The Theorem of Čiurlionis: Visions, Frenzy, Perfection

Šarūnas Nakas


Let’s take a simple start:

“The painter, the sculptor, the epic poet are visionaries par excellence.”[1]

It is an extract from the work of Friedrich Nietzsche Twilight of the Idols, Or, How to Philosophise with a Hammer written in 1888. The quoted chapter is entitled Skirmishes of an untimely man. Nietzsche founds the quality of visionariness on the idea of frenzy. “The Apollonian frenzy excites the eye above all, so it gains the power of vision.”[2] Even earlier the philosopher explains: “If there is to be art, if there is to be any aesthetic doing and seeing, one physiological condition is indispensable: frenzy. Frenzy must have enhanced the excitability of the whole machine; else there is no art.”[3]

Nietzsche lists all forms of frenzy, which, to his mind, excite human activity and prompt the man to transform things into perfection. “This having to transform into perfection is – art”[4] he declares.


The art of Čiurlionis’ epitomizes the aspirations of the awakening Lithuanian people and links them with the tendencies dominating the turn-of-the-century European art. A graduate of two musical academies in Warsaw and Leipzig, Čiurlionis becomes a composer, later on, a professional artist who dedicates increasingly less time to writing music until finally giving up composing musical works.

He rises to the fame as a painter of a unique talent who gives musical titles to his visionary paintings (the Prelude, Fugue or the Sonata) before being elevated to the status of the first Lithuanian modernist composer, whose rather expressive miniature cycles for piano, composed in the late Romantic style (1905 –1909) employ some of the Constructivist principles.

Čiurlionis composes the first Lithuanian pieces for orchestra, also of sustained contemporary favour, the symphonic poems In the Forest (1902) and The Sea (1907) but never gets to listen to them while alive. He heralds ideas seminal to the Lithuanian ideology of art, which highlight the value of folk art to modern creation: “Our credo is our most ancient songs and our future music.” His artistic, musical and literary legacy becomes the source of inspiration and following for Lithuanian artists.


Let’s proceed further:

Nowadays a painter is considered a visionary only afterwards all usual characteristics to describe the nature of his art are exhausted; or, on the other hand, in order to point out the fantastic or utopian aspect of his art. The label of a visionary painter is likely to encapsulate the essence of Čiurlionis’ paintings more adequately than fussy and occasional imprecise titles of a Symbolic, mystic, synesthete or even pre-modernist.

The classic of French avant-garde music, Olivier Messiaen described Čiurlionis in a rather simple manner as an “extraordinary composer of music and painting”.[5]

In discussing the work of Čiurlionis we will try to bear in mind this inseparable parallel of a composer and a painter.


Let’ s move elsewhere:

Palanga: the sea-side season in full swing. Vibrant colours of the holiday-makers’ attire, blue Lithuanian sky and light shadows of pine-trees. Art galleries in the town sell paintings in the style of Čiurlionis, the clones of the more sentimental or the Lithuanian – in the popular consciousness – motives: the light of a candle, a countryside hut (from the Kings’ Tale, 1909), a lonely angel, a forlorn castle, a vision of the world ascending to the sky.

These easily recognizable images make one think of the powerful frenzy, which is excited in the follower by his desire to recreate, in his eyes, a thing which is perfect. A thorough copy of form and colour is hoped to produce an identical vision (some would not doubt it being ingenious). According to Nietzsche, “in art man enjoys himself as perfection.”[6]


The imitation of a genius sometimes pushes the imitator beyond all boundaries. The Austrian philosopher Weininger in his book Sex and Character (1903) writes:

“Talent is hereditary; genius is not transmitted.”[7] ”A man may be called a genius when he lives in conscious connection with the whole universe. It is only then that the genius becomes the really divine spark in mankind.”[8]

Soon after publishing of the book, 23-year-old Weininger rented the room where the genius of music Ludwig van Beethoven died a natural death 76 years ago and shot himself dead.


Let us come back:

Čiurlionis is also no saint: his art abounds in followings and reproductions. And yet, the technique for structuring pictorial scenes (we should not shun such expressions) often has more style compared to contemporary Symbolists, there is more finesse and transparency about it and less of – the favoured by the period – operatic melodrama, or at least it is understated. On the other hand, in his later music and painting Čiurlionis no longer conceals a prophetic emphasis or gesture: this assertive mythological authority is exactly what leaves the most powerful impression: the charms of the magician are not dispelled by time.

Čiurlionis is different, more to some, just a little bit to others, but overall it is clear that the intentions of his art do not absolutely typify the fin de siècle epoch despite of being anchored in it. This art seems to be under the influence of a kind of a mutative gene, which determines the gradual, sometimes hardly discernable yet consistent drifting away from the accepted canon in academic and salon art.

It is this clash that gives rise to legend building, adoration and sacralization of Čiurlionis’ art: romantic locutions are being replaced by messianic, and the latter, by political. The epithets and superlatives drift in the air like colourless smoke inducing frenzy, which is incited by excessive injections of romantic pathos.


The Lithuanian Encyclopaedia, Vol. V (1937)

“In the course of his studies, M.K. collected quite a large library and kept it in Druskininkai to be used by his younger siblings. First of all M.K. was interested in astronomy and cosmography, learned math, physics and chemistry in order to obtain a greater depth in these first disciplines. From astronomy writers, he was mostly impressed by the descriptions of astronomic phenomena by Camille Flammarion. Later he took consistent studies of history, geology and palaeontology, developed an interest in numismatics; together with his brother Povilas C. accumulated solid collections of antique coins and minerals, enriched considerably during his trips of Caucasus. From literature, he mostly reads V. Hugo, Ibsen, Dostoyevsky, Andreyev, Edgar Poe […]; studies German philosophy, attends classes of Prof. Wundt as a free auditioner and gets introduced into philosophy of Kant and Nietzsche. He is even influenced by some ideas of Nietzsche.’[9]


At the start Čiurlionis tends to improvise, reflect upon and transform the impressions of different music (first of all, Chopin’s); in later years he composes differently, keeping rather strictly to the requirements of the self-created system of counterpoint. In painting his later works he also reasons as a person well familiar with counterpoint, remaining composer-of music like not in metaphorical, but almost in the direct sense of organizing a work of art with the help of liberated sensory perception of rhythm and space and skills of polyphonic structuring.

