23 July 2016

M. K. Ciurlionis - Lithuanian Demigod

As mentioned in my previous post, the next few posts will discuss composers featured in BBC Music Magazine's segment on the wonderful conductor Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla. I thought age order may be a wonderful way to  go, and also it means I finally get to discuss the composer most loved by Lithuanians: Mikalojus Konstantinas Ciurlionis.

M.K. Ciurlionis (1875-1911) is in short the grandfather of Lithuanian music, at least in the sense of he empitomises the national or romantic ideal of Lithuanian composer. He is idolised, discussed, romanticised, and adored for many wonderful reasons. He is the idolised mostly for the sheer breadth and imagination he brought to nation in such a short space of his lifetime. His work as composer was not the only side to his creativity. He is also a defining feature of the artistic landscape of Lithuania too, his artworks have gained him more international acclaim and praise, and no Lithuanian till Jurgis Maciunas could even compete with such ideals of being the complete all expansive artist.

As can be seen above in Ciurlionis's Finale: Sonata of the Sea (1908), the artwork has many connections to impressionism, but somehow transcends or at least forces it to progress. The majestic nature of it is quite profound and striking. Now I am no art historian, but I know I like the art work of Ciurlionis and can see why it is idolised so much within Lithuania.

His musical prowess is equally expansive and elegant. His musical language is full of the luscious romantic flair and beauty we all have a soft spot for. The beginning of his music life he is very closely aligned to the likes of Sibelius, with a most but profound grandeur about it; this is particularly prevalent within his two large symphonic works Miske (1902) and Jura (1907). His later works show he is tapping into something far more chromatic or at least far more freely expressive, the chromaticism always feels more akin to Strauss and Wagner, never quite matching composers like Bartok or Honegger.

Many fine musicologists have looked deeply into the work of M.K. Ciurlionis, and rightly so he is a very fine composer and is seen as the cell from which Lithuanian music was able to spawn. But I fear he has been immensely romanticised in his brilliance. Yes, without question, he did wonders for Lithuania his work in setting folk tunes are truly valuable, like Kodaly and Bartok, Ciurlionis alongside his colleagues opened up the Lithuanian folk traditions to the world. His symphonic music is astounding, I have a great love of Miske in particular, such a striking piece of music indeed. But to imply he was one of the greatest symphonists is a bit premature. His orchestral music: Miske, Jura, De Profundis (1900), Kestutis and  his Symphony in D minor ( both finished by Jurgis Juozapaitis) - is ultimately limited, yes they are fine pieces but the craftsmanship is on par with those around him, and with figures like Mahler and Sibelius around, it is almost daft to compare.

Musicologists also like to point out that there are supposedly 'serialist' elements in his piano works. Often pointing to a motif of B,Bb,D (nicknamed the Webern row, due to its prevalent appearance in his opus 21, Konzert). This I have major concerns with, not because the work is fully chromatic, and actually elegantly taps into the full chromatic with ease. My issue with it stems from the fact it ultimately shows a misunderstanding of serialism. Having a motif does not imply anything, B, Bb (A#), and D could easily feature in B minor, and knowing J.S. Bach there is probably a fully chromatic fugue in B minor based on this; but we never suggest he is serialist, he has merely tapped into it. Part of the reasons why musicologist like this argument, is because it implies Ciurlionis beat Schoenberg and Webern to the punchline, which is a tad juvenile, but also misses the fact Franz Liszt's Faust Symphony beat them all. The reason I am arguing this is simply Ciurlionis's harmonic ability is really profound, especially from such a young man (he did die before he reached 40). The issue is a matter of function and purpose. The point of serialism ultimately is the intervallic devices and craft used and to ultimately put pitch at the dead centre of the music, almost controversially to suggest that the same intervallic patterns transposed would produce the exact same results as it is the relationships not the tone that matter. Within Ciurlionis, tone is ultimately everything, he is after all a musical child of impressionism, his nuance and colour within his orchestral works prove this without a doubt.

I want to round this off by trying to suggest Ciurlionis's brilliance is a different kind of brilliance than what is often considered. I want to simply highlight Chopin, as if he needs any real introduction. Looking at Chopin, ultimately gives us an interesting comparison to work with. Like Ciurlionis, he wasn't necessarily the very first composer, but is arguably the most famous and most loved. Like Ciurlionis, his piano works are immensely expansive and show a fine modest elegance. Like Ciurlionis, his symphonic works are far fewer in number, and in the history of their nation aren't the greatest contributors to symphonic music. Both are followed by a more significant composer when it comes to symphonic contribution, Szymanowski for Poland, and Gruodis for Lithuania. Ciurlionis, is ultimately a composer who in a world dominated by over the top grand orchestral gestures, like Chopin, managed to have a lasting impact on the musical world around them simply through piano music. Yes, my reduction is far too simplistic, but ultimately stands true, a composer who in those circumstances was able to open up a whole national theme, a whole national world of music by simply writing fantastic music for the piano should be far more celebrated than a composer who made loud noises with over 800 musicians. This is ultimately why M.K. Ciurlionis is so significant and should be loved worldwide. A man who was opening a whole world of harmonic potential, expanding the music of the piano, opening national folk music to the wider world, and creating such magnificent art needs celebrating. So until next time enjoy some of his wondrous piano music below.

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