Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis (1875–1911), a composer and artist who has left the foremost signal mark in Lithuanian culture, is a unique creator in the history of European art.
Due to the versatility of his creative search M. K. Čiurlionis can be equated with Renaissance masters. In just ten years, he has composed about four hundred music works, including two major symphonic poems, an overture, a cantata for choir and orchestra, two sonatas and several cycles of variations for piano, a string quartet, works for choir and many piano opuses. At the same time, in just six years as an artist, Čiurlionis produced more than three hundred paintings, created a number of graphic works, in addition, wrote literary and poetic works, as well as articles, and experimented in artistic photography. His notebooks from the time of his studies at the Warsaw Institute of Music reveal his interest in geology and history, chemistry and geometry, physics and astronomy, astrology and mythology, ancient and modern languages, classical and new philosophy, Eastern and Western religions.
The artist was born in Varėna, into the family of church organist. When he was two years old, the family moved to Druskininkai. It was here that his love for Lithuanian song and the nature of Druskininkai was born. His musical talent was revealed very early on. The future artist returned here every summer, to produce his most inspired music works and paintings.
At the age of just thirteen, the young Mikalojus Konstantinas was sent to study in Plungė, to Prince Michał Ogiński Manor Orchestral School, where he has played flute since the age of sixteen. With orchestral concerts he visited Palanga and Rietavas. Later, he returned to Plungė and Palanga with his fiancée, later bride, writer and publicist Sofija Kymantaitė.
With Prince Ogiński’s financial support, he studied at the Warsaw Institute of Music, graduating in 1899 with the oratorio De Profundis as his graduation work. In 1900, he composed the symphonic poem Miške (In the Forest), and already in 1901 the young composer went to study in Leipzig, one of the most important European music centres. While studying in Leipzig, his love for art, which sprung in childhood, re-emerged, and in the second half of 1902, M. K. Čiurlionis returned to Warsaw, determined to cultivate both forms of self-expression – visual and musical. In 1905, he began conducting the choir of the Lithuanian’s Society for Mutual Assistance in Warsaw, and in the same year, his paintings exhibited in St. Petersburg brought first recognition as the artist.
From 1906 on, M. K. Čiurlionis got increasingly involved in the movement of Lithuanian national revival. His idealistic sacrifice for the sake of the ideals of the nation and art presents him as a typical creator of the Romantic era. During a short period (less than a year) of his life in Vilnius, M. K. Čiurlionis became one of the leaders of the Lithuanian Artists’ Society, greatly contributed to the organization of the first three Exhibitions of Lithuanian Art and displayed many of his paintings there. He also conducted Lithuanian choirs in Vilnius and later in St. Petersburg, where he went to seek wider recognition at the end of 1908.
Čiurlionis was the first professional Lithuanian composer to be so sincerely interested in Lithuanian folk songs. He not only arranged them, used their melodies in his original works, but also collected them and analysed their features in journalistic articles. Perhaps his most passionate outlook on life and art is revealed in M. K. Čiurlionis’ refusal to accept the offered safe positions of lecturer or artistic director in Polish cities, and the decision expressed in a letter to brother Povilas: “to dedicate all my present and future works to Lithuania.”
M. K. Čiurlionis’ paintings display the influence of symbolism and art noveau, his musical vocabulary seeks to expand the chromatic and harmonic possibilities of the major-minor system, while all his works are united by synesthetic tendencies. All these features testify to Čiurlionis being a typical Central European artist of the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
However, M.K. Čiurlionis’ mature paintings, the plastic of which is subtly based on musical forms and the logic of musical motivic development, and the late piano works, combining serial technique and ostinato logic, melodic and rhythmic modules as well as harmonic complex structures, stand out in European cultural history as unique examples of art that merges the spheres of music and painting.