Volume 20, No.4 - Winter 1974
Editors of this issue: J.A. Rackauskas
Copyright © 1974 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.



The first mention of music in Lithuania comes from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries in old court records. Church and court organists as well as choristers are the first musicians to be mentioned. Ars at Praxis Musicae (1667) by Zigmantas Liauksminas was the first musical treatise printed in Lithuania. By the end of the seventeenth century music printing became widespread. The tablatures by the composer and lutenist Kazimieras Stanislovas Rudamina Dusiackis (c. 1645 — c. 1698) remain as one of the oldest written sources of Lithuanian music. The first operatic performance took place in Vilnius, the capital, in 1636. The opera Il Ratto d'Elena by Virgillio Puccitelli was presented in Italian.

Native Lithuanian art music did not develop much in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries because of social and historical conditions. In 1795, Lithuania was annexed by Russia and during the course of the nineteenth century, the czarist government embarked on a policy of stamping out Lithuanian nationalism, forbidding the printing of any books in the Lithuanian language and even the use of the Latin alphabet in general. This policy continued until the uprising of 1905 in Russia against the czarist regime, which led to many reforms, including a more relaxed policy toward nationalities under Russian control. Nevertheless the program of Russification did not cease until Lithuania achieved its independence in 1918. Scant opportunity existed for native Lithuanians to receive any systematic musical training. The position of church organist provided one opportunity for an aspiring musician to enter into the musical sphere. As a result most of the Lithuanian musicians during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were organists. Many noble families patronized the arts including music.

One of the first professional Lithuanian musicians was Juozas Kalvaitis (1842-1900). He composed a four-voiced Mass in the Lithuanian language in Tilžė (Tilsit). This city was in East Prussia and therefore was not subject to the czarist restriction on using the Lithuanian language and Latin alphabet in print.

Another early Lithuanian composer was Vincas Kudirka (1858-1899), who wrote the words and music of the Lithuanian national anthem. Kudirka was also one of the first composers of Lithuanian instrumental music, consisting primarily of salon piano music.

Juozas Naujalis (1869-1934) is considered as the first really important composer. He organized a private music school in 1892, which in 1919 became the State Conservatory in the newly independent nation. In their compositions, both Naujalis as well as the composer Sasnauskas (1867-1916) treated Lithuanian folk elements in basically a Western classical fashion, ignoring their modal features and casting them into the traditional major-minor modes. Naujalis composed much church music, choral music, and solo vocal music technically speaking, his compositions, while uncomplicated, reveal fine craftsmanship. His harmonies are traditional and his entire oeuvre possesses a conservatively Romantic tinge.

Jurgis Karnavičius (1884-1941), the composer of the first Lithuanian national opera Gražina (1933), was active between the two world wars. This period coincided with the era of Lithuania's political independence as well as with the flourishing of its indigenous musical culture.

Mikas Petrauskas (1873-1937) pioneered in the field of Lithuanian opera. Like Karnavičius, he studied under Liadov and Rimsky-Korsakov at the St. Petersburg Conservatory. In 1906, he presented a two-act "melodrama," Birutė. This work was based on medieval Lithuanian history and consisted of sung musical numbers interspersed with spoken dialogue. It may be considered as the earliest attempt in the direction of a national opera. Later in life, after having emigrated to the United States, Petrauskas wrote the opera Eglė, Žalčių Karalienė (Eglė, Queen of Serpents). This work was premiered in Boston in 1924. It was not presented in Lithuania until 1937 in a production based on a new edition by Dambrauskas. While the date of composition actually precedes that of Karnavičius' Gražina, it was composed in isolation from the mainstream of Lithuanian music and was not heard in Lithuania until four years after the premiere of Gražina. Eglė, Žalčiu Karalienė remained in the background and never became as important as Gražina in influencing and determining the Lithuanian operatic style and tradition.

Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis (1875-1911) is considered the greatest Lithuanian composer of his generation, and probably of all time. He is equally known for his mystical paintings. Čiurlionis studied at the Warsaw and Leipzig Conservatories. In his early compositions, his style somewhat resembles that of Chopin and early Scriabin. Later, polyphonic textures and frequent use of basso ostinato paterns predominate. His later style becomes more complicated, employing many late-Romantic harmonic procedures. The greatest part of his composition consists of instrumental music, mostly for solo piano. He also wrote some chamber music and two symphonic poems. Čiurlionis remains the last significant composer to work entirely in the period of Russian-occupied Lithuania before World War I.

When Lithuania's capital city Vilnius was seized by Poland (1920), the second largest city, Kaunas, became not only the temporary capital, but also the principal cultural and musical center of Lithuania. The Newly formed state was primarily concerned in solving its social and economic problems. Nevertheless, cultural and musical progress was not neglected. Since diplomatic relations were severed with Poland and Russia (the countries which had influenced Lithuanian culture the most in the preceding centuries), a new Western orientation became apparent, especially in the contacts with the neighbor to the West, Germany. The period immediately following World War I saw an influx of a large group of Lithuanian musicians from abroad. Many of them, foreign trained, returned now to their native country seeking careers. Talented singers abounded, but few other gifted musicians were to be found. This state of affairs undoubtedly contributed to the formation of the Lithuanian Opera in 1920. The opera was to be the focus of Lithuanian musical activity for the next score of years. Unfortunately, the instrumentalists were neither as plentiful nor on a par with the vocalists. Consequently, chamber and symphonic music, as well as solo instrumental music, was not able to keep pace with opera. The only existing symphony orchestra served both the opera and ballet theaters. However, this musical situation was ameliorated when the State Radio Orchestra achieved the status of a full symphony orchestra in the season 1935-1936.