One can speculate in selecting canonical titles of musical forms for his utopian paintwork, Čiurlionis acts as a composer (not as a painter who attempts to make use of abstract and even “spiritualised” musical laws) – maybe for the sake of holy peace – guiding the attention of the viewer in the direction of concern to himself, though in fact attempting at solving composition problems of a higher (more universal) order within the limits established by the then aesthetic and social situation and his own potential.

There is no doubt this all refers to exclusively formal aspects of Čiurlionis’ music and painting. For the time being leaving aside the poetical, symbolical and rhetorical aspects which are more difficult to define and introduce greater complexity into discussion. Yet this arbitrary a separation makes many things easier to understand.


Let’s widen our discussion:

In 1937 when the cited encyclopaedia volume was printed, John Cage claimed:

“Whereas, in the past, the point of disagreement has been between dissonance and consonance, it will be, in the immediate future, between noise and the so-called musical sounds.

The present methods of writing music, principally those which employ harmony and its reference to particular steps in the field of sound, will be inadequate for the composer who will be faced with the entire field of sound.

The composer (organizer of sound) will not only be faced with the entire field of sound but also with the entire field of time. The “frame” or fraction of a second, following established film technique, will probably be the basic unit in the measurement of time. No rhythm will be beyond the composer's reach.”[10]


Čiurlionis belongs in pre-radio epoch and his hearing is based on the ancient arrangement of the world when everything (nature and man) had their place, while the hiss of the locomotive or the tingle of the telegraph lines were things of no interest to the composer’s ear. The gramophone in its infancy and the moving pictures of silent film make little difference: Wagner, Tchaikovsky, Berlioz and Richard Strauss signify much more. The still-camera is of course, improved and almost everybody can afford one, sophisticated automobiles buzz by. But the rest remains as it used to be thousands of years ago: human voices, choirs of birds, the roar of winds and waters.

Čiurlionis declares: “Music is the language of gods, the miracle worker, the silencer of the wild beasts, the castle builder, etc. When it got its beginning, no one can find out. Little surprise, indeed. It was born with the human soul and appears to be his supreme and the first language.”[11]

Things are straightforward for Cage, his insights are from a different time and free from romantic clichés: over a quarter of a century has passed from the death of the “composer of music and painting”. Life has been modernized beyond recognition, the space of sounds and noises is incredibly complex. The world is teeming with radio, cinema, electricity, musical recordings, dirigibles and aircraft. The man-created boundless ocean of audible and visible events, prominent and hardly discernable, some quick as fire and others incredibly slow: just take them and use.


Čiurlionis and Cage are not content with the “contemporary music writing methods”. Both try to shake away the conventions of their time and embrace as wide as possible new challenges and temptations. Čiurlionis does this without written manifestos, but migrates to painting – could there have been anything more radical these days? Also he tests in music rather enigmatic structures. Cage does this amidst scandal, provocation and ideological texts, dips head on into the world of noises and indefiniteness.

‘The principle of form will be our only connection with the past. Although the great form of the future will not be as it was in the past, at one time the fugue and at another the sonata, it will be related to these as they are to each other.”[12]

Some might get the impression that Cage seemingly knows who he is talking of and intentionally teases Čiurlionis, but that is no problem indeed: it was Čiurlionis (1975–1911) who invented how to create non-musical sonatas (without sounds) considerably earlier. When Cage was not yet born (1912–1992).


It is an interesting fact which is not concealed, but nobody seems to find it significant: as a composer, Čiurlionis lives in Warsaw almost all the time. It is a period from 1994 to 1907, with departures (he spends all summers in Druskininkai, sometimes, travelling) and intermissions (one year of study in Leipzig). These 12 years give is a sufficient ground to consider that the progenitor of the Lithuanian national music is (also) a Warsaw composer, in the same way as Stanisław Moniuszko (1819–1872), the champion of Polish national music is Vilnius composer who spent in the town 18 of his most productive years.

Čiurlionis studies at the Warsaw Music Institute (1894–1899). His professor of composition is Polish pedagogue of the greatest renown of the period Zygmunt Noskowski (1846–1909): a herald of the patriotic sentiment, author of the first Polish symphonic poem The Steppe (1896). “The beautiful steppe, this song of mine is sent to you. Your vast expanse echoes with the flutter of wings and thunders with horse trot, it sounds with the shepherd’s piping and flows with Cossack’s song…”[13] the composer wrote in his score.

Noskowski, of conservative cut, openly ridicules music of Wagner and Richard Strauss. In a 1901 letter to a friend Čiurlionis pours out his heart: “You cannot imagine how I resent this rascal (Noskowski) […] I am not saying that he knows little, I’d even guess that he is very strong in “our” science, but he is a bad person.”[14]


Like most of Warsaw composers, Čiurlionis belongs to the galaxy of Chopin (it is almost impossible that it should be otherwise in Poland – literati, artists and even politicians belong to it), writes mazurkas, waltzes, preludes, he adores the piano and elegant instrumental lyricism. Like many a national romantic, Čiurlionis finds it impossible to resist the allure of Wagner: his world of tales, myths and legends rendered in musical language of rich harmonies and magnificent melodies.

