When I close my eyes and think of Lithuania, the first thing I see is the historic centre of Vilnius: the neoclassical cathedral and town hall, both masterpieces by the architect Laurynas Stuoka-Gucevičius. I also see the old symphony hall, where I practically grew up. Vilnius is beautiful and green, and has one of the largest surviving medieval city centres in Europe, a world heritage site that has been lovingly restored. I see Lithuania’s countryside – for me, that means its forests, and its lakes and rivers where the fishing is excellent. In other places, people have had more of a hand in forming nature. In Lithuania, it remains fairly pristine.
Near St. Anne’s Church in Vilnius, there is a monument to a famous poet. The Polish call him Adam Mickiewicz, the Lithuanians Adomas Mickevičius. In Poland, his “Pan Tadeusz” (Sir Thaddeus) is considered a national epic. But the first verse runs:
Lithuania, my country, thou art like health;
How much thou shouldst be prized only he can learn,
Who has lost thee.
Today thy beauty in all its splendour I see and describe,
For I yearn for thee.
For four hundred years, Poland and Lithuania were unified. Polish noblemen who had roots in Lithuania even believed themselves to be particularly blue-blooded.
At that time, Vilnius was also a very Jewish city. A great theologian was responsible for this: Elijah Ben Salomon Salman, called the Vilna Gaon, the Wiseman of Vilna. He died in 1797. Now he has a street named after him. He also has a museum devoted to him. For many years, such a thing was unthinkable. The Jewish history of Vilnius was