably most expressed in 'implied folklorism', when, intentionally or not, the composer's created intonations are born out of the hoard deposited in his or her memory, or out of the wittingly chosen intonations of folk music." Regarding Čiurlionis' effect in general on music, most respondents referred to the peculiarities of his musical idiom – its painting-like qualities, ostinato and polyphonic features, artificial modes and bimodality.

Both folkloric and musical influences found their way in Bronius Kutavičius' Dzūkian Variations (1974) for string orchestra, piano and tape – an indisputably most popular work owed to Čiurlionis, written for his centennial. The theme for the variations comes from the Lithuanian folk song, Beauštanti aušrelė (The Dawn's Breaking), and is heard at the beginning recorded on tape by a folk singer. The same song returns in the final variation, only this time arranged for a mixed choir by Čiurlionis. The two versions of this song form an arch connecting the traditions of authentic folklore and cultivated music; and the fabric woven from the different variations of the song's motifs connects national elements and the use of new compositional techniques, as if directly illustrating Čiurlionis' claim that "out of a ditty composers make a song, and out of the song – a symphonic composition, thereby fostering real cultivated music" ("On Music").

Musical Influences: Adoration and Critique

Although the first quotation of Čiurlionis' music (albeit in the form of a folk song harmonization) appeared in the work of Kutavičius in 1974, it was not until two decades later that composers began to quote the specific musical works of Čiurlionis more often. Which is paradoxical, for during the post-war decades it was his paintings, not music, that became a target for the acrid critique of Soviet ideologues, and was described in the press as "schizophrenic delirium, pretentious psychopathy", "reactionary mysticism", "expression of the moribund bourgeoisie's views and psyche", etc. His music, on the other hand, began to surface in concert halls by the mid–1950s. A new shortened and 'amended' version of the symphonic poem Jūra (The Sea; ed. Eduardas Balsys; published 1965) was performed for the first time in 1956; Čiurlionis' most important piano works were first published in 1957–9, his harmonized folk songs in 1959, and his String Quartet in C minor in 1966. In 1968 the first M.K.Čiurlionis Competition for pianists and organists was held in Vilnius, which subsequently commissioned many new works for piano (quite a few of them are related to Čiurlionis in fairly formal way, but are nonetheless popular among performers). It was also at about that time that the first recordings, heralds of Čiurlionis' revival, began to appear. By the mid-1970s, approaching the centennial of his birth, Čiurlionis was legitimated as a cult figure of Lithuanian national art: new works were composed in his honour; new books were published, which portrayed him as a genius of undisputable yet long neglected greatness; his paintings were exonerated and brought back to the Soviet citizens' lives in the form of mass reproduced pictures. Čiurlionis gradually became the most recognisable Lithuanian icon.

In symphonic triptych Portraits (1983), Eduardas Balsys paid his respects to three celebrated Lithuanian musicians – Čiurlionis, Stasys Šimkus and Juozas Gruodis. Balsys portrayed composers to whom he felt a close connection: "I became drawn to Čiurlionis' music when I edited his Jūra. I like his symphonic writing, colouration and texture." For Čiurlionis he chose some characteristic themes – including the arrangements of Čiurlionis' favourite folk tunes Bėkit, bareliai (Stretch Out, Furrows), Beauštanti aušrelė (The Dawn's Breaking), Anoj pusėj Nemuno (On the Other Side of the Nemunas River), and the second theme from the symphonic poem Jūra – and applied his own trademark effects: dramatic contrasts of texture, register and timbre, clusters, and a variety of instrumental colours, including synthesizer.

In describing the emergence of his composition Ship of Fools (1998) for three trumpets and three trombones, Šarūnas Nakas noted that "the piece is inoculated with un-deformed implants of Čiurlionis' music – from the symphonic poem Miške (In the Forest), and various piano preludes – alternated with rough sounding dissonances and somewhat sutartines-like episodes of my own. The work ridicules the blatant tradition of quoting Čiurlionis' music and the maladroit exploitation of his ideas, which has been so viable in Lithuanian music over the past decades." The works on the list, however, give no evidence of straightforward quotations of Čiurlionis' music. Quite the opposite: apart from the symphonic variations on the theme of Čiurlionis' prelude VL 188 (Op.7 No.4) by five Klaipėda composers in 1995, only five compositions written prior to 1998 directly quote his works. Apart from Kutavičius' and Balsys' contributions, newer works of this nature include Vidmantas Bartulis' Hommage à Čiurlionis for synthesizer and saxophone (1995), which intertwines echoes of several of Čiurlionis' choral, symphonic and piano pieces; Linas Paulauskis' playful song Does This Happen in the World? (1996), which weaves together Čiurlionis' preludes VL 188 and VL 338; and Giedrius Kuprevičius' audiovisual oratorio Creation of the Universe for the End of the 20th Century (1998) which, according to the composer, contains just "a bashful quotation from the beginning of the symphonic poem Miške, in the "Fauna" part."

