Rūta STANEVIČIŪTĖ | National Art in the Times of Totalitarianism: Vaiva’s Belt, the Ballet by Vladas Jakubėnas

Vladas Jakubėnas (1904–1976) is an important name in the historical narratives concerning Lithuanian music as he was one of the outstanding modernist composers and the country’s most influential music critic of the interwar period. A significant part of his oeuvre, however, is little known because it was not before the beginning of the 21st century that many of his pieces began a comeback to the Lithuanian cultural space. In 1944, just before the second occupation of Lithuania by the Soviet Union, Jakubėnas fled the country and stayed in the camps for displaced people in Germany for several years before travelling to the United States in 1949 where he lived and worked in Chicago. A large number of the compositions he wrote while studying in Riga (1924–1928) and Berlin (1928–1932), as well of the later ones written before the emigration, disappeared in turbulent political maelstroms. The fate of his only scenic piece, the ballet Vaivos juosta (Vaiva’s Belt,[1] 1939–1943), was particularly dramatic. The ballet that Jakubėnas began writing in 1939 was scheduled for a premiere in 1942 according to the contract with the Kaunas Theatre. During the first Soviet occupation the piece was among the compositions to be performed in Moscow where a presentation of music from Soviet Lithuania was due in 1941. During the years of Nazi occupation, the score vanished in the Jewish Ghetto in Kaunas together with Leiba Hofmekler (1900–1941?), a conductor and experienced interpreter of ballet music who was reading the score. Jakubėnas restored the music from memory in 1943 and later, already in the emigration, used several episodes of the first movement for his suite Miško šventė (The Forest Festival, 1952). The Jakubėnas Society in Vilnius had been working since 1993 to bring the ballet back to cultural life. Despite that, it was not before December 2014 that Vaiva’s Belt, with a remarkable support from the Jakubėnas Society, was staged in Vilnius for the first time ever.

As a student of Jāzeps Vītols in Riga and Franz Schreker in Berlin, Jakubėnas was familiar with the most recent scenic works of his time and modern music as a whole. It is worth pointing out that his teacher Schreker was himself one of the most popular opera composers of his time. The ballet by Jakubėnas, however, offers almost no operatic aesthetic professed by Schreker and includes no echoes of his generic concepts. Jakubėnas belonged to the young generation of Lithuanian musicians who studied in Western Europe and brought radical changes to the idea and practice of national modernism in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Jakubėnas, though, was different from Vytautas Bacevičius and Jeronimas Kačinskas, whose works were studded with the new musical findings of the day, in that he applied a critical analysis against the modernist experiences in music after the completion of his studies and, quite radically, turned towards a more moderate national style of music. He rejected the currents of radical modernism as pointless experiments and considered them music for a tiny circle of experts, the music that “started digging a deep ditch between the specialists of new music and the general public,” scared away performers, reduced the demand for the new music in concert programmes and unsettled the individual concepts of young composers.[2] Jakubėnas was critical of modern music due to the stylistic tools it uses in the first place and less so because of differences in worldviews: “The new generation and the new psychology appear to be much simpler, non-metaphysical, brutal and barbaric.”[3] He was just as baffled by the absence of a social function in the arts, an aspect he thought the new music disregarded completely. Although paradoxically, he saw the future of music in the revival of romantic worldviews and cultural function of music. Jakubėnas’ stance is closely related to the cultural environment in Lithuania in the 1930s when the society was growing increasingly critical towards contemporary art and started drifting in the search for a national style in many areas of artistic creativity. Such is the context we should bear in mind while analyzing the model of national music Jakubėnas wished to convey in his ballet Vaiva’s Belt. Jakubėnas used the libretto by Vincas Krėvė-Mickevičius, one of the representatives of Lithuanian classical literature, who rewrote his own myth-based story Perkūnas, Vaiva and Straublys (1920)[4] for the ballet. While writing the piece, the composer was digging into Lithuanian mythology in a search for deeper structural ties between musical means and national identity. The merely decorative use of folklore could not satisfy Jakubėnas who maintained that such a creative method cannot ensure the distinctiveness of national music. The historical distance makes less trustworthy the established argument that Jakubėnas’ return to neotonality and tradition during that period should be seen as a surprise move away from modernism. Taking into account the social and cultural aspirations of the composer, he seems to be right as far as his choice of that particular genre and stylistic model is concerned. His ballet Vaiva’s Belt symptomatically finds its place within the current of neotraditionalism of the mid-twentieth century that was vastly influenced by political and cultural changes and stimulated the creation of monumental and functional art a great many examples of which would emerge over the next several decades. Notwithstanding the differences of the political context, important cultural and stylistic ties exist between the scenic pieces written by Lithuanian composers before the World War II and after it, from Juozas Gruodis, one of the classic names, to Julius Juzeliūnas and Eduardas Balsys, representatives of Lithuanian modernism. The revived ballet which enjoyed its first public staging in December 2014 fills in an important gap and helps understand the process of transformation and continuity of national modernism in twentieth century Lithuanian music. The work is further discussed by musicologist Rūta Stanevičiūtė and Marius Baranauskas, the composer who completed the creative orchestration of the ballet and performed a purposeful reduction of its musical material.

