Did he make his time count! He completed 400 paintings and sketches, more than 400 serious musical compositions including his country’s first symphony. He was deeply involved in its independence movement, conducted orchestras, designed stained glass, dabbled in photography, etc. And I had never heard of him.
Sometimes in travel a random decision can lead to a great discovery. This happened in Kaunas, Lithuania. Ruth & I exited the fantastic Devil Museum at 3 pm and still had time for one more attraction. Across the street was something called the State Art Museum. We paid twice as much as locals and entered the world of Mikalojus Konstantinas Ciurlionis, the only artist displayed within. Also checking him out was a group of bored teenagers on a field trip. Ruth & I were never bored. We found Ciurlionis curious. With mystical names like “Eternity” & “Thoughts”, his paintings reminded me of Edvard Munch, the Norwegian who produced one of the most famous paintings in the world usually called “The Scream.” I noted that most of Ciurlionis’ huge number of canvases were painted in 1906-7. Why?
After we saw what we later learned was the vast majority of his output, I asked the lady in the gift shop if there was some way to hear one of his compositions. She took us into a music room and handed me a list. I pointed to #1, which turned out to be his most played work, “In the Forest”, a symphonic poem. I found it quite pleasant, kind of Wagnerian.
On the way out, I asked the ticket lady how to say his name. After several attempts to repeat what I heard, inducing amusement in her & frustration for me, I gave up and wrote in my notebook–Chir lone yis.
That night we just happened to attend a standing-room-only concert that included one of his compositions. The audience was rapturous. Later, I read in Ciurlionis, a book about him, “He conveys so powerfully our national spirit, our hopes, our expectations, the colors of the countryside, and the harmonies of old Lithuanian music” and understood that reaction.
Back in Vilnius, Ruth & I spent some time in the house where Ciurlionis rented a room for one year. It’s now a small museum devoted to him where I learned why his incredible output occurred in a just few years. He died in 1911 when he was only 35! Hospitalized for depression, Ciurlionis caught a cold that led to pneumonia. He had married a writer named Sofija and fathered a child whom he never saw. His great-grandson, pianist Rokas Zubovas, earned a degree from Chicago’s DePaul University before returning to Lithuania where he teaches at the Academy of Music.
Besides the one in Kaunas where we literally stumbled on Ciurlionis’, there are only 3 other museums with his works. Since they’re in Poland, Russia, and Lithuania, I included a couple of unfortunately tiny examples of his art above.