Therefore Noskowski’s remarks regarding Strauss add fuel to the fire. Many are out of their mind with the vigorous god of the late European Romanticism Richard Strauss (1864 – 1949) and his followers mushroom. His symphonic poems written over a decade – from Don Juan (1889) to A Hero’s Life (1899) contain everything what the generation of the turn of the century is pining to find. Good taste does not count so much after all; the coveted excess of emotion, intrigue and heroism will do in its stead. The overheated orchestra, the audience in frenzy. Needless to say, musical life in Poland lacks the clamour of Germany and Austria who gave birth to the flamboyant Romanticism. Poland is quieter, sometimes, slumbering. The sound of this slumber is felt even in Polish music of the extended post-Moniuszko period no matter how resolute and patriotic the proud creators of polonaises and mazurkas tend to be.


Čiurlionis is discontent with his composition studies under Naskowski, he might have gotten bored with Warsaw and its milieu in seven years, so he leaves for one season to Leipzig Conservatoire (1901 – 1902). In Leipzig he becomes one of the last students of the German composer, pianist and conductor Carlo Reinecke (1824–1910) who was a teacher to Edvard Grieg, Max Bruch, Isaac Albéniz and Leoš Janáček. A timid, yet ambitious Čiurlionis – he is only 26 – learns under the whale of academism, aged 77. Such a contrast in age and authority becomes quite a burden. Nietzsche asks “What is the task of all higher education?” – To turn men into machines. – ”What are the means?” – Man must learn to be bored. – “How is that accomplished?”– By means of the concept of duty.”[15]


Reinecke’s music is virtuoso, pleasing to the ear, similar, in style, to Schumann, in melodiousness – to Mendelssohn, in grandeur, – to Brahms. Just like Noskowski, he happens to teach Čiurlionis something different from his expectations: just a regular routine of the conservatoire, instead of these anticipated very important things.

If unhampered by constant poverty and scarcity – at one time he is threatened to be expelled from the conservatoire for failure to pay his tuition fee – Čiurlionis would most probably travel to his idol Richard Strauss. Now he has to stay and study and copy the scores by Strauss in the library of “Peters” publishers: “… I have copied most of the Death (49 p.) Strauss appeals to me increasingly more.”[16]

Čiurlionis composes all kind of polyphonic and genre compositions, mandatory for students, also a string quartet, and is greatly discontent with it. He drops a note to his friend. “I could write a quartet a hundred times better.”[17] After a few days he laughs openly. “I have heard my “bear-like sounds.””[18] Looks for comfort: “You cannot imagine what a distress to me this quartet is. Unless Reinecke allows me to write something new, I may probably drown myself.”[19]


His poor knowledge of German is also an obstacle. In one of his letters to his friend, Čiurlionis mentions this: “… I’ll also ad that I do not know German at all.”[20] And it is the end of his studies. Communication with his fellow students is equally difficult: “The trouble is that I cannot communicate myself to my friends, though I try speaking German, French, even, Czech. Usually we speak a lot, but neither I nor they can understand anything.”[21]

Čiurlionis has almost no friends and is awfully lonely. After having been in Germany for half a year, he confesses in his letter. “I have only been friends with Paulsson (Swedish).”[22] By the way the Swede hardly speaks any German either. After some time, he writes: “I feel so dressed. I bought Easter cake for 75 pfennings hoping Paulsson will drop in for tea. He didn’t. So I drank my tea alone and ate almost all of the cake out of spite.”[23]


Such a stressful life style and a hectic schedule take a toll on him. In May of 1922 he experiences a creative crisis and, probably, a nervous breakdown. “I have been sitting at this trio since morning. Nothing seems to matter to me. It almost hurts. Write something, or I’ll be lost. If I get a diploma, I am going to give up music.”[24] In ten days: “I can do nothing, and I want nothing. I don’t want to look at anything or to even stir; even worse, I do not want to exist. There is no way out of it.”[25] In a couple of days: “Nothing’s new. I feel awfully weary and exhausted, and I have not written anything worthy, total naught. What a stupid, miserable and sad predicament.”[26]

During his last session Reinecke says: “You are so young, sir, and you already compose such gloomy and monotonous things.”[27] “I nearly broke into tears,”[28] Čiurlionis confesses.

He returns home in Druskininkai. Then again leaves for Warsaw and stays there quite a span.


When in Leipzig, Čiurlionis finds out that the “composition that I have sent to Warsaw competition is going to be performed in the concert of Polish composers and that the Philharmonic society intends to bring me in at their expense to conduct the orchestra!”[29]

Čiurlionis’ symphonic poem In the Forest participated in the 1901 Count Zamoyski’s competition and was officially recognized by the jury as one of more prominent works.[30] It was intended to be performed during a concert in spring of 1902, but was not. This happened with other young Warsaw composers whose work in the eyes of the authorities of the Philharmonic was found unworthy of public attention.

It was probably the only real, yet lost, opportunity for Čiurlionis to hear his symphonic music live. It might have also been a chance to be noticed on the diverse musical scene of Warsaw: “At the concert I would have had so many people favourably disposed to me.”[31]


The most talented follower of Strauss in Warsaw is Čiurlionis’ contemporary Mieczysław Karłowicz (1876–1909), born in historic Lithuania (in an estate near Vilnius), author of symphonic poems, not less prolific than Strauss. The Returning Waves (1904), Eternal Songs (1906), Lithuanian Rhapsody (1906), Stanisław and Anna Oświecim (1907), The Sorrowful Tale (1908) are all produced in the course of several years. Karłowicz appears a typical symphonist of the fin de siècle, of flexible harmony, intensely “thinking” orchestral texture. In his Eternal Songs he flourishes fanfares of overtones to such an effect as to supersede French Spectralists maybe by half a century. Had Karłowicz learned Lithuanian like Čiurlionis, Lithuanians would have gladly accepted him into the ranks of classics of national music, for, as we know, the implicit 20th century canon set it that Lithuanian artists ought to speak Lithuanian… For Karłowicz Lithuania was a receding mythological past, for Čiurlionis, a reborn reality. Therefore Karłowicz might only of interest to Lithuanians when they come to consider “what songs he used in this rhapsody of his”. Nothing seems to offer proofs of Čiurlionis and Karłowicz ever having met, even though there is at least partial similitude of their musical interests. Their orchestral language is close, and the vocabulary similar, only Čiurlionis is more interested in nature, while Karłowicz is preoccupied with human states of mind. Both came from the same area of Southern Lithuanian dialect, which stretches across Lithuanian and Belarus nowadays.

