LITHUANIAN QUARTERLY JOURNAL OF ARTS AND SCIENCES
Copyright © 2006 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.
Volume 52, No 2 - Summer 2006
Editor of this issue: Zita Kelmickaitė
FOLK SONGS IN THE WORK OF LITHUANIAN COMPOSERS
Rūta Gaidamavičiūtė is head of the Department of Music Theory and History at the Lithuanian Musicology Institute and Associate Professor at the Lithuanian Academy of Music and Theatre. She has published widely on contemporary Lithuanian music and is currently preparing a monograph on music of Vidmantas Bartulis.
Every age or generation has to discover its own approach to the enchanted and complex world of folk song, to illuminate it, interpret it, and to experience it in its own way. It would be difficult to justify, if, in the middle of the twentieth century, we were still arranging folk melodies in exactly the same way as they did two or three hundred years ago.
Kazimieras Viktoras Banaitis, November 1951
For a long time, one of the most important esthetic and artistic questions of twentieth century Lithuanian music was the link between folk music and the newly developing schools for professional musical composition. In the course of a century, the attitude of artists and listeners, along with the range of applied compositional techniques, shifted significantly. Today, the most important milestones in this shift are clearly visible and it is possible to pinpoint the individuals who contributed the most to this endeavor.
The problem under discussion is particularly closely tied to Lithuania’s overall history. In the constant battle for independence, the awakening of ethnic consciousness and self-esteem was frequently one of art’s most important stimuli. Safeguarding the source of folk music’s vitality was seen as one of the most effective means of accomplishing this.
Cultural processes that had matured in much of Europe had a considerable influence as well. This included both the formation of national schools of composition on the edges of Europe, which took place at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries, and the modernization initiatives born in traditional music centers. Lithuania, being a country given to song, revived its choral movement first, at the beginning of the twentieth century. With instrumental culture gaining ground by degrees, this was an excellent stimulus, acting as a bridge between live folklore singing in village communities and the enrichment of composers’ work by folk material. Lithuanian composers found this perfectly natural, as they themselves were, for the most part, raised in a peasant village or a small town and frequently came to their musical career by way of schooling by the parish church organist. And it was of no import that they later studied in such cultural centers as Leipzig, Warsaw, and St. Petersburg, since their ties with their own kinsmen and their musical worldview remained strong regardless. The articles and letters of many composers contain a clearly expressed affinity for folk songs and a conscious stance towards the future of world music with a distinct national flavor. As time passed, only the concept of nationalism changed.
The very first stage of the transfer of Lithuanian songs into composers’ scores was through their arrangement. We can find material of this nature in almost all the works of late nineteenth and early twentieth century authors, and some composers continued writing song arrangements as late as several decades after World War II.
It’s impossible to encompass the entire panorama of the preservation of folk songs in professional musical scores within this article. For this reason, the most prolific authors in this area will be emphasized, as well as the most widespread means of preserving folk songs.
Professional organists of the nineteenth century are remembered as innovators: Mykolas Račas-Racevičius, Juozas Dryja-Visockis, and Juozas Kalvaitis, whose work remains in manuscript form. In 1895 and 1899, Vincas Kudirka succeeded 42 in publishing two of the first notebooks of folk song arrangements, Kanklės, for four-part male choirs. A few years later, Leonas Ereminas’s Dainos nutaisytos ant 4 balsų, (1902) and Vilis Storosta’s (under the pseudonym Vydūnas) Lietuvos Aidas, (1904) appeared. It would be difficult to apply serious professional music and nationalistic criteria to these works, especially since Polish and German musicians assisted with their publication. Some of Juozas Naujalis’s arrangements (“Oi žiba žiburėlis,” “Ko liūdi putinėli”) are now valued because they are close to the spirit of folk songs.
Česlovus Sausnauskas met with considerably more success. M.K. Čiurlionis evaluated his work: “The best characteristic of Č. Sasnauskas, as a Lithuanian composer, is not just his wealth of knowledge and harmonics, but that he brings a genuine Lithuanian chord to the surface everywhere– that strange, ancient, inscrutable note, conceived ages ago, that reigns in our songs.” 1 Even though the arrangement of folk songs had only just begun, in Sasnauskas’s work we come across full-scale examples of songs as well (“Siuntė mane motinėlė,” “Lėk sakalėli,” “Tu mano motinėlė”).