Lithuanian composers at this time were burdened with administrative and teaching duties which permitted them to compose only on the side. Little incentive was given to them by the fact that, outside of opera, scant opportunity existed to have their work performed. Nevertheless, a new group of composers became active about this time. To one of these, Juozas Žilevičius (1891- ), belongs the distinction of having written the first Lithuanian symphony in 1924. Another important composer who emerged in this period was Juozas Gruodis (1884-1948). He composed a significant amount of chamber music, both vocal and instrumental, as well as orchestral and choral works. His style combined German post-Romantic elements with Lithuanian folk material. As a teacher he influenced a whole new generation of Lithuanian composers. Stasys Šimkus' (1887-1943) career as a composer in Lithuania spanned both the pre-World War I and post-War eras, and he was also active in America. His harmonizations of Lithuanian folk songs for both solo voice and chorus are perhaps the most notable part of his compositional output. He also wrote an opera, Pagirėnai, which was produced in 1941. Stylistically, it is more akin to music drama than to conventional opera, with an especially careful attention to the musical setting of the text.

Kazimieras V. Banaitis (1896-1963) was probably the first Lithuanian composer to bring into Lithuanian music some of the contemporary experimental techniques of Western music. His harmonic language at times included quartal structures along with many seventh and ninth chords, and he incorporated modal scales in his melodies. In sonority, many of his works seem tinged by Impressionism. Although Banaitis wrote for most of the traditional performing combinations, his solo vocal and choral music looms most important in his output. During the 1950's, in exile in the U.S., he wrote an opera, Jūratė ir Kastytis, which was premiered by the Lithuanian Opera Company of Chicago in the Spring of 1972.

The music of Vladas Jakubėnas (1904- ) resembles that of Banaitis. His compositions include both large-scale orchestral works and many short songs. In addition to being a composer, Jakubėnas must be considered one of the foremost Lithuanian music critics

Juozas Gruodis, Kazimieras Banaitis, and Vladas Jakubėnas form one distinctive group. Their music can be characterized by its combination of neo-Romantic and folkloristic elements. To this group we can add Antanas Račiūnas (1905- ), who studied with Gruodis and Nadia Boulanger. Among his work is one of the best Lithuanian operas, Trys Talismanai (The Three Talismans), which was premiered in 1936. The entire score and all parts were destroyed during World War II. Consequently, reconstruction of the original is impossible. Račiūnas has incorporated fragments of the lost work into his opera Marytė (1953), a work in the Soviet Socialist Realist tradition.

In 1940 Lithuania was annexed by Soviet Russia. In 1944 a great number of Lithuanians, among them many intellectuals, artists, writers, and composers, escaped to the West. Since that time the history of Lithuanian music remains divided between those composers who freely pursued their own musical style in the West, and those who remained in Lithuania and had to accept the dictates of Soviet Socialist Realism.

The composers just discussed were the contemporaries of Karnavičius, both in musical style and in aesthetic principles. Together with these composers, Karnavičius determined the course of Lithuanian music in the 1930's. They all shared a common musical vocabulary and dedicated themselves to the "nationalist" cause in music.

After Karnavičius' death, two composers active in independent Lithuania and later in the United States deserve special mention: Jeronimas Kačinskas (1907- ) and Vytautas Bacevičius (1905-1970). Both have led in espousing the avant-garde tendencies of their day. Kačinskas has been the leading representative of international Western modernism in Lithuanian music. He has rejected the superficial use of national folk melodies to conjure up Lithuanian nationalism and has elected an atonal or polytonal style.

Bacevičius was equally renowned as a pianist and as a composer. The majority of his works are instrumental, but he has written some vocal music, namely the opera Vaidilutė (The Vestal), which has never been performed because of its technical demands. Bacevičius' style, too, is antinationalistic; he was probably the first Lithuanian composer to write almost exclusively in the atonal expressionist style. (He was the brother of the late Polish-based composer Grazyna [Gražina] Bacewicz).

The musical situation in Lithuania just before the outbreak of World War II differed radically from the one almost twenty years previously. Now no dearth existed of capable instrumentalists to perform works of the international repertoire. The orchestras, under the leadership of Balys Dvarionas and Kačinskas, could handle most of the challenges of the symphonic repertoire. The opera had also matured into a large ensemble of high artistic standards; it no longer dominated Lithuanian musical activity, but shared the spotlight with the orchestras and with the newly popular chamber groups, both vocal and instrumental.

The Soviet occupation, in 1940, and the German occupation, in 1941, put a damper on cultural and musical developments in Lithuania. As previously mentioned, after World War II and the restoration of Soviet hegemony, music in Lithuania proceeded to develop according to the dictates of Socialistic Realism. Some of the composers active before the war continued to write, but modified their style to conform to the current norms. Other new names have appeared only after World War II: Vytautas Klova (1926- ), most noted for his operas, such as Pilėnai and Vaiva, Edvardas Balsys (1919- ), and Julius Juzeliūnas (1916- ). The musical center of the Soviet Socialist Republic of Lithuania became its capital city Vilnius, with its Opera and Ballet Theaters and Philharmonic Orchestra.

Of the Lithuanian composers who fled Lithuania in 1944, most have come to reside in the United States. Many of those active in free Lithuania have continued to write music in the States. Perhaps the most notable new composers in this group are Jonas Švedas (1927- ) and Darius Lapinskas (1934- ). Švedas has contributed to the piano and song repertoire with his expressionistic compositions, while Lapinskas has been most successful in his song cycles, cantatas, operas, and "total theater" pieces, among them the Cantata Declamata, Lokys, and Maras.

The center of all Lithuanian musical activity in exile seems to be Chicago. Here, for example, the Lithuanian Opera has been active since 1957.