Karłowicz was among the first Polish mountaineers. He moved to Zakopane in order to be able to climb the mountains. He was buried by an avalanche during one outing. He only was 32.


Čiurlionis fails to establish himself in Warsaw musical world the way do other arrivals from “the periphery” who study under Noskowski – Karłowicz and Karol Szymanowski (1882–1937). The latter wrote with success music of all genres and was “second to Chopin”. Čiurlionis feet get stumbled by his introvert mentality and attitude: gradually he finds himself doomed to write music for himself and becomes almost invisible on musical stage. On the other hand, these difficulties spring from the format of Čiurlionis’ music. His piano pieces written before the completion of Leipzig studies do not stand out from the mainstream of music which is being performed in Warsaw and created by other composers. Čiurlionis is not a virtuoso pianist (in contrast to quite many composers among his contemporaries), his music is reticent, and suits better chamber salons versus huge concert halls. His short compositions never develop on a grandeur scale and never arrive at prominent culmination failing to give pianists a chance to demonstrate their virtuosity, something so appealing to the public. The symphonic poems created by Čiurlionis represent the most fashionable and the most promising genre of the period, especially when it comes to building a quick career. But he is checked again by some problems of the musical language and form. The similarity of his symphonic poem Forest to the popular Wagner’s Forest Murmurs from the opera Siegfried (1857 – 1869) in its idea, colours and atmosphere – can hardly be perceived as advantage in discussing originality of the work.

Yet, can one judge the classic?


It is time to shift attention to something else:

Cage says: “Composition, performance and audition or observation are really different things. They have next to nothing to do with one another.”[32]

It is likely that Cage is exaggerating: these processes take place in the same consciousness and are based on similar cognitive models. Yet some revelations by Čiurlionis on listening makes one think that Cage – at least in some cases – is right.

In a letter from Leipzig Čiurlionis says: “I do not want to study under the dissonant Dvořák.”[33] If the elderly Czech Romantic Antonín Dvořák (1841–1904) is dissonant and therefore (probably) disagreeable, so what is it that excites Čiurlionis in the poems by Strauss? Can he see any other way out besides enhancement of harmonious tension?

And what are these dissonances that abound in Čiurlionis’ piano works composed in several years?

There is sometimes next to nothing in common between his statements in his letters and his real practice.


Even more interesting:

Among his fellow students at Leipzig Conservatoire is also Mexican Julián Carrillo (1875–1965) who later gains renown as the originator of microtonal music. Čiurlionis attends the premier of Carrillo’s symphony conducted by the composer and writes of it, immensely fascinated: “A lot of fire, fantasy, poetry. From the start to the end, it streams, in some pleasing dissonance like a broad melody, like some strange scream, pours out with pearls, shimmering, ringing; the winds moan again, cast gloom over everything, but soon the sun comes out and emerge views of the countryside, and it goes on and on, endlessly. I could not make much of it, but I liked it immensely.”[34]

All this praise is poured onto Carrillo’s symphony abounding in borrowings from Wagner, Strauss, Tchaikovsky, a four part lumber of music of late Romanticism, but of light mood. Those who listened to Čiurlionis’ Forest will find this music belong to almost the same world, as if composed of episodes left out from Čiurlionis’ poem.

What then Čiurlionis’ remark of not being able “make much of it” supposed to signify? And what is this “pleasing dissonance”?.. This probably means that the composition he listens to is just a pretext for his personal reflections, which leave no time to listen and lead to conclude “I could not make much of it.”


The inclination to painting, growing gradually into a passion and ambition to learn painting professionally is a transforming factor for Čiurlionis the artist: the practice of handling plastic forms impacts his music; counterpoint structuring determines the nature of his paintings.

Yet it is neither elementary nor straightforward impact. Čiurlionis’ case is interesting as his musical works become even more abstract when he starts painting. The Finnish semiotic Eero Tarasti writes: “One would be wrong to expect in these pieces a “picturesque” music of the kind that Liszt created from his travel experiences in his Années de pélérinage or Debussy and Albénizo in their musical “post cards”. Čiurlionis’ piano pieces are all purely musical, tönend bewegte Formen, without programmatic quality.”[35]

This simultaneity of a composer and painter realized by one creator is an extremely esoteric practice. Not because of allusions to mystical doctrines or practices, but due to its uniqueness and conceptuality. This unity can never be perceived in its entirety (based on one method or from a single viewpoint): Čiurlionis’ art has similarity of a multifaceted crystal which is each time visible just from one side. We frequently err when we decide to go by his texts: his extant letters, extracts of poetry or several articles composed on special occasions. The artist may use the garlands of words to decoy those on pursue on him to these locations where he feels safe and least invulnerable.


What makes Čiurlionis select this double path?

“The ideal of an artistic genius is to live in all men, to lose himself in all men, to reveal himself in multitudes,”[36] says Weininger.

Such a choice, needless to say, is subconscious and will evade a comprehensive or conclusive explanation. In spite of that, several assumptions can be made. Čiurlionis is aware of the insufficiency and limitation of technical means in composer’s disposition: when comparing his rather modest early musical opuses with his later ambitions paintwork it is worth while to pay attention to these frequently cited and discussed musical qualities: from the most external ones (titles: the way formal concepts are interpreted) to the most subtle qualities (rhythm and polyphony: how many and what parameters are exploited in these dimensions).

