Mikalojus Konstantinas

Lithuania • 1875−1911

Biography and information

By the standards of the great Dante (In the midway of this our mortal life...), Čiurlionis was destined for exactly half the term given to man. He died at 35. However, the uniqueness of his talent and the intensity of Čiurlionis’s creative life were such that allowed him to become, firstly, the founder of Lithuanian chamber instrumental and symphonic music, and secondly, one of the most distinctive artists of the 20th century. Without setting himself such a task (after all, he was a very, very modest person), Čiurlionis became a living embodiment of the ideal dream of the Silver Age about the great synthesis of arts.

The artist inherited his musical talent from his father, Konstantinas Čiurlionis. He once decided to turn from the path of a hereditary Lithuanian peasant and learned to play the organ. In the church, which became his new place of work, he met Adelė, a girl of German origin. Her family, evangelical Christians, fled Germany due to religious persecution.

Adelė and Konstantinas were married in 1873, their family had nine children. And their first-born boy, born on 22 September 1875 and baptized with the double name Mikalojus Konstantinas, in 30 years would become the national pride of Lithuania.
At first, there was nothing to reveal an artist in Čiurlionis. All his abilities were directed to something else: he was a real musical prodigy, he graduated from the orchestral school in Plunge, studied counterpoint and composition in Warsaw. His cantatas, fugues, and especially small piano pieces were a success. At the age of 25, he wrote In the Forest symphonic poem, which is still considered the highest achievement of Lithuanian musical art.

But something vague attracted Čiurlionis in a completely different direction. During his life, he has repeatedly rejected attractive career offers — to become the rector of the Lublin Conservatory or a professor at the conservatory in Warsaw. Instead, he traveled to Leipzig. He seemed to seek to improve his music education at the local conservatory, but in fact he wanted to be closer to the epicenter of artistic life, and to draw and paint... In his letters from Leipzig, he mentioned his painting lessons more and more often, embarrassed and ironic at himself.

At the age of 27, Čiurlionis, who was already well known as a composer, began to study drawing. Now more and more time, previously devoted to music, was spent on capturing nature views, faces and figures of people from nature. Čiurlionis was fond of the works by Polish and German Symbolists. He was close to their search for “mysterious beauty”, the desire to capture fantasy and dreams on paper or canvas.

However, Čiurlionis did not leave composing music: his artistic work is imbued with the spirit of music. His cycles and individual paintings not only bear the names of musical genres (Funeral Symphony, Sonata of the Sun, Sonata of the Stars, etc.), but are also built according to the laws of musical harmony perfectly known to Čiurlionis.

The 1905 revolution in the Russian Empire and the processes of national renaissance that followed it brought Čiurlionis to Lithuania. For the first time, he realized himself a Lithuanian and vowed to devote his life to his homeland, did a lot for the emergence of a full-fledged cultural space in Lithuania.

Unfortunately, ardently sharing the ideas of the Lithuanian national revival, Čiurlionis hardly spoke Lithuanian — his languages of communication were German, Polish and Russian. But fate sent him a wonderful teacher — a philology student from the University of Krakow Sofija (Zosia) Kymantaitė. An ardent patriot of Lithuania, she taught Čiurlionis the Lithuanian language, introduced him to Lithuanian poetry and later became his wife.

In 1908, feeling his art misunderstood at home, Čiurlionis came to St. Petersburg, where he became close to the Mir Iskusstva circle, participated in exhibitions organized by them. He lived in poverty, worked for wear and tear and, undermined his physical and mental strength, which caused serious illness. His wife took him to Lithuania. But Čiurlionis was getting worse. Friends transported him to a mental hospital near Warsaw. Čiurlionis was prohibited to draw or play music by a medical order. On one of the cold nights, such as in early spring, he went into the forest, wandered painfully, finding no way, and returned with severe pneumonia, followed by a cerebral haemorrhage.

Čiurlionis died a little before he reached 36. His last correspondence was his note to his wife and newborn daughter Danutė.

Author: Anna Vcherashniaya