Rūta Stanevičiūtė: Considering the time distance, what is your opinion about the level of Jakubėnas’ mastery in orchestration? He studied with the outstanding professors of composition of their time including Jāzeps Vītols in Riga who followed the principles of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, an authority in orchestration, and with Franz Schreker in Berlin who was a renowned specialist of orchestra and large-scale genres.

Marius Baranauskas: Judging by his music that I have seen, Jakubėnas was a skilled orchestrator; he has made a good impression on me. All the tools were well exploited, plenty of subtle nuances employed and the whole thing sounds just great. In certain episodes of the ballet, though, I would have wanted more clarity of sound to allow more distinctiveness to individual timbres.

R.S.: You have just mentioned clarity, the word Jakubėnas would so often emphasize. Right after his studies in Berlin he wrote a number of articles on the clarity of musical thought and the lucidity of tools composers employ. Orchestration, the orchestral sound, professionalism and contemporariness of the use of tools and methods – these were all important subjects for him. And these were precisely the aspects he would concentrate on in his criticism of Vytautas Bacevičius and other Lithuanian composers. He criticized Bacevičius for his taste for a large number of instruments playing all at once. In Jakubėnas’ words, the orchestration of the early pieces by Bacevičius lacked timbral differentiation because he apparently wanted to reach the maximum of sound mass at a given point in time, “a lot of noise” as one would have said then. While exploring the music by Jakubėnas one might notice the trend characteristic to twentieth century music, the differentiation of colours within an orchestra that was becoming ever more noticeable at the time, particularly in Bacevičius’ latest compositions. That is how the orchestra was moving away from the romantic sound and towards modernity. Our perception of the orchestra and its capabilities might have changed profoundly ever since as the aesthetics of sound in contemporary music has to a large extent drifted away from the principles that served as a basis for the music composed in the 1930s and 1940s.

M.B.: From a certain viewpoint, Jakubėnas’ orchestra is still largely romantic.

R.S.: Do you mean the sound of the orchestra or the stylistic features of his music that linger close to the ideals of the national style of the time?

M.B.: The stylistic features in the first place. There are, of course, certain aspects of orchestration characteristic to the concept of modernism of the day, such as the abundance of high-pitched brass instruments that I had to transpose to a lower register because I cannot imagine a musician playing that high then. He uses timpani in a peculiar way as well, yet he still integrates them into a rather romantic style.

R.S.: I would call it neo-romanticism because Jakubėnas, once finally back in Lithuania after his studies in Berlin, was focussed very consciously on the creation of a national neo-romantic style and was putting forward a programme of the revival of romantic worldviews and stylistics. The composer was immersed in an arduous search for a formula of the national style and was simultaneously making attempts aimed at distinguishing nationalism and Lithuanianness in music as two different concepts. It is a pity his ballet could not reach the stage then and later vanished from the history of Lithuanian music because, in the context of development of the national style, it fits nicely into the chain of ballets based on similar mythological tales, the first being Jūratė and Kastytis by Juozas Gruodis (1930), followed by Vaiva’s Belt (1943–1944) and Eglė žalčių karalienė (Eglė, the Queen of Grass Snakes) by Eduardas Balsys (1960). The three pieces constitute a typical paradigm of mid-twentieth century nationalism because they offer somewhat different blends of neo-romanticism and modernism. Is it not so that the tendency of dramatism in music and striving for dramatic intensity in Jakubėnas’ ballet and, indeed, in other Lithuanian pieces from that paradigm may be linked with the works and tradition of Carl Orff that were symptomatic of Jakubėnas’ day? I also happened to trace certain nuances suggestive of the music by Igor Stravinsky and Béla Bartók whose works Jakubėnas was definitely familiar with.