Musical ideas engaged in his paintings are impossible of actual realization in music of the period (first of all, in music by Čiurlionis) as exceeding the limits of the dominant aesthetics and composition techniques. Such challenges would have been be premature for western composers with their musical vocabulary in the early 20th century, then only taking first tentative steps into the field of experiment.


The discussion of painting as influenced by music is a good occasion to recall what Wassily Kandinsky declared in 1910:

“A painter, who finds no satisfaction in mere representation, however artistic, in his longing to express his inner life, cannot but envy the ease with which music, the most non-material of the arts today, achieves this end. He naturally seeks to apply the methods of music to his own art.”[37]

This adoration of musical forms fostered with such a care by the Romanticists and introduced into different forms of art, is this not an argument to support the attractiveness of such a path for Čiurlionis?


Yet what is it that matters most?

The main stimulus is, of course, the satisfaction of creation. Composers and painters are not theory machines pre-programmed for the realization of some kind of projects or conventions. Spontaneous joy of creation and improvisation, the source of incomparable freedom, is the most powerful drive of original creation, occasioning phenomenal emanations outside the scope of any analysis. Čiurlionis is a hostage and victim to this pleasure, consumed by the heat of insatiable fever of discoveries.


One of Čiurlionis’ friends of Warsaw period, Bronisław Wolman recalls Čiurlionis in the summer of 1906.

“I saw him paint outdoors during daylight, at night he worked finishing his symphony The Sea, I saw him faint on the keyboard of the piano in Krynica, so exhausted he was by that immense work. He played his symphony and made changes, until he fainted.”[38]


In June of 1907 Čiurlionis writes to his brother: “I have suffered a lot during these last years, so that my every nerve is strained, but it does not matter.”[39]

To work actively in two fields simultaneously is almost too stressful a task on human system and nerves. But Čiurlionis does not spare himself, nor does he intend to withdraw: in four years only he completes the symphonic poem started in 1903.

“I have finished The Sea, e.g., I have done instrumentation and have even improved it. I have started a new symphonic poem The Creation of the World. The Sea was scheduled to be performed this year, but it was postponed till the next.”[40]

From regular exhaustion some of his considerations strike as hardly adequate to his real circumstance:

“We will perform at the Philharmonic independently: we will hire a hall and an orchestra, etc. It will be great, right? This autumn, probably, I am going to give a show at the “Zachenta”. Something deep inside tells me it is premature, but everybody is trying to persuade me.”[41]

Similar, almost utopian hints seem to emerge in the Leipzig period, back in 1902, when he wrote: “From here I am leaving for St. Petersburg. There I’ll be able to live on teaching and study instrumentation. Then I am off to America, to make some money and buy a little hut on the Nemunas River, from America I’ll head to Africa, and then back – and for good – to Lithuania. But when I think of it – what do I care? I may as well not go anywhere.”[42]


“Covered” by painting Čiurlionis’ music evolves in an interesting direction. From approximately 1904 he composes rather strange preludes for piano no longer originating from spontaneous romantic improvisation or characteristic rhetorical figures of the period, but constructed rationally like enigmatic crosswords.

Čiurlionis explores the method of precise repetition of small melodious segments throughout the entire work from the beginning to the end. It is not a theme, but a structural string of the composition, on which other voices are threaded. Interested in counterpoint technique as a student (this took him to Leipzig), Čiurlionis ferments a new way of composing, akin in some aspects to Serialism of a considerably later date. It is not a unique practice and interests quite a few young composers in the beginning of the century, but Čiurlionis knows nothing of the others and his result stands apart.

Gradually he composes works with a kind of idée fixe at the heart of these; the most extraordinary of which are two cycles of piano variations composed of letters representing Christian names and surnames of his acquaintances, Sefaa Esec (1904) and Besacas (1904–1905). Čiurlionis continues his experiments of the same nature venturing to territories as distant as impossible to picture to most of his contemporaries.

His late piano works approach the closest the themes and forms which he pursues in painting. They are alike in the lucidity of idea and twilight of atmosphere, transcendental intuition and concise, almost Biblical, language. The feeling of space is essential to Čiurlionis in both music and painting: in music it is rendered through profusion of low tones and cascades of sounds spilling across the entire keyboard. His idea of pictorial cycles is paralleled in short and expressive cycles of piano pieces of sustained tension and mood throughout the entire piece. It is quite delicate to rank this music as the late work of Čiurlionis: in 1904 when this period started, he was 28, in 1909 when he stopped composing, he was hardly 34.


Sometimes one gets surprised by unexpected things:

“Not only I love and admire these wonderful paintings, but I believe that my musical goals are very close to what this ingenious painter wanted to achieve,”[43] Olivier Messiaen wrote in 1964.

Čiurlionis’ painting has always overshadowed his music, and maybe we should not be too surprised by it. Nobody would be able to give an estimate of the circulation of his reproduced works during the 20th century and image the numbers of eyes that saw them. Colour and black-and-white post cards, facsimiles of good and poor quality, posters, book covers, sweets’ boxes – some of Čiurlionis’ paintings not only became part of pop-culture in Lithuania, but spread across a big part of eastern block. His fan clubs emerged even in Japan.

