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Lithuanian contemporary music

Here is an introduction to the wide range of music that is thriving today in Lithuania. It includes the best selection of performances by classical performers, music written by classical and contemporary composers, a selection of pieces by folk and jazz musicians, and the art of music video, representing today’s pop / rock / electronic acts.

Lithuania has an old, distinguished and rich tradition of folk music. While the history of its professional music culture is not so long, it includes today a great diversity of events and institutions, and a roster of reputable performers and composers whose work is increasingly well-known around the world. Jazz and rock / pop musicians are also constantly winning new audiences abroad.

The recordings are accompanied by detailed information on the musicians and the music. We sincerely hope that you will have an enriching experience of what Lithuanian music currently has to offer: clearly recognisable as part of Europe’s old and new music traditions, it can also often be rather surprising.

Contemporary Lithuanian Music: in Search of a National Voice

The history of Lithuanian national music is surprisingly short, spanning a little over a century. This is due mainly to the correspondingly long history of the country's occupation by foreign powers, when it was not possible for Lithuanian-born composers to find a unique style that blended into a distinctive national voice.

Western music, both secular and sacred, was introduced in the late 14th century, after the larger part of the country adopted Christianity in 1387. In the 16th and 17th centuries, Vilnius, as the capital of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, was an important educational and cultural centre in Central and Eastern Europe. Historical sources from the period give some idea of the diversity of the musical activity, in churches and schools, nobles’ palaces, and at the royal court in Vilnius.

The royal theatre founded by Ladislaus IV Vasa in 1635 witnessed many extravagant productions of Italian operas, which arrived in Lithuania soon after the genre was born in Florence (Marco Scacchi and Virgilio Puccitelli’s Il ratto di Helena in 1636 was the first known staging in Vilnius). In order to find the artists necessary to perform at these musical events, foreign musicians were often employed. The imported musical culture, with few or no connections with local musical traditions, survived in cities and on estates throughout the period of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (1569–1795), and long after its partition, when most of Lithuania became part of the Russian Empire.
The Creation of a Modern Musical Tradition: Čiurlionis

It was only at the end of the 19th century that a national musical tradition started to take shape, together with the formation of the national identity. All this happened while Lithuania was still struggling against Imperial Russian rule.

Cultural institutions emerged, and they formed choirs and orchestras, and arranged concert series, lectures and musical competitions. At that time,the main musical output by Lithuanian composers (such as Juozas Naujalis, Juozas Tallat-Kelpša, Česlovas Sasnauskas, Mikas Petrauskas, Stasys Šimkus, and others, many of whom were church organists and choirmasters) was choral arrangements of folk songs and hymns that were written to augment the meagre repertoire that was available. The music they composed was rather unsophisticated, and written in a somewhat traditional and outdated idiom.

The exception was Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis (1875–1911), a visionary artist, whose work became the starting point for the development of a more professional cultural ethic. Over an extremely productive decade (1899 to 1909), spent in Warsaw, Leipzig, Vilnius and St Petersburg, he not only wrote over 350 musical works and made around 400 paintings, prints and drawings, but he also wrote articles and literary works, directed choirs, and helped to found of Lithuania's first associations for professional artists and composers.

He was the first to break with narrow-minded provincial interests, deciding instead to blend the local tradition with cosmopolitan influences, applying his own unique perspective as a composer-turned-artist. The traditional romanticism of his early work gave way to experimentation in serial and modal music, from Chopinesque salon pieces for piano, to terse contrapuntal preludes, fugues, variations and musical imagery built on ostinato themes.
Developing the National School of Composition

During the first period of the Republic of Lithuania (1918–1940), a prominent group of Lithuania’s leading composers (includingAleksandras Kačanauskas, Jurgis Karnavičius and Kazimieras Viktoras Banaitis) wrote in the late Romantic style, often interlacing their music with elements of folk and modern techniques (mostly characteristic of early German modernism). The leader of this group was Juozas Gruodis (1884–1948), a graduate of the Moscow and Leipzig conservatoires, who is credited with creating a Lithuanian school of composition, both in the sense of establishing of a tradition and also founding the institution known today as the Lithuanian Academy of Music and Theatre. In the wake of Čiurlionis’ ideas about the derivation of ‘cultivated’ national music from folk sources, Gruodis formulated a national vision close to that of other European countries (similar to the musical vision of Bartók, Janáček, Sibelius and Vaughan Williams), with elements of folk music in combination with modern compositional techniques.