Čiurlionis himself devoted a great deal of attention to searching for Lithuanian roots in his own music. His imprint here is marked both by quantity (over forty arrangements for choir and approximately half as many for the piano) and quality. He remarked on this issue many times: “Let us scrutinize, listen to and recognize where our true nature resides, for how can we dream of our own music if we do not discern the foundations from which it should grow?” 2 Or: “Melodies that are born in a person’s soul affect us the most and have the power to enchant, just like our oldest authentic songs.” 3
It’s important to emphasize that Čiurlionis drew attention to one of music’s most meaningful components – rhythm. In the article “On Music and Art,” he wrote: “Monotony of rhythm is one of the most important and, I dare say, the most beautiful characteristics of our music. This monotony creates a vast, noble somberness, and, listening at some length, you begin to feel its deep, mystical character.” 4 The composer’s sister, the authoritative folklorist Jadvyga Čiurlionytė, appreciated the authentic bond with folk song in her brother’s works. Vytautas Landsbergis emphasized that, “in his vocal parts, Čiurlionis avoided worn church euphony and sentimental undertones, noticeable in the works of his colleagues, Naujalis and Sasnauskas, not to mention those of second-rate Lithuanian composers of that period. Čiurlionis’s technique was to give meaning to the voices and to individualize the song. Every one of his songs is different and composed differently. His means are rather drastic, but noble, and relatively varied within the boundaries of a uniform style.” 5
Kazimieras Viktoras Banaitis continued Čiurlionis’s work in folk song arrangements. However, where Čiurlionis was closer to the folklore of his native Dzūkija, Banaitis was interested in songs from a variety of ethnographic areas. As Ona Narbutienė, a scholar of his works, has observed, the composer liked to select very short ancient songs, preserving their authentic form, and develop them by the principle of variation.6
In the foreword to 100 liaudes dainų, Banaitis wrote:
A rubber-stamp arrangement that suits all eras and all peoples cannot be applied to folk songs. It is frequently forgotten that many peoples’ ingrained original folk melodies conceal no less ingrained harmonic possibilities and secrets (what the Germans call latente Harmonie), whose discovery and development constitutes the composer’s most important task when arranging folk songs.7
Stasys Šimkus is known for a somewhat different style of arranging folk songs. The composer makes more of an effort to expose their mood and emotional range. In surrendering to a song’s poetic impulse, Šimkus acted rather freely. It is interesting that Šimkus, a huge patriot of Lithuanian music on whose initiative the Commission for Gathering Folk Music– later the Folklore Archive– was founded, emphasized that “[...] it’s impossible to copy folk art, it’s only possible to create something worthwhile by capturing its spirit and raising it to a higher degree of value.” 8 The conviction suiting this Romantic esthetic prevailed until almost the middle of the 1970s. The symbiosis of folk and the rudiments of professionalism imparted an influence on the greater part of the music created during that time period.
In contrast to other folk songs, composers of the unique multivoiced polyphonic sutartinė appeared relatively late. This occurred for several reasons. First of all, it is probably significant that at the beginning of the twentieth century, when schools for Lithuanian composers with a nationalistic bent were forming, the sutartinė was on the verge of disappearing and was, in addition, relatively unknown; second, at that time, the sutartinė could not perform the important function of unifying people. The selection of examples of folk music was influenced by the homophonic thought of the time, the tastes of the epoch, etc. The authentic sutartinė’s accessibility was important, too. When the first publications appeared, particularly after Z. Slaviūnas’s three-volume collection of sutartinės,9 interest in them grew considerably. Later, after a particularly intensive period of exploiting the sutartinė, a retreat, an ebb, of sorts, is observable: some authors became interested in other strata of folklore; others, perfecting the technique of their works, distanced themselves from folklore in general. However, the genre’s uniqueness and its requirement for cogitation on a multiplaned polyphonic level does not, so far, allow it to be completely ignored.
The first of the Lithuanian composers to integrate elements of the sutartinė into original work was Juozas Gruodis. They are found in “Lietuviškas šokis” from the Sonata for violin and piano in D-minor and in Variations on folklore themes for symphony orchestra (the II and VIII variations). An interesting, relatively unknown example using sutartinė elements is Gruodis’s music for Vincent Krėvė’s “Šarūnui” (No. 4). The reworking of the sutartinė in “Gegutės sodas” also belongs to this composer. Here, the sutartinė is treated using the principles of the other folk song adaptations. Nevertheless, the signs distinguishing the sutartinė are clearly visible.
Soon, many other writers tried “spicing up” their works with the sutartinė. The spirit of the time was favorable for this. When composers were required to clearly base their work on folk music, the sutartinė spread. The sutartinė was particularly well-suited to optimistic finales of the monumental cyclical form (for example, Vainiūnas’s Second concerto for piano and orchestra).