“The very titles of his works – Sonata of the Sun, Sonata of the Spring, Sonata of the Sea, Sonata of the Stars – are always divided into four paintings – Allegro, Andante, Scherzo, Finale (like in the sonata or symphony) indicate to what degree his painting was the painting of music,”[44] Messiaen recalls on other occasion. It seems like Messiaen (1908–1992) – the ornithologist of music, fascinated with the titles of Čiurlionis’ sonatas and angels – was unaware of something of a greater importance or interest: the 1905 piano piece by Čiurlionis included a precisely recorded nightingale song matched with a mysterious, recurrent movement of bass. Should such a work be written somewhere around 1956, many would say, “how contemporary”. Directly for the Bird Catalogue.[45]

Unfortunately, nobody can guess what would have been Čiurlionis’ second nightingale piece, one of his last compositions (extant only in four measures), composed in 1909.[46]


In writing music for piano, Čiurlionis is consistently distancing himself from the style he uses to compose for orchestra: many of his pieces for piano and his concurrent symphonic poem The Sea stand in sharp contrast of expression and musical language. The Sea seems to take us back to the end of the 19th century, and it is also possible that this has to do with a certain sense of social security Čiurlionis wants to create for himself. Refusal of standard expression always provokes negative reaction, while Čiurlionis is after different goals in this case. The Sea is unrivalled in its majesty Lithuanian symphonic work where the spirit of the late national Romanticism reaches its apotheosis. This music migrates, in subtle hints of intonation and subtly shifting stylistic episodes between worlds German, Slavic and Nordic, and it is precisely this symbiosis that becomes a Lithuanian standard in music. This is how the geopolitical fate of “the Lithuanian sound” is established, in an integrated manner, to remain essentially unaltered throughout a century after Čiurlionis’ death.


At the time of writing In the Forest – a sincere, simple and bright composition –Čiurlionis has no idea of being at work on the first national Lithuanian symphonic opus (at the time Lithuanianess in his consciousness signifies only concrete historic and geographic locality), after 1906 there remains no such vagueness: Čiurlionis declares his Lithuanian identity by dedicating all his “past and future works to Lithuania.”[47]

There are different ways to contribute to the national revival: Čiurlionis conducts Lithuanian choirs, he harmonizes several national songs and even moves to live in Vilnius, where he embraces organizational work and paints his most ingenious works. But he cannot gain any deeper satisfaction: in Vilnius, who can he talk to of art on a par?


The fates of the artists of the former Russian Empire are linked in a funny manner: Igor Stravinsky (1882 – 1971) tells us of Čiurlionis’ painting Ballade (or, The Black Sun) which he once owned and lost.

“A painter who much interested me – he was possibly the most talented member of the Russian School at the beginning of this century – was Lithuanian M.K. Čiurlionis. I myself bought a handsome picture by him, partly at the prompting of Benois. It depicted a row of pyramids, in pale, nacreous tint, receding, in flight towards a horizon, but in crescendo, not in the diminuendo of the orthodox perspective. The picture was, in fact, part of my life and I can remember it very distinctly still though it has been lost these fifty years in Ustilug.”[48]

Čiurlionis travels to St. Petersburg on several occasions in hope of conquering the then capital as a painter and a composer. Yet it proves a waste of effort. As a painter he manages to build some relationships, but nothing happens with music, he only interacts more with the Lithuanian composers, Česlovas Sasnauskas and Juozas Tallat-Kelpša.

Čiurlionis is unaware that the things he holds in highest esteem – Lithuanian melodies which to him, constitute the foundation of the national music (“our credo – our most ancient folksongs and our future music”[49]) – are going in several years to attract the interest of Stravinsky and he will pick them out, thoroughly, from the anthology of Antanas Juška (1880-1882) for his ballet The Rite of Spring (1913):

“These melodies have undergone such transformations and have turned into composer’s private property to the extent where he, unsurprisingly, forgets the original having started to interpret it as his own work.”[50]

Stravinsky and Čiurlionis differ significantly in their approaches: for Stravinsky, Lithuanian folktunes are the source of wild archaic dance and unexploited motif; for Čiurlionis, they appear as fragile, sacred, reverence inspiring melodious objects elevated to the status of icons. Both are right. It is interesting that in Lithuanian folksongs harmonized by Čiurlionis for choirs one can feel a deeper religious sentiment and inspiration than in his earlier church compositions De Profundis (1809) and Sanctus (1902). And that most probably it is no paradox at all.


Čiurlionis and Arnold Schönberg (1874–1951) were two painting composers who started writing music at the same time. Sure enough, to live in Vienna and Warsaw are two different stories: in the world music capital one rubs shoulders with most extraordinary characters and has to live up to the highest possible standard.

Čiurlionis dreamed of painting from his childhood, later, embarked on regular studies of art. Schönberg took the brush from curiosity, like an amateur, doing this for leisure with the kind help of the family friend Austrian Richard Gerstl (1883–1908). Shortly Schönberg was so absorbed by this new occupation as failed to notice an affair of his wife Mathilda and Gerstl for whom Mathilda left home and children. In deep depression Schönberg started writing atonal music: it was the time when he wrote a fabulous masterpiece of Expressionist lyrics The Book of the Hanging Gardens for soprano and piano (1909).

When Mathilda came to her senses and returned to her husband, the miserable Gerstl hanged himself before the mirror, burning before that most of his work.

Schönberg painted mostly self-portraits, creating a great gallery of innovator of music, a proof to his multiple talents and sense of colour. One of his paintings Mahler’s Funeral (1911) is not unlike in its motif to the Funeral Symphony by Čiurlionis (1903). Like Čiurlionis, Schönberg likes the motif of a mystical hand, luminous shapes of heads and twilight.

However, it is not painting, but music that links him with Čiurlionis. Similarities are to be traced between some of Čiurlionis’ late preludes and contemporary Schönberg’s pieces for piano: the three pieces of 1909 op.11 have the same mysterious, nervous, flammable quality of sound like Čiurlionis’ music, only his are of a more contrasting form.

Veiled by a lightweight, decadent voile the music of both, Čiurlionis and Schönberg is artistically eloquent, intellectually deliberate and performer non-friendly.