During the same period, another group of composers (Vytautas Bacevičius, Jeronimas Kačinskas, Julius Gaidelis and Vladas Jakubėnas) were writing music in a more advanced avant-garde style. Amazingly, all four of these composers emigrated to the United States during the Second World War. Vytautas Bacevičius (1905–1970), the brother of the highly-regarded Polish composer Grażyna Bacewicz, was a composer, pianist and teacher, and one of the most unusual figures in Lithuanian music. His virtuoso piano technique was formed at the Łódź Conservatoire, and he studied at the Paris Conservatoire, the Russian Conservatoire in Paris, and the Sorbonne. On returning in the early 1930s to Kaunas (which was then Lithuania's temporary capital), he worked hard to promote new music, and in 1937 he instigated Lithuania’s membership of the International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM), becoming first chairman of the local section. There appears to be a direct relation to the music of Scriabin in his piano output, although he was always searching for new and interesting musical forms. His orchestral works were quite startling for the times, and continued the narrative tradition of programmatic romanticism, but incorporated atonalism. In his later life, Bacevičius composed ‘cosmic music’, again very much in sympathy with Scriabin’s theosophical insights. Despite the fact that he had a very small following at home and in the United States, he stands out as the first Lithuanian composer to believe firmly in the necessity to create contemporary music that would be less associated with what had gone before, and more connected to global sensitivities, atonal language and abstract musical expression.
The Dark Years and a False Spring

Darker days were on the horizon. The first Soviet annexation of Lithuania in the summer of 1940 was followed by the Nazi invasion in June 1941, and then by the Soviet reoccupation (1944–1990). Wartime turmoil and mass deportations affected the lives of an entire generation of Baltic composers, who were uprooted by the Nazi and Soviet occupations. Those who stayed had to give up artistic freedom for the diktats of socialist realism, which required artists to serve the 'revolution’ in their work. The official ideology and propaganda issued by the Communist Party Central Committee in Moscow dictated that all artistic activity should reflect Stalin's policy of being ‘national in form and socialist in content’. In accordance with this, Lithuanian composers followed the example set by their Soviet counterparts, by combining national folklore with the sanctioned idioms of ‘great masters of the past’. Those who did not comply with these regulations were accused of ‘formalism’ (succumbing to the subversive influence of decadent Western Modernism), and many were persecuted, including Gruodis and some of his pupils. Others (Balys Dvarionas, Antanas Račiūnas and Stasys Vainiūnas) managed to find a middle ground by adopting ‘national romanticism’, which at least, did not contradict the tenets of socialist realism.

Nevertheless, in the post-Stalin era, when the Soviet system of repression and censorship seemed to be about to thaw, contact with modern Western culture was little by little renewed. Warsaw Autumn, an annual international festival of contemporary music that was founded in Poland in 1956, served as an important window to the free world for several generations of Lithuanian composers (Eduardas Balsys, Julius Juzeliūnas, Vytautas Barkauskas, Vytautas Montvila, Vytautas Laurušas and Antanas Rekašius). Participating first as listeners and later as guest composers, in the early 1960s they introduced some of the more modernist trends in 20th-century music, such as serialism and structuralism, aleatoric composition and collage.
Living Modernists

Another distinct turning point came at the beginning of the 1970s, when composers again looked for new ways to express themselves musically. The predilection for vast works for large orchestras went out of fashion, and there was an increase in the amount of music written for chamber ensembles. In contrast with earlier music, which is often overlaid with texture and expression, minimalism and a new simplicity began to emerge, exemplified by the work of Vytautas Barkauskas, Bronius Kutavičius, Feliksas Bajoras, Osvaldas Balakauskas and Anatolijus Šenderovas.

Vytautas Barkauskas (1931) belongs to the same generation as Schnittke, Gubaidulina, Kancheli, Pärt, Vasks, and his own favourite, Penderecki. In the 1960s, he was considered one of the prime followers of the musical avant-garde, experimenting with the possibilities of dodecaphony, aleatoric composition and collage. At that time, his greatest influences were Penderecki, Lutosławski and Ligeti. A number of his early works have been taken up by international performers (including Gidon Kremer and Yuri Bashmet), and he has been published since 1971 by Edition Peters. His recent concert pieces are dramatic, sparkling, and marked by elegance and sensuality; his music is popular with performers and audiences alike.

Bronius Kutavičius (1932) began his career in the 1960s, experimenting with various postwar avant-garde techniques, from serial to aleatoric composition, but he is primarily considered to be the first to introduce minimalist techniques to Lithuanian music. Kutavičius’s special brand of minimalism is deeply rooted in archaic folk music. He draws mainly on sources which are far from music itself, such as language, ritual, old architecture or antique decoration, and works like an archaeologist reconstructing long-forgotten layers of ancient culture. Throughout the 1990s he enlarged his horizons, to include global subjects (images of Celtic crosses and Japanese gardens, and the sounds of Indian ragas, together with depictions of religious rites from around the world), and the collision of paganism and Christianity can be seen as a major influence on his work.

