21 September 2015

Vytautas Montvila: Gothic Poem

Welcome to another installment of Baltic musical gems. Last week I gave an introduction of the Lithuanian folk music sutartines. This week we shall be looking at how one composer drew on it. The composer is Vytautas Montvila, not to be confused with the poet of the same name. Montvila was born 1st December 1935 was not only one of the most progressive minds in composition in Lithuania, he never let go of the folk heritage of Lithuania.

After completing his studies with Juzeliunas, Montvila continued to develop his compositions by drawing on the sonoristic experiments opened up by the Warsaw festival, as well as drawing on serial techniques. These techniques always went hand in hand with folk music, either using sutartines melodies to help form tone rows, or building vast soundscapes by layering sutartines songs. 

The piece I am showing this time is his Gothic Poem. The piece is part of a triptych of works called Poems of Vilnius, this is the first element of it. The other two works in the triptych are called Choruses and Festive. Gothic Poem is a fascinating work, as it lies in a half way house between the dense sound sculptures of Penderecki and the sonorous openness of the Romanian composer Stefan Niculescu. From the onset, you hear the dense static 12 tone chord in the strings which act as a backdrop for the flute to start its melody. The changes in orchestration help define the microscopic changes in the piece. The woodwind carry most of the melodic content and overlap each other adding to the density and mysteriousness of the work. Then a sudden change in sensation, as aleatoric elements fly across the orchestra which lead to  fluttering repetitive cells in the strings, while the bassoons and clarinets introduce more surtatines melodies. 

This time the energy keeps building and building, with the addition of the brass and percussion leading ultimately to the climax of the work. The blasts from the trumpets and trombones in canon with each other, combined with the rhythmic attacks from the rest of the orchestra make this moment rather powerful indeed. The suddenly this climax slips away, into the strings. who reiterate musical ideas heard earlier in the piece. The close of the piece is heralded by the bells, ringing on as the music fades into nothing.

Structurally the work is very interesting, the shape and proportions are mirrored around the old town in Vilnius. The layering of folk melodies, combined with the dense colours make this work a rather fascinating curiosity, and is a great example of a piece which is as thoroughly modern as it is connected to tradition. Montvila was not the only composer to tackle this, in 1996 Radulescu drew on his native Romanian folk tunes in the third movement of his piano concerto, The Quest

Montvila went on to compose many works which drew upon his native music. Towards the end of his life around the late 1970s Montvila's music became more 'romantic' and sutartines became something more liberally referenced in his later works. 

The work of Vytautas Montvila is one of the many ways Lithuanian and other Baltic composers coped with the restraints put on them during the years under the Soviet Union. One key linking a lot of composers in this generation is the desire to link tradition to the now. Not just casting it off, like many western composers did post 1945. 

Information came from the Vytautas Montvila profile page on the Music Information Centre website: http://mic.lt/en/database/classical/composers/montvila/#bio

As well as from the score. 

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