Traditionally Čiurlionis is compared to Alexander Scriabin (1874 – 1915), and it is not surprising at all. One can say that both composers come from the same area, in their late work they developed a tendency towards excess of information and signs, polysemy and the gloomy prophetic rhetoric: the effect of frenzy, achieved by highly individual means, is of great importance for both.

Maybe this springs from common fascination with Symbolism, the matters of spiritualism, Orient and other sophistications of the fin de siècle. Čiurlionis here seems more deliberate, Scriabin, more resolute. Yet the tempestuous “maritime” preludes of Čiurlionis strike as more rough when compared to the exquisitely refined “flamboyant” textures of Scriabin’s late sonatas: the music they write seems to run counter natural humour of each of the authors.

The greatest mystics are surely also class mystifiers: it is self-evident in Scriabin’s case. The Russian composer keeps talking of the most utopian futuristic projects, which he feels determined to carry out for the good of humanity, but happens to post-pone: his widely advertised Mysterium never gets written, the “contemporary world cycle” is never completed, the “Sprit of the World” never gets linked with the “primeval Matter”, the “cosmic erotic act”….

Such literary fantasies remind of the interpretations of Čiurlionis’ paintings in words, lavishly offered by different researchers. One has to admit the existence of profound links between Scriabin’s music and Čiurlionis’ paintings, especially between the ideology of the “mystical chord” and pictorial sonatas, above all, the Sonata of the Stars: the microscopic expansive structure is connected with cosmic peace, calm ritualism, the breakthrough of light and its establishment.

These of course are only poetic and metaphorical means we resort to in an attempt to express the rather strong physiological impact of the visionary works of Scriabin and Čiurlionis. One should also mention the unique quality of their piano music – something like jazz making, which permeates the space with colours and energy, streams of light rising to the sky, inlaid with minute cosmic dust. In terms of harmony and rhythm Scriabin is incomparably more complex than Čiurlionis, yet the latter’s idée fixe – the fatalistic rhetoric of ostinatos reaches us from the world even more singular than Skriabin’s; it is deplorable that Čiurlionis revealed only so little of it.


Was there a utopia among Čiurlionis’ musical ideas?

Yes, there was. An opera.

He talked of it from the start of 1906. “I intend writing a Lithuanian opera.”[51]

The opera represents not only a musical genre: the institutional significance of the phenomenon is even higher.

For the awakening nation, the opera is a symbol for honesty, esteem, solidity, a testimony to the value and weight of its culture, the continuity of its tradition and a live source of creativity.

Yet such a concept and ambition raises multiple questions.

What society would have Čiurlionis’ opera been for? What audience could the author of the Lithuanian opera have expected? Where would it have been produced? And finally, who would have financed the production?

We have to remember that in the 1906 Vilnius (where else one can produce a Lithuanian opera?) was a town on the fringes of the Russian Empire with Lithuanians a minority of inconsiderable influence. Vilnius already regained the right to use Lithuanian alphabet, that is true, and in 1905 the Great Vilnius Diet already mentioned Lithuanian political autonomy.

But what about the rest? Barn theatre and patriotic didactic repertoire?

Čiurlionis returns to his idea of the opera in 1908 when he meets the woman of his life: Sofija Kymantaine writes the libretto of the future opera Jūratė. Čiurlionis tries to adjust to the taste of the woman he has fallen for. “I have received your letters and the Jūratė (the libretto)! I like Jūratė increasingly more, today I even could hear some music in it.”[52]

Opera always raises the question of woman.

Opera is about the sounding voice. But where can one hear woman’s voice in Čiurlionis’ music?

Čiurlionis does not write romances, songs, chamber ensembles, cantatas, concerts. There are no soloists in his music. There is no woman’s voice, without which an opera is inconceivable. Čiurlionis simply has no such practice. His music is entirely different and he seems to give no thought to it.


Seven pictorial Sonatas by Čiurlionis are his most mature work. They reveal the genius of the visionary in all possible multiple aspects.

It is the art meant for contemplation not for explanation. It is possible to speak of things around it and behind it, yet straightforward demonstration of the Sonatas causes confusion and disappointment at failing to perceive more.

It is not worth while slicing these Sonatas with Beethovenian knifes. To look for themes, expositions, reprises in them would amount to searching for such in the drifting clouds or Byzantine icons. The Sonatas by Čiurlionis are music of silence, created for the eyes and imagination.

There was no other way: Čiurlionis did not adopt such a procedure of writing music as the multiple bands of the American Charles Ives (1874 – 1954) to produce multiple, unrelated “musics” merging in an interesting way.

Such and even more complex blending of cosmic dust, lights and galaxies we perceive in the Sonata of the Stars. Similar experiments were made later in the 20th –century music by the celebrated visionaries Edgard Varèse (1883–1965), John Cage and Giacinto Scelsi (1905–1988).

But Čiurlionis’ chose silence.

As he painted more, he tended to write less and less music. It is likely that he entered his great pause – silence of many years after which one comes to speak in a new voice.

Schönberg, Varèse, Ives and Scelsi experienced such pauses.


Where from is this mysterious coincidence of the famous Čiurlionis pictorial Fugue (1908) and the last shot found in the camera of Karłowicz when his body was reclaimed from the avalanche? Both show just a simple play of fir-trees against a transparent background.


“Yes, Čiurlionis died in a psychiatric hospital. Yes, he surely got exhausted when he arrived in St. Petersburg; but his case served as a prominent proof to the idea that what we consider a psychic disorder is largely only a more subtle form of accepting the surrounding world, and it is here where we can predict the first manifestations of the emotions which will become a normal phenomenon of human life in the next stage of its development.”[53]

This quotation is from the very first book dedicated to Čiurlionis (1912). The approach of the author Leman is typical: Čiurlionis’ art and his psychic disorder are inseparable. It is a frequent attitude which has established the platform for numerous texts, scripts and works.

