29 July 2016

Onute Narbutaite: A symphony and a melody from the Garden of Olives

Following on from the theme of discussing composers mentioned in BBC Music Magazine's article on Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla, I bring one of my favourite and arguably one of the most striking symphonies to come from the Baltic state.

Onute Narbutaite (1956*) is a fascinating and thought provoking composer. Her work is expansive and as she gets older shows no sign of slowing down or becoming tamer. Starting off with far more modest works which show high sensitivity and minute nuances, after the turn of the millennium her works seem to have taken on a larger grandeur and magnitude. As it stands, Narbutaite is the single most recorded Lithuanian composer, with possibly the exception of Ciurlionis, but this knowledge alone means it is no surprise she has a large international appeal. I first came across her works thanks to the large variety of recordings produced by Naxos and Finlandia, these CDs give a real taste the sheer spectrum of her work.

 Her fame and popularity as composer does have a small amount of fate on her side, as after the fall of the U.S.S.R. Western European nations took a massive interest in Baltic nations mostly to find other composers like Arvo Part and Henryk Gorecki. What this did was both positive and negative as fine composers like Peteris Vasks, Lepo Sumera, Toivo Tulev, Onute Narbutaite, Osvaldas Balakauskas, and Erkki-Sven Tuur to name a few gained a larger international appeal; it ultimately stereotyped the states as 'new simplicity' or 'deeply spiritual composers', which in some cases is true, but as my blog is intending to show is only a narrow stretch of the picture. Not to detract from the skill and prowess of Onute Narbutaite, but if it wasn't for this turn out of events she could have faced a life of obscurity outside of Lithuania; like many of her contemporaries suffer today.

One of her most famous and monumental works is her second symphony (2001). This two movement symphony is full of intensity, drama, and colour. The first and larger movement, titled 'symphony', has intense dramatic drive from the offset. The sheer power hits you and hits you hard. Like in Gorecki's second symphony the intensity is profound, but also beautiful and reassuring. The harmonic movements are unsettling and calming. The sensation is very similar to Schoenberg's Chamber Symphony No. 1, where it is familiar and tonal, travels a great distance, but is moving so quickly that the ride is bumpy and full of danger, due simply to the pace of movement. The orchestration is sublime throughout the first movement and always shows a composer with extremely fine craft and to end the opening movement on such an eerie calm is elegant.

The second movement, nicknamed the Melody in the Garden of Olives, shows a fantastic juxtaposition of extreme simplicity and jarring harmonic complexity in a truly magnificent interplay. After the flourish of strings they suddenly release, and almost like chanting monks, sing their melody. The melody circles on itself constantly with mild adjustments so it is never just exact repetition. The interjections from the rest of the orchestra come in the form of a distorted but shining chorale. The unresolved harmonies never quite finding any peace or release, and with every appearance almost feel like they grow stronger, almost vanquishing the melody. The very simple gesture is just genius. And for a composer, particularly after such large momentous gestures in the first movement, to cut the work down to such raw material is a brave and daring step. The result, almost ironically, is far more powerful than the first movement. The drama slowly unwinds and grows into something truly hypnotising, then suddenly, the trumpet appears. The moment it arrives is like something out of this world almost divine.

The work is unsurprisingly popular, it shows a composer with an extremely fine craft and also a composer who leaves musicologists and commentators like myself wondering how on earth do we define her? Throughout her work, she is full of romantic ideologies but never sounding regressive or conservative. She strives for a Mahlerian magnificence which never sounds like a pale imitation but actually something she is almost defining herself. It poses many fascinating questions indeed, many are quick to label her as 'neo-romantic' but this is very short sighted for many reasons. Firstly as neo-romanticism is Western Europe is used to define composer either started in a complex field then went romantic a la Penderecki, or alternatively are writing very romantic despite the national trend being heavily experimental. This view point doesn't really work for any nation from the former Soviet Union as the state sanctioned 'style' was for social realism, which ultimately translated into continuing romantic music without a break from it. This meant that many fine composers carried it on, and ultimately show us what romanticism in Western Europe could have been like with the outbreak of World War II. What this ultimately means for Onute Narbutaite, Lithuania never truly cut its ties with romanticism, meaning she is just a romantic composer. But what this needs to be understood as, is she is a twenty-first century romantic. Which she is without shame or worry, and ultimately makes her one of the striking composers alive today.

Listen to the glorious recording of her Symphony No. 2 here on Spotify!

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