LITHUANIAN CLASSICS. Jeronimas Kačinskas: Centennial of a Modern Master (1907-2005)

Jeronimas Kačinskas, born in Viduklė (near the border with Latvia) on 17 April 1907, was one of an entire generation of Baltic composers wrenched from their homelands by the twin evils of Nazi and Soviet occupation in the 1940s. The Estonian Eduard Tubin, with 25,000 of his countrymen, fled to Sweden; Kačinskas and his fellow Lithuanians Vytautas Bacevičius and Vladas Jakubėnas, like the Latvian Talivaldis Keniņš, were among those who settled further afield, in North America. Kačinskas was one of the few who lived long enough to return to see his country in liberty - and witness the primitive conditions he had struggled against six decades earlier swept away in a flood of musical activity.

Kačinskas’ father was a church organist, and so it was natural that, at age six, he began to take music lessons from him. The outbreak of World War I interrupted his studies when the family was evacuated to Russia. Back in the newly independent Lithuania, Kačinskas was showing the signs of the intellectual curiosity that was to characterise the rest of his long life: he would play through all the scores he found in his father’s library, and he started to compose.

When in 1923 he had finished his studies at the Viekšniai secondary school, he took his father’s advice and enrolled at the Music School in Klaipėda, a port on the south-west coast. There he studied piano and, from 1925, viola.

His first student compositions bore witness to his open mind, showing signs of both impressionism and expressionism – dangerously radical trends for some of his teachers. But some Czech members of staff there stepped in and recommended that he transfer to Prague and the Conservatoire there. He graduated from Jaroslav Křička’s composition class in the spring of 1930 and a year later adding a BA in conducting to his achievements.

The major influence on Kačinskas in Prague was Alois Hába, who sought to free music from traditional formal and tonal constraints, using micro-tonality as well as athematicism in his music. Kačinskas took to these ideas enthusiastically and used them to compose his String Quartet No. 2. Hába wanted Kačinskas to stay in Prague, but he had work to do back home, and so in autumn 1931 he moved to Kaunas (the provisional capital, since Vilnius was then still occupied by Poland) with the aim of making his mark on Lithuanian musical life. He was to find it tough going. A formal position evaded him, forcing him to make ends meet as an accompanist. Opportunities to conduct the orchestra of the State Opera were few. The principal of the Kaunas Music School ordered him to stop teaching his class on quarter-tone music – the concept was simply to bold for the conservative Lithuanian musical establishment.

Nothing daunted by the reactionary opposition to his avant-garde ideas, Kačinskas founded the Association of Progressive Musicians and a journal, Muzikos barai ("Domains of Music"), intended to propagate modern music; Hába and other Czech friends would send him articles debating the roles of nationalism and modernism which Kačinskas hoped would open minds in Lithuania.

In 1932 he composed his most important early work, the Nonet for strings and winds, which uses atonality. Lyrical but tightly woven, it can now be seen as an important milestone on the road to modernism, but when the Czech Nonet toured the work to Lithuania later in the year, it baffled most of his audience.

Kačinskas had already given up on Kaunas and returned to Klaipėda where, with scarcely realistic enthusiasm, he set up a quarter-tone composition course which soon faltered for lack of interest. He ploughed on with practical music-making, teaching piano and chamber music, conducting local choirs, trying to re-establish an earlier orchestra and found an opera house.

He scored a moral victory in 1937 when he succeeded in having Lithuania accepted as a member of the International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM), the first Baltic state in that eminent organisation. A year later his Nonet was included in the ISCM festival in London, earning him the congratulations of Bartók, among others.

Darker days were on the horizon. The initial Soviet annexation of Lithuania in the summer of 1940 was followed by the Nazi invasion in June 1941. A happier event that year was his wedding to Elena Šlevaitė; the marriage was to be long-lived. Though Kačinskas lost all the Jews from his orchestra, he carried on conducting symphonic and operatic performances as best he could; it was reckon that by 1944 he had given around a thousand concerts.

The Communists re-occupied Lithuania that summer. Kačinskas, of course, had already experienced

one year under Stalin and it was very harsh. One of my wife’s brothers was shot, another was sent off to Siberia. The Russians had forbidden my compositions to be played after the state declared them bourgeois and decadent. I became outspoken and perhaps too provocative towards them because I felt so strongly that they should not interfere with my work.

Three years later his insubordination had not been forgotten:

Someone informed me that my name was on the second list of people to be taken away to Siberia. So, in June of 1944 my wife Elena and I escaped. I put a few necessities and what was left of my manuscripts, concert programs, and reviews into a horse-drawn farm cart, and we left. We managed to get about 250 miles from Vilnius, avoiding encirclements on three separate occasions. Finally we were caught in the middle of a battle and had to abandon the cart in the road. At that point my only thought was to save my wife’s life. I don’t know what happened to my music. I’ll probably never know whether it was picked up or thrown away.

They carried on westwards on foot, often going hungry, aiming for Prague – and narrowly avoiding capture when they discovered the Soviet army had got there first. It was after a year on the road that he and Elena were able to take shelter in a colony of Lithuanian refugees in Hochfeld, just outside Augsburg – in the American zone.

Kačinskas once again threw himself into feverish musical activity, conducting choirs and the local professional orchestra as well as scratch ensembles, accompanying, composing. But he knew he couldn’t stay there forever and so applied for a visa for the United States. Arriving in March 1949, he was soon offered the post of organist in St Peter’s Lithuanian Church in Boston, and with one brief interlude that city remained his home for the rest of his life.

Just as the Nonet had been the culmination of his earlier style, in 1951 Kačinskas composed the work by which he is still best known today, the Missa in Honorem Immaculati Cordis Beatae Mariae Virginis for soloists, mixed choir and brass which married Gregorian chant and mediaeval organum with the atonality of his own style; it was also an expression of his own deeply held religious beliefs.

Kačinskas’ American break came in 1958, when he persuaded his compatriots to sponsor a concert of Lithuanian music with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. In 1960 he took up the conductorship of the Melrose Symphony Orchestra in the Boston suburbs, relinquishing the post only in 1967, when he began to teach conducting and composition (including a jazz course) at the Berklee College of Music; he retired in 1986. And, of course, he kept composing: orchestral music, chamber music and, above all, choral music, chiefly for his choir ‘Polymnia’. A new tone was creeping into his music, too, with hints of Lithuanian folk-music; it became lighter, more transparent, more lyrical.

Kačinskas’ first return to Lithuania, in 1991, was jubilantly greeted with a festival of his music; upon his second visit, in February 1992, he was awarded the Lithuanian National Prize. Back in Boston, he finally retired from St Peter’s Church in 1995; a year later he began work on his String Quartet No. 4, and he was still composing at the dawn of the 21st century.

By the time of his death, in Boston, Mass., on 15 September 2005, he had the satisfaction of knowing that plans for the celebration of his centenary were already being formed – and that the musical seeds he planted so long ago are now in full blossom.

© Martin Anderson

Lithuanian Music Link No. 13

A version of this article first appeared in The Independent, London.