M.B.: Yes, I have noticed those things too, yet it is difficult to measure the importance of any direct impact. The music of the ballet clearly combines traditions of neo-romanticism, especially the romantic shape of the musical language, with stylistic elements typical to Stravinsky and Bartók.

R.S.: Links with modernism are particularly evident in the orchestration of the Dance of the Little Devil (Mažojo velniuko šokis) as well as in the ostinatos and the image of rhythmic mechanical music if we are using the contemporary terms. Jakubėnas emerged as a fierce critic of musical avant-garde and extreme modernism in the 1930s because he considered them exhausted trends of music and tried to discover a new tendency that music should follow and to invent a different formula for the renewal of music. The parallel with Orff’s tradition may be pushed forward by the fact that Jakubėnas was a keen reader of myths and worked closely with Lithuanian specialists in mythology while preparing the libretto for his ballet. The composer clearly sought a more profound reasoning of the national style that he wanted to be much broader as compared to the concept of nationalistic lyrism.

The stylistic tools he employs in the ballet are almost undoubtedly very different from the ones you use in your music. Certain episodes of the ballet are even difficult to perceive with the neutral senses because their stylistics have been repeated by later, and sometimes banal, epigones. Although we were not familiar with the piece, the epigones of the national style have used, although in a much more primitive way, many of the tools found inside it. Some listeners might be particularly upset by the associations with the Soviet-style examples of the official neo-folk art. And that is not limited to these compositions for one may sometimes have an impression of having heard certain bits of that music in Hollywood films. Here we can speak of certain tools of musical language that were modern once yet they eventually became popular music. That is particularly true when speaking of music by Orff that we have mentioned earlier as it has become the sound-code in today’s television and film industry and even a cliché of sonority as such.

M.B.: Yes, the piece includes several such episodes, the finale for instance.

R.S.: Or the episode Vaiva audžia, audžia (Vaiva Weaves On and On) which is reminiscent of the Wagnerian tradition adapted by Hollywood. But can the unexpected links between the ballet and popular music be explained by the mythological background which helped to assemble a set of conventional means of composition in the twentieth century?

M.B.: It probably depends on the orchestration as well. Had the composer orchestrated his ballet himself, the piece would probably sound somewhat differently. Some melodies and harmonic means employed in the ballet are clearly similar to the soundtracks of recent films. When I discussed the finale of the ballet with the conductor Modestas Pitrėnas, we joked its themes were reminiscent of those used in the famous Titanic movie.

R.S.: That is not a coincidence because many Eastern European composers fled their countries and travelled to the United States; regardless of their nationality, they wrote similar music that combined neo-romanticism and modernism. We like comparing Jakubėnas with Scandinavian composers because his music bears certain frosty colours which are, however, absent in his ballet where he appears to be closer to Czech or Russian national modernists, perhaps because the piece is based on a fairy tale. This way or another, the conventional formulas of nationalism in his music conceal a number of original nuances. For instance, I found his shaping of metric formations unconventional as if he tried to develop a kind of polymetry in order to destroy the squareness of German music, if we stick to the terms German music critics used at the time.

M.B.: The score certainly offers a number of curiosities and unexpected discoveries. Alongside the metre, I would like to mention certain harmonic tools such as combinations of two thirds, major and minor, that look, within the overall romantic material, like strangers from a different and more modern world.

R.S.: The interaction and sometimes even tension between the neo-romantic style and modern tools is truly remarkable given the environment of the mid-twentieth century when a number of composers representing different concepts of modernity, not necessarily engaged in nationalism, were busy discovering or inventing certain underlying melodic and harmonic structures – I would name them symbolic primary cells of music – by using typical intervals, such as major and minor seconds and thirds, as building material. During his early period, Jakubėnas employed certain elements of musical structuralism characteristic to many other composers, from Bartók and other national modernists to representatives of avant-garde and experimental music, such as Arnold Schönberg and Alois Hába. Would you support the notion that Jakubėnas, just like other composers of his time, searched for that primary cell, at least in part?

M.B.: Yes, in part perhaps. I do not know if that was something he did consciously, yet I can assume he was probably involved in something like that in a non-systemic way; it exists as an element of thought. For me, the music by Jakubėnas seems to be naturally rooted in the romantic foundation that allows the use of different modern tools which, however, eventually become part of the overall romantic sonority.