The work of Feliksas Bajoras (1934) reveals different but equally close connections with folk music. From the very start of his career in the mid-1960s, Bajoras was different from his contemporaries, and from his younger colleagues in particular. His thorough knowledge of folk music and his ability to combine it with modern techniques was highly individual. His mother, who was a famous singer from northern Lithuania, directed his attention to the unspoiled beauty of folk songs. This experience, later enhanced by his training as a violinist and a composer, helped him to bring this beautiful music from the countryside into the concert halls. His works present a diverse mix of different styles: they include neo-romanticism, expressionism, neo-classicism, and sometimes even popular music, but always with a persistent feel for Lithuanian folk music.

To this day, Osvaldas Balakauskas (1937) remains one of the recognised leaders of the local contemporary music scene. This came about partly due to his music, which helped to shape the unofficial mainstream of the 1970s and 1980s, but also as a result of his teaching (like Gruodis, he was head of composition at the Lithuanian Academy of Music and Theatre), and as a result of his activities in the independence movement. His career as a composer was greatly influenced greatly by a period of study in Kiev in the 1960s, and by the Ukrainian avant-garde. His fascination with Stockhausen, Boulez, Xenakis, and especially Webern and Messiaen also comes from the same time. Balakauskas' music stands out in the context of postwar Modernism with its clear cosmopolitan tendencies, which diverge significantly from the Lithuanian national school. It has a clear and almost neo-classical precision of style and form, and he is well known for inventing his own ‘dodecatonic’ musical system. His refined rhythmic games have similarities with the music by Messiaen, as does his attention to sound colour. Balakauskas is considered to be a true master of orchestration.
The music of the Lithuanian-Jewish composer Anatolijus Šenderovas (1945) has a distinctly recognisable sound, including elements of both oriental music and more abstract atonal style. He often develops music from a single thematic motto, while leaving ample room for improvisation by the performers. In some pieces, the dramatic expression, the colour and effect of the sound are emphasized. Šenderovas pays a lot of attention to religious themes, his music includes and draws inspiration from the texts and stories of the Old Testament, while his melodies often resemble ancient Jewish music and traditional chants of Lithuanian Jews.
Neoromantics and Anti-romantics

Kutavičius and Balakauskas are generally recognised as having had the greatest influence on later generations of Lithuanian composers. Their work represents two distinctly diverse styles that are subsequently followed by two groups of younger composers.
The first group, which emerged in the late 1970s, are the new romantics (Onutė Narbutaitė, Algirdas Martinaitis, Vidmantas Bartulis and Mindaugas Urbaitis). The basic characteristics of their music include ‘literary’ neo-romantic ideas, lyrical chamber minimalism (manifested through folk music patterns), and simplicity of melody and rhythm. The resulting nostalgic and introspective mood points directly to the influence of Kutavičius.

In the mid-1980s, a younger generation, the Machinists, appeared. In contrast with their predecessors, their music is highly formalised, and their adherence to a systematic approach to composition is manifested in a diversity of ways, from the use of old techniques such as motet and canon, to structural principles close to early American minimalism. The persistent, minimalistic repetition of short patterns often imparts a mechanical, ‘machinist’ character, with edgy and sometimes aggressive sounds in their compositions. These tendencies are most obvious in the work of Ričardas Kabelis, Rytis Mažulis, Nomeda Valančiūtė, Gintaras Sodeika and Šarūnas Nakas.

At the beginning of the 21st century, the mainstream works from the 1970s and 1980s, with their prominent minimalist tendencies, no longer influence younger composers, but they do acquire new meaning in a new cultural context. In this era of one-off performances and seasonal festivals, the emphasis on individual style as an enduring system preserves the stability of the tradition.
It is now possible to see completely different trends in the music by emerging composers who were born after 1970, such as Vykintas Baltakas, Raminta Šerkšnytė, Vytautas V. Jurgutis, Ramūnas Motiekaitis, Marius Baranauskas, Žibuoklė Martinaitytė and Justė Janulytė. At the beginning of their careers, they were influenced by their teachers (most of them studied under Balakauskas; Vykintas Baltakas also studied under Wolfgang Rihm and Peter Eötvös), but within a few years their relationship with the Lithuanian school simply lost its importance for them. Composers no longer wish to be limited by rigid musical dogmas or stylistic preferences. Young Lithuanian composers are citizens of a new and truly exciting world of music.