After Gruodis’s death, Stasys Vainiūnas’s and Julius Juzeliūnas’s association with the sutartinė became clearer. The majority of their works are supported by the sutartinė; however, the results of the composers’ works are rather different. An accented irregularity is more typical of Vainiūnas; so, for this reason, the flow of the rhythm is frequently interrupted by syncopation, with a lively pulse of movement breaking through them. The author found authentic citations useful in his early work (for example, Rhapsody on a Lithuanian theme for violin and orchestra); later he acquired a freer hand with them. A masterful example, showing a varied, creative usage of the common principles of the sutartinė, can be seen in the symphonic painting “Sutartinė.” The sutartinė’s pulse was apparently an excellent fit with the composer’s lively character. A similar pulse remains even when obvious parallels with the sutartinė aren’t perceivable, for example, in the slow, lyrical episodes. And finally, it is clear even when the author utilizes other folk songs. As his knowledge of the sutartinė grew deeper, the polyphonic vein and frequent polyrhythmics grew in Vainiūnas’s scores.
Juzeliūnas approaches the sutartinė somewhat differently. A great deal of analytical work and a strong compositional technique are apparent in his scores. These examples of folk work attracted him particularly because of their constructional possibilities. Although like Vainiūnas, he began with authentic citations, he attempted to combine citations with the symphonic principle. For example, the sutartinė “Čibi ribi ožys” resounds in the third section of the Second symphony.
Vytautas Montvila was another devoted proponent of the sutartinė. As the composer himself remarked, “In all of my work I strive for a contemporary Lithuanianism, since that is the most beautiful part of my work [...] The basic goal of my work, without question, is the sutartinė, which interested me because of its archaic intonational structure and the great potential of its rhythm. In my works, I attempt to disclose not just the sutartinė’s playfulness and the keenness of its rhythm, but also its melodiousness and its lyrical nature.” 10
Montvila attempted to combine several sutartinės at the same time, in the same way that several voices are combined in an authentic sutartinė. For example, in “Gotiška poema” two sutartinės sound at the same time: “Bėk, bare, bėk” and a transformed “Bitele, bičiuke, dobilio.” 11
In regard to this phenomenon, Jonas Švedas, who, encouraged by Žilevičius, enthusiastically collected folk songs and used them in his work, should be remembered. With the founding of the dance and song ensemble Lietuva, stylized folklore compositions adapted for the stage began to be written. Despite folklorists’ inclination to constantly criticize such works, Jonas Švedas, Algimantas Bražinskas, Leonas Povilaitis, Anatolijus Lapinskas, and even composers with a more modern bent have created a significant number of scores for this type of ensemble. In practice, these groups didn’t use authentic Lithuanian folk instruments, but rather perfected ones – the kanklė, the birbynė, the lumzdelius, etc. The imperative to base work on national treasures, recognized since the beginning of the century, raised discussions from time to time on the means of accomplishing this. It’s worthwhile to remember Jadvyga Čiurlionytė’s attitude:
If we want our creative folk heritage to be the nucleus of the national form, we must link it to our contemporary life and search for the means to create a new reality with its help. This does not mean artificially antiquating it, stylizing it or worse -- simplifying it. To accomplish this, a suitable inner relationship with folk work must be found, a suitable contact that would, with heartfelt bonds, bind together what the people of this age feel and seek with what has been developed and settled over the ages [...]. For this reason, if we look at folk song as a phenomenon of the historical past, it appears as if it is doomed to disappear or become a museum rarity. But if a composer creates new art based on folk song, art that suits the ideological substance, tempo and rhythm of our contemporary life, we shall have a new music for our times.12
Representing a distinctive contemporary Lithuanian “dialect,” Feliksas Bajoras creates an entire epoch in the movement of folk song into professional scores. Bajoras differs from his contemporaries, and even more so from his younger colleagues, in that he carries the essence of Lithuanian folk music deep within his blood. In our times, it’s understood that authenticity has a universal thread that connects the experiences of the most diverse peoples. Bajoras sublimated tradition–and everything that had been offered until then–and somehow helps transpose it, naturally, recognizably, and without losing its significance, from the village cottage to the spheres of urban concert life or the compact disk. He transposes it not just as an element, but as a distinct outlook as well, as if it were the basis of a musical dialect. Today, when works frequently become a one-time performance with little meaning given to the precision of each sound, Bajoras’s works, in contrast, represent the traditional outlook that every sound is immovable. In its rhythmic energy, its various connections not just within an individual piece, but with other work as well, and in the end with the tradition itself, it contains an enormous expressive load. “I want to preserve the Lithuanian flavor and begin from simplicity, without crowding myself with unnecessary things that aren’t typical of our culture. This is probably the primary reason why I’m attracted to minimalism,” says the composer.13
Bajoras’s most popular and most frequently played work is “Sakmių siuta” for voice and piano, which was written to the text of folk legends and at one time was the standard for Lithuanian vocal music. In contrast to authors who cite or illustrate folk songs in their works, one is surprised by the composer’s naturalness, his particular feel for folk music, and his unique penetration into the depths of its essence, at which point it is difficult to establish whether an authentic folk melody or one created by Bajoras himself is being used. Abundant vocal cycles make up a separate layer (“Auki auki žalias beržas,” “Karinės istorinės,” “Vestuvinės dainos,” “Kalendorinės dainos,” “Darbo dainos,” “Meilės dainos”). Bajoras is one of those artists who pays a great deal of attention to the expression, the text, and the most subtle nuances of folk performance. This can be sensed even in the composer’s instrumental works.
