Mikalojus Konstantinas Ciurlionis

Biography by

Mikalojus Konstantinas Ciurlionis, whose musical career ceased when he fell into an abyss of depression, is best remembered for establishing professional art in Lithuania and for exemplifying the interests…
Read Full Biography

Artist Biography by

Mikalojus Konstantinas Ciurlionis, whose musical career ceased when he fell into an abyss of depression, is best remembered for establishing professional art in Lithuania and for exemplifying the interests of the Symbolist and Modernist movements, through his paintings and his chromatic, mysterious, and folkloric -- yet cosmopolitan -- compositions. He was most strongly influenced in these areas midway through his life by his travels, his own reflections on the culture and politics of his fatherland, and by the attitudes of his close friend Eugeniusz Morawski, who was following the two movements when the men met.

As the son of the church organist of Druskininkai, Ciurlionis was exposed to music early in life and by the age of 14 he entered the music school associated with Prince Oginski's orchestra. His placement in the institution proved to be a wise decision and he ultimately received magisterial support to study at the Warsaw Conservatory under Sygietynski and the composer and conductor Zygmunt Noskowski. From there he attended the Leipzig Conservatory, where he was a student of the pianist, composer, and conductor Carl Reinecke and the theorist and composer Salomon Jadassohn. After achieving the competence to teach, Ciurlionis earned his living in Warsaw by giving private lessons.

After his interest in Lithuanian culture and politics was stimulated during travels near Russia, Ciurlionis moved to Vilnius in 1907 and allowed his music and art to be shaped by the influences there. In a few short years he learned to speak Lithuanian from Sofija Kymantaite (who later became his wife), directed voices of Vilniaus Kankles (Lithuania's first proficient choir), showed his own paintings in the First Lithuanian Art Exhibition, organized a follow-up display, and founded the Lithuanian Art Association (with the help of two other artists). His artwork was praised for his efforts to represent music in groups of paintings, and composers like Stravinsky showed their support by purchasing works. In his compositions Ciurlionis allowed the tedious rhythms; smooth, unembroidered melodies; and the hints of melancholy found in the country's folk songs to permeate and characterize his most mature music, especially in bass lines. Just one year after having moved to Vilnius he journeyed to St. Petersburg, where his compositions were heard in the "Evenings of Contemporary Music," on a program with Medtner and Scriabin, and his art was shown by the Union of Russian Artists. Unfortunately upon his return to Russia after a visit in his hometown of Druskininkai, he became seriously depressed, then was treated in a sanatorium near Warsaw, where he caught a fatal bout of pneumonia.

This greatly admired musician preferred to express himself through variations, did a great deal of exploration into polyphonic lines in the late half of his career, created many pieces that were marked by atonal harmony, and broadened his career through writings. The works that helped to establish Ciurlionis as a prominent composer include his orchestral work Polonez (1900), the cantata De Profundis (1899-1900), and the symphonic poems Miske (In the Forest) (which took the first prize at the Zamojski competition in Warsaw) and Jura (The Sea) (which he had once planned to transform into an opera, with the help of his wife). He also composed works for solo piano, string quartets and several songs for organs. His works are still recorded, and the most popular are his instrumental selections, which can be heard almost exclusively under the EMI and Marco Polo labels, featuring the directors M. Rubackyté and Lithuania's future president V. Landsbergis.