R.S.: My attention was drawn to the fact that the ballet features a set of musical signs, gestures and cultural symbols that represent the much earlier cultural tradition preceding romanticism and became objects of interpretation by the composer in the new environment. The example is the traditional complex of pastoralism closely linked to the love story the ballet exploits with the help of characteristic musical gestures and timbres, including these of an oboe and a flute. The same should be said about the fantastic characters of the work who typify the otherworldly reality and whose musical figuration is closely related to the European music traditions.

On the other hand, the representation of a character by a specific instrument or timbre is essentially a romantic tool many modernist composers tried to avoid; musicologists tend to consider the depersonification of musical themes and timbres as a result of changes in the relationship between an individual and society. Between the two world wars, modernist composers often used the same musical material to depict several different characters, something musicologists attribute to the crisis of a modern human being. Jakubėnas was familiar with the music written by these composers, especially German, yet he tried to shun away from the methods they applied as he was consciously choosing a more traditional way of composition. He was doing it not because he wanted to follow the classic composers of Lithuanian romanticism, such as Stasys Šimkus, but rather because he declared his own programme as a return to certain traditional values. For him, the return laid in a premeditated selection of modernist tools and a refusal to utilize part of its arsenal.

M.B.: I would guess the important aspect was his focus on the audiences of the day. The piece offers plenty of examples of representativeness, including Vaiva’s part full of constant variations of the same material. He uses the same principle to characterize other dramatis personae too. My version of the orchestration of the ballet contains a smaller number of invariant repeats compared to the original score. The finale was particularly important, hence I offered an edition visibly different from the original music. Initially it was full of reprises to allow all the characters return to the stage and before the audience, all the themes returning with them, therefore the finale was much too long. I decided to abandon the forthright principle of reprises altogether; that is why the ballet ends with the episodes of the rainbow appearing in the sky (Danguje nušvinta vaivorykštė) and the White Goddesses dancing (Epilogas. Baltųjų laumių šokis). Since the respective fragment is very short in the original score, I made it about three times longer by repeating and varying the music yet not adding anything foreign. That is probably where the distance between my solution and Jakubėnas’ original idea is the greatest.

R.S.: Have you ever thought of the reasons that prevented Jakubėnas from orchestrating his own ballet? While living abroad, he wrote about Lithuanian composers who had hoped to discover a country of flourishing musical culture in the United Sates. There were plenty of symphony orchestras and musical theatres across the country that could serve the task of popularizing Lithuanian music, yet before long the immigrants realized their prospects were extremely bleak. Don’t you think Jakubėnas had lost passion because he could not have any hope of ever bringing his ballet to the stage? The reasons thus might have been purely pragmatic.

M.B.: I do not know whether Jakubėnas was more pragmatic or romantic.

R.S.: Pragmatism was just one reason behind it. Lithuanian emigrant composers lived in tough conditions, often struggling for survival. Jakubėnas had plenty of work as a teacher and was an active member of emigrant cultural life, therefore he could find very little time to write music. In that sense, Vytautas Bacevičius is a unique example of an emigrant composer who kept writing large-scale pieces during several decades in the US even though nobody wanted to perform them.

M.B.: In one way or another, ballet music can be a success in the 21st century. Judging by the comments I have heard, today’s listeners are most often embarrassed by the outbursts of nationalism in music that the composer demonstrates. As you have already mentioned, this might be because of the associations with the phenomena from Soviet times.

R.S.: As a matter of fact, we know of a huge number of poor-quality epigones of the national style that were meant to serve a completely different ideology. The piece we are talking about is professional and based on an unconventional idea. As far as its creative result is concerned, the ballet is representative in that it is a proper example of Lithuanian music of the mid-twentieth century. In addition to that, it reveals many things previously unknown and adds considerably to the knowledge related to the development of national music and to its links with national and international traditions as well as the creative projections Lithuanian composers employed in their search for the means to accommodate the fundamentals of national and modern art.

Translated by Darius Krasauskas
HISTORY & CONTEXT | Lithuanian Music Link No. 18

[1] In the Lithuanian mythology Vaiva, the goddess of rain, has weaved a beautiful belt, the rainbow that appears occasionally in the sky.
[2] Vladas Jakubėnas. Moderniosios muzikos krizė. Vairas, 1933, 2, pp. 213–218.
[3] Ibid, p. 215.
[4] Perkūnas, the Thunder, is the most powerful god in the Lithuanian pagan pantheon and the husband of Vaiva. Her secret beloved Straublys is an unmatched poet and singer.