The relationship of Lithuanian composers with folk song, how far they stray from it and what they borrow from it is constantly changing.
An obvious distinguishing feature is the material the composer surrounds his chosen folk songs or motifs with. Some concentrate on it to such an extent that it seems nothing more is needed, since everything is straightforwardly “quoted” and grows out of it (Brundzaitė, Bajoras); others immediately frame it with clearly demarcated contemporary attributes (Montvila); still others gradually distance themselves (Kutavičius’s “Dzūkiškos variacijos”), at first giving the listener a coherent base, and then guiding them down other paths of their own devising. There are cases where a composer goes in the opposite direction, as if making his way through various thickets and tangled paths, a difficult expedition in search of treasure, leading to those primary, seemingly polished folk songs, similar to the way the culmination sounds in the authentic song “Pūtė vėjas ąžuoluosna” at the end of Kutavičius’s oratory “Iš jotvingių akmens.”
Living in a small country, we Lithuanians are accustomed to a strongly expressed personal relationship with everything that surrounds us. Bronius Kutavičius’s music impresses in exactly this way: in traveling from a mythological expanse into a universal dimension, his music at the same time safeguards the aural expression of the tangible world right here under our feet. It seems to grow out of the Lithuanian landscape, a landscape of minor contrasts, but distinguished by what is, in essence, subtle variation.
Kutavičius transferred the sphere of pure music to a broader cultural space. Speaking on behalf of the national resurrection, he appeared to begin the revival of a historical vision that had been suppressed in official life with his creation of the famous cycle of oratories (“Panteisinė oratorija,” 1970; “Paskutinės pagonių apeigos,” 1978; “Iš jotvingių akmens,” 1983; “Pasaulio medis,” 1980). Avant-garde means of expression are used in the oratories (dodecaphony, aleatoric and sonoristic techniques), expressions used as a certain kind of generalized programmatic are freely integrated among themselves, as well as with less radical musical language.14 The musicologist Inga Jasinskaitė-Jankauskienė maintains that it’s no accident that “Dzūkiškos variacijos” is called a hymn to the immortality of folk art. In her opinion, a natural and direct link to the past, one that doesn’t forget that the moment of reckoning is in the present, is felt in Kutavičius’s music.15
Kutavičius uniquely blends the calm wisdom and depth of the rustic emotional outlook and the sense of spirituality buried within all cultures with the insatiable need of contemporary man for change and novelty.
Algirdas Martinaitis’s “Cantus ad futurum” (“Giesmė ateičiai” for two sopranos and instrumental ensemble; text by the author), was written in 1982, when many were already searching for a route to simplicity, but more than a few still considered the word “minimalism” an affront. Stressing the urgency of ecological problems, the text is devoted to naming the vanishing birds of Lithuania. The sutartinė is cited like a cry for help from the vanishing birds; while the addresses to the black stork and the nightingale, sounding in Latin against a backdrop of modified Georgian chants, are a caution to contemporary man. Like folk song, the motifs do not lose their suggestiveness through repetition. The text forcefully reinforces the music, which was conceived together with the idea for the work while turning the pages of the Red Book.16
Folk song must assume an even larger role when it becomes the basis of monumental forms. Interestingly, as if he were creating a “resounding map of southeastern Lithuania,” Mindaugas Urbaitis interweaves a multivoiced score for fifteen strings from authentic Dzūkian folk songs in “Lietuvių liaudes muzika.” The complex means by which the songs are joined reveals the composer’s great mastery. He interweaves an entire canon– from three-part to six-part voices. It’s paradoxical, but one-part improvisational Dzūkian melodies are interwoven within it like the polyphonic sutartinės.