Postmodern Transformations

The trend of postmodern recomposing, transforming and quoting is significantly more conspicuous after the creation of Nakas' work. We find a fair number of quotations in the ten piano quintets written for a competition announced in 2000 by the Lithuanian Composers' Union and the Lithuanian-American Fine Arts Association. Mindaugas Urbaitis' Stillness deploys no other material except quotations, as in a sort of minimalistic jigsaw puzzle made up of seven of Čiurlionis' works for piano and the symphonic poem Miske. Remigijus Merkelys' MiKonst, which arrives at the climax with quotation from Čiurlionis' Prelude in D minor and Nocturne in C sharp minor, plays with a musical interpretation of an abbreviation of Čiurlionis' names (via the constant repetition of the e note – 'constant mi'), while recalling Čiurlionis' predilection for creating musical cryptograms. Linas Rimša's Daddy, Guess Who (2004) transforms Prelude in D minor into a soothing jazz ballad. In Antanas Kučinskas' diptych of recompositions, Čiurlionis Sea (for tape and video) and Čiurlionis Forest (an audiovisual installation for turntables), Čiurlionis' music is basically not even transformed – different recordings of his symphonic poems are simply laid one on top of another. The composer said, "What is reflected is not so much the music, but the concept of Čiurlionis-the-classic, and the end of an epoch of great artists. It's a kind of 'severing the umbilical cord' act between him and today's artists. Part one, Čiurlionis Sea, is a kind of twilight of the gods (a video image of a galactic pulsar), and part two, Čiurlionis Forest, is the wake."

Ultimately, neither the number of works falling under the sign of MKČ (every subsequent decade yields an increasing number of works), nor a cross-section of the composers' age (all generations are represented evenly) shows any trace of the influence of Čiurlionis diminishing on the music culture of today. The greater the anniversary, the more resourceful the composers get in making their tribute to Čiurlionis. This year's commemoration extended the list with three new large-scale compositions – Barkauskas' mystery Summer, Druskininkai, 2005 for organ, reciter, soprano, mixed choir and 4 instruments; Bartulis' The Way for choir, saxophone, percussion and tape; and Alvidas Remesa's Jubilee Mass for soprano, bass, choir and orchestra.

© Rokas Zubovas

Lithuanian Music Link No. 11


Piano Music Favourites

(All pieces were written for the M.K.Čiurlionis International Piano and Organ Competition and are listed in chronological order)

1. Vytautas Barkauskas (b.1931) Legenda apie Čiurlionį Nr.1 (Legend about Čiurlionis No.1), Op.30, 1972 [5']
2. Alvidas Remesa (b.1951) Stigmos (Stigmata), 1987 [14']
3. Algirdas Martinaitis (b.1950) Siloamo tvenkinys (The Pool of Siloam), 1993 [12']
4. Anatolijus Šenderovas (b.1945) M.K.Čiurlionio eskizai (M.K.Čiurlionis' Sketches), 1994 [16']
5. Julius Andrejevas (b.1942) Lemtis (Fate), 1998 [5']

Other Popular Dedications

1. Bronius Kutavičius (b.1932) Dzūkiškos variacijos (Dzūkian Variations) str[]-pf-tape, 1974 [12'30]
2. Jurgis Juozapaitis (b.1942) Symphony No.1 Rex 3222-4331-3perc-str, 1973 [22']
3. Bronius Kutavičius (b.1932) Ad patres org, 1983 [15']
4. Remigijus Merkelys (b.1964) MiKonst pf-2vn-va-vc, 2000 [12']
5. Mindaugas Urbaitis (b.1952) Ramybė (Stillness) pf-2vn-va-vc, 2000; version: pf-2vn-va-vc-db, 2001 [20']