But maybe we should approach it more straightforwardly?

The art of Čiurlionis is rational, his intellect almost never gives in to his marvellous intuition. It is demonstrated by his musical compositions – Čiurlionis is a master class specialist of counterpoint, who perfected the technique and made discoveries in sound construction.

The same applies to his paintings: it suffices to take a look at his cycles of Sonatas and appreciate the rational harmony of composition, the sophisticated sense of rhythm and the firm hand of a graphic artist. The smallest detail, hardly discernable to the bare eye is painted or drawn with almost photographic similitude.

Čiurlionis was not a possessed poet who wasted his talent unawares what exactly he was doing. Having established the agenda of perfection, he aspired for the highest goals, venturing fearlessly into the territories totally unexplored.

His painting Rex (1909) and the last Fugue b-minor for piano (1908 – 1909) reveal an amazingly strong organization and a profusion of interesting information – from the drawings of Flammarion to the harmony of the spheres.


What does the theorem of Čiurlionis consist of?

Nietzsche says “In the end, no one can spend more than he has: that is true of an individual, it is true of a people.”[54]

Both sides of the equation sign need to exactly balance each other.

Until others arrange them in likely manner, each one tries his own way.

“Please do not take grudge with me for not writing, you, Madam, have no idea how burdened with work I was during the last few weeks.”[55]
From Čiurlionis’ letter, 1908.

© Šarūnas Nakas, 2009
© Translated by Irena Jomantienė

The publication of this text was made possible courtesy of collaboration with the organisers of the international exhibition DIALOGUES OF COLOUR AND SOUND. WORKS BY MIKALOJUS KONSTANTINAS ČIURLIONIS AND HIS CONTEMPORARIES (Vilnius, National Gallery of Art, 2009).

[1] Nietzsche F., Stabų saulėlydis, arba kaip filosofuojama kūju, Vilnius: Strofa, 2000, p. 93.

[2] Ibid. p. 93.

[3] Ibid. p. 91.

[4] Ibid. p. 92.

[5] Messiaen O., Confèrence de Notre-Dame […], Paris, 1978, p. 8. cit. in: Landsbergis V., Čiurlionio muzika, Vilnius: Vaga, 1986, p. 218.

[6] Nietzsche F., p. 92.

[7] Veiningeris O., Lytis ir charakteris, Vilnius: Asveja, 1999, p. 51.

[8] Ibid. p. 69.

[9] Lietuviškoji enciklopedija, t. 5, Kaunas: Spaudos Fondas, 1937, p. 1210.

[10] Cage J., Tyla, Vilnius: Pasviręs pasaulis, 2003, p. 14–15.

[11] Čiurlionis M. K., Apie muziką ir dailę, Vilnius: Valstybinė grožinės literatūros leidykla, 1960, p. 295.

[12] Cage J., p.16.

[13] Chylińska T., Haraschin S., Schäffer B., Przewodnik koncertowy, Kraków: Polskie wydawnictwo muzyczne, 1980, p. 695.

[14] Čiurlionis M. K., p. 24–25.

[15] Nietzsche F., p. 109.

[16] Čiurlionis M. K., p. 125.

[17] Ibid. p. 30.

[18] Ibid. p. 34.

[19] Ibid. p. 67.

[20] Ibid. p. 100.

[21] Ibid. p. 32.

[22] Ibid. p. 113.

[23] Ibid. p. 119.

[24] Ibid. p. 143.

[25] Ibid. p. 150.

[26] Ibid. p. 166.

[27] Ibid. p. 167.

[28] Ten pat.

[29] Ibid. p. 88.

[30] Landsbergis V., Visas Čiurlionis, Vilnius: Versus Aureus, 2008, p. 32.

[31] Čiurlionis M. K., p. 127.

[32] Cage J., p.16.

[33] Čiurlionis M. K., p. 100.

[34] Ten pat.

[35] Tarasti E., „Muzikos ir dailės sąveika M. K. Čiurlionio kūryboje“, Muzika, t. 7, Vilnius: Vaga, 1987, p. 71.

[36] Veiningeris O., p. 53.

[37] Кандинский B., О духовном в искусстве, Москва: Архимед, 1992, p. 38.

[38] From B. Wolman’s letter, 4 December 1931, Landsbergis V., p. 430.

[39] Čiurlionis M. K., p. 203.

[40] Ibid. p. 203.

[41] Ibid. p. 203.

[42] Ibid. p. 100.

[43] Landsbergis V., „Kaip kalnų strazdas“, Geresnės muzikos troškimas, Vilnius: Vaga, 1990, p. 282.

[44] Kaczyński T., Messiaen, Kraków: Polskie wydawnictwo muzyczne, 1984, p. 28.

[45] The Bird Catalogue (Catalogue d'oiseaux) – Olivier Messiaen‘s piano cycle in 13 parts (1956–1958), each of which is dedicated to a separate bird: overall 77 French birdsogns are used.

[46] Kučinskas D., Chronologinis Mikalojaus Konstantino Čiurlionio kūrinių katalogas, Kaunas: Technologija, 2007, p. 385.

[47] Čiurlionis M. K., p. 192.

[48] Stravinski I. and Craft R., Exposition and Developments, London: Faber and Faber, 1962, p. 27, footnote.

[49] Čiurlionis M. K., p. 316.

[50] Morton L., „Footnotes to Stravinsky Studies: Le Sacre du Printemps“, Temp, no. 128 (March, 1979), p. 9–16.

[51] Kučinskas D., p. 383.

[52] Ten pat.

[53] Леманъ Б., Чурлянисъ, С.-П.-Бургъ: Изданiе Н. И. Бутковской, 1912, p. 22.

[54] Nietzsche F., p. 75.

[55] Čiurlionis M. K., p. 209.

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