In Vidmantas Bartulis’s oratory “Mūsų Lietuva,” the weaving of songs is joined not just by the symphonic, but by the performance tradition as well. Keeping in mind that it is music designed for a mass gathering, the decision is justifiable. The crowd can not only identify with well-known music, but also, as if on an invisible bridge, return to the times when song accompanied many chores and rituals.
Worth mentioning as a successful contemporary artistic example is Vaclovas Augustinas’s chamber music choral score “Supkit meskit,” where the formula of a sutartinė rhythm and songs, sung while swinging on a swing, is combined in a contemporary scope. Another of his works for choir, “Trepute martele” entices with its liveliness and playfulness. Giedrius Svilainis uses similar artistic principles.
When Lithuania regained its freedom and the opportunity arose of giving concerts abroad arose, many Lithuanian choirs (“Jaunai muzikai,” “Brevis,” and others), were assisted by Jonas Tamulionis’s works in winning awards at international competitions in Spain (Tolosa), France (Tours), Italy, and elsewhere. These works included “Šarkela, varnela,” the famous “Skaičiuotės,” “Erzinimai” (with folk texts), and “Ant kranto” with Jonas Mekas’s text, where the emphasis on the folk spirit is rendered by the archaic wind instrument skudutis. The composer, known for writing very lively, fast-paced music, set himself the goal of writing a five-part entirely lyrical song cycle, “Dainuok sesiula.” Tamulionis’s newest work is “Keiksmažodžių siuta,” which is based on folk sayings.
With demand growing, as well as the understanding that the professional and folklore traditions exist under essentially different conditions and must differ in substance as much as in their methods of formation, composers began to regard folk song not as something complete within itself, which at best can be “framed” by similar material, but as a substance that can crop up in extremely contrasting surroundings, or that can be disassembled, reconstructed or just displayed for a moment as a lure, a recognizable sign that seemingly gives the listener a sense of security; while later, in the flow of the work, the author leans more towards original material.
Frequently, a work’s success depends on how much of the borrowed, handed-down, and ready-functioning music is experienced by the author as an authentic part of his conception. As the composer Šarūnas Nakas said, “It’s obvious that a legacy from any historical sphere is brought back to life only as much as it succeeds in becoming new and fresh.”17
In the course of a hundred years, the attitude toward what folk music is and what it means to us has changed a great deal. If the early composers accepted song as an object, a totality in itself, then in later times our ancestors’ culture frequently became, like an ever-present shadow, one that is difficult to embrace; one that makes music distinctive. If the concern of Kutavičius, Bajoras, Martinaitis and others over the preservation of tradition extends convictions formed by the classics, then the means and methods by which they are sought have become completely different. Contemporary composers are markedly more open to the world; frequently they do not shun the influence of jazz, other cultures, world music and the novelty of contemporary music. However, at the same time, they constantly find new means to underpin their work with our ancestors’ culture.
Translated by E. Novickas
1. Čiurlionis, 1960, 291.
2. Čiurlionytė-Karužienė, 1960, 312.
3. Ibid, 299
4. Čiurlionis, 1960, 299.
5. Landsbergis, 1986, 156.
6. Narbutienė, 1996, 97.
7. Banaitis, 1951..
8. Palionytė, 1967, 101.
9. Slaviūnas, 1958-1959.
10. Žilinskaitė, 1986.
11. More material on the influence of the sutartinė in professional works can be found in the author’s monograph Nauji lietuvių muzikos keliai, Vilnius, Muzikos ir teatro akademija, 2005, 407.
12. Čiurlionytė, 1960.
13. Daunoravičienė, 2002, 371.
14. For more about Kutavičius’s music and its symbolic meaning see the author’s article “Symbolism and Historical Imagination in the Music of Bronius Kutavičius” in Constructing Modernity and Reconstructing Nationality. Lithuanian Music in the 20th Century, edited by Rūta Stanevičiūtė-Goštautienė and Audronė Žiūraitytė. Vilnius: Kultūros barai, 2004, 49-71.
15. Jasinskaitė-Jankauskienė, 2001, 18.
16. Lithuania’s official list of animals on the verge of extinction. Ed.
17. Nakas, 2004, 62.
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Slaviūnas, Zenonas. Sutartinės. Daugiabalsės lietuvių liaudies dainos. Vilnius: 1958-1959. Vol. 1-3.
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