Linas Paulauskis
Folk Tradition: The Singing Land

Lithuanian folk music is a distinctive part of European musical folklore. It includes some rare types and genres of music, the most unique of them being sutartinės, polyphonic songs and instrumental tunes, with polytonal counterpoints, an unusual sound of parallel seconds, syncopated rhythms, ritual dancing, and a trance-like atmosphere through repetition. Vocal sutartinės are sung by two, three or four women singers, and instrumental sutartinės are performed by larger groups of both women and men. There are almost 40 different ways and styles of performing them. Lithuania’s sutartinės, along with its song festivals,are now on UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

The rich and lively tradition of folk music in Lithuania is now supported by singers and musicians, folk groups from all over the country, numerous folk music festivals, and local and national institutions. Today it is a vast source of inspiration for a range of people, such as composers and jazz, pop, rock and heavy/industrial musicians. But the most important aspect is that today folk music is a living tradition in Lithuania. Just a few decades ago, many singers in the countryside could sing a hundred songs, and the more accomplished of them could remember as many as four hundred. Much of what they knew has been taken up by the younger generation of ethnomusicologists and other enthusiasts. In addition, many old folk songs are still sung in the general community: this is why Lithuanians often like to call their country the ‘singing land’.

Linas Paulauskis
Jazz: Music of Free Spirits

During Lithuania’s earlier period of independence, from 1918 to 1940, the country was part of swinging Europe, and nearly every town had its own jazz band. However, the serious public did not particularly favour this kind of music, and in 1925 the press encouraged the country to follow England’s example, where jazz was resisted as being devoid of taste and culture. Ultimately, jazz was played, with the country’s first official jazz band being set up in 1940 under the auspices of Kaunas Radio.

Unfortunately, it only survived for a few months, until the outbreak of the Second World War.
After the war, when it became dangerous even to use the word, jazz bands vanished from Soviet-occupied Lithuania; and jazz was prohibited during the Cold War, for being pro-American. Having retreated underground, it became a manifestation of a free spirit, a form of resistance to what was happening on this side of the Iron Curtain, and a link with what was going beyond it.

Jazz surfaced again in Lithuania during the Khrushchev ‘thaw’, with a growing number of jazz ensembles and increasingly skilled musicians. The Ganelin Jazz Trio (or GTC Jazz Trio, consisting of Vyacheslav Ganelin, Vladimir Tarasov and Vladimir Chekasin), which achieved European fame, was formed in 1970, and was a real breakthrough, dislodging deep-rooted norms and changing official attitudes towards jazz. The group was the driving force behind the evolution of jazz in Lithuania, and laid the foundations for what was later to be known as the Vilnius school of jazz. Their large-scale suites, profuse stylistic interplays, and theatrical antics set the tone for many generations to come, even up to this day.

For many decades, Lithuania’s jazz musicians have been exploring the possibilities of using folk music, from improvisations on folk songs to incorporating folk instruments into jazz groups. Another distinctive trend is for elaborated combinations of jazz and classical/avant-garde idioms. Almost anything can be found on the jazz scene in Lithuania today, from Dixieland and a cappella groups, to all kinds of jazz fusion, nu-jazz and jazzcore.

Jūratė Kučinskaitė
A Taste of Discovery

The things you'll find here are signs of the creativity among artists in this small country. This is music full of honest ideas and great ambitions. It is music made by artists who, thanks to the rapidly changing technology, are no longer limited by the small size of the local music market. Music and videos are no longer so expensive to make.

There were times when it was a huge challenge for Lithuanian artists to produce music videos. Both the financial and the technical resources were limited. However, laughable though these videos might seem today, they somehow sent the message that even behind the Iron Curtain there were musicians who were trying their best to be a part of the world’s pop culture.

These obstacles have now disappeared. Nowadays you can find music by Lithuanian artists in the biggest online stores, their videos clock up millions of views on YouTube, and musicians are building creative liaisons with like-minded musicians abroad, and slowly making their way to international festivals. If you have not yet heard about popular music performers from Lithuania, we are sure it’s only a question of time …

We truly believe this, because we meet musicians every day who manage to surprise us with the originality of their ideas, their perseverance, and their ability to present and distribute their work in unusual ways. Making a music video is an important part of this creativity. Many of these videos are impressive, and are a feast for both the eyes and the ears; in fact, there are many more than what we could squeeze on to this site.

This compilation is not a comprehensive overview of Lithuanian pop. We did not make a Top Ten of videos by the most popular artists, or by those who have managed to achieve the highest number of hits on the internet. Instead, we went for emotion and creative drive, which are key factors when it comes to music. They are things that unite all these artists, whether they play rock or experimental electronic music, whether they are considered to be veterans or newcomers. After you check out these videos, hopefully you will feel tempted to share with other people the news of the huge well of creativity bubbling in this small Baltic country. We feel that these artists truly deserve it.

Ramūnas Zilnys