By Leon Botstein
Written for the concert Music and Visual Imagination, performed on Nov 11, 1998 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.
M.K. Ciurlionis (1875-1911) is with little doubt the leading artistic personality of turn-of-the-century Lithuania. In modern history Lithuania has witnessed the subordination of its national culture (particularly linguistically) to those of Poland and Russia. Therefore, the need for a profoundly patriotic figure of international stature in painting and music has allowed Ciurlionis to emerge as a significant presence in Lithuanian art and has added immeasurably to his posthumous reputation. It is not simply coincidence that the first President of independent Lithuania after the fall of Communism, Vytautas Landsbergis, is a leading scholar of the work of Ciurlionis. Even in Soviet times, Ciurlionis was celebrated as manifesting in music and painting a distinctly Lithuanian voice.
Ciurlionis died young—just a few months before his thirty-sixth birthday. Nevertheless, during his short lifetime his work already attracted the attention of leading figures in St. Petersburg and Warsaw, where he had studied. He began his career as a musician, studying at the Warsaw Institute of Music, from which he graduated in 1899. In his twenties he also tried his hand at literary writing, although he would ultimately be best known as a painter. In 1901, the symphonic poem Mi_ke (In the Forest) was composed for and won a competition in Warsaw. In the Forest is particularly interesting because its composition coincided with Ciurlionis’s first efforts at painting. Only after completing his musical studies in Leipzig (under Jadassohn and Reinecke) did Ciurlionis begin formal training as a painter. Between 1902 and 1905 he studied painting intensively while supporting himself as a teacher of music. Although in retrospect Ciurlionis’s reputation is most firmly established as a painter, he continued to work as a conductor, teacher, and composer until the end of his life.
One of the most striking aspects of Ciurlionis’s work is the remarkable integration of the visual and the musical. Especially in his later work, Ciurlionis created paintings that were organized on a musical basis and were designed to embody musical concepts, such as the “sonata” paintings entitled The Pyramids (1909) and The Sea (1908). Indeed, there are seven visual sonatas with separate images corresponding to musical movements, entitled Allegro, Andante, Scherzo, and Finale. Among his earliest work is the cycle of seven paintings entitled Funereal Symphony. There are also a number of visual preludes and fugues. In addition to the specific paintings, Ciurlionis often created corresponding musical compositions as well, as in the case of The Sea.
The subject of tonight’s piece is a landscape, a theme which resonates throughout his painting. Ciurlionis painted a number of works entitled Mi_ke; the first dates from 1904. The painting reproduced here (1907) is among the best known of his many landscapes. The symphonic poem In the Forest was perhaps Ciurlionis’s first major musical success. It begins in C major and although a fantasy, has a clear process of thematic development. There are hints of Lithuanian folk-sources. The piece is significant because it gives the listener an insight into Ciurlionis’s sense of organic unity and his concern for instrumental color. Although the later tone poem The Sea has often been presented as a superior work, In the Forest engages precisely because of its unabashed expression of the composer’s intense attachment to his native environment and culture. It is free from the self-consciousness and lack of economy that characterizes The Sea, written after Ciurlionis went to Leipzig to study.
Despite the fact that his posthumous reputation is most heavily weighted toward his painting, we must remember that Ciurlionis above all remains a musician. What one hears tonight are not the efforts of a young painter dabbling in music, but of a young musician with a complex understanding of the relation of music to other arts. In this sense, Ciurlionis’s synthesis of music and painting associates him with Russian Symbolism, a powerful artistic movement during his lifetime. Music takes primacy in the relationship between the visual and the musical because, the Symbolists believed, it was the proper objective of painting to turn from discrete representation and narration toward a status more like music, a sensory experience independent of the familiar physical objects around us that we mistake for “reality.”
But while the intellectual influence of the Symbolists, and the musical legacy of Wagner and Chopin (in the piano music) may be discerned, there is also something different here. The originality of the music reflects two central ambitions of the young Ciurlionis: first, to find a voice that is distinctly Lithuanian without being provincial through music, that assists in evoking the essential experience of being in the Lithuanian landscape; and second, to use art and music in a free, mystical fashion, employing color and light. It is precisely the atmospheric and coloristic instincts of Ciurlionis the musician that led him to experiment with color, fantasy, and symbol in the painterly work, which has ensured his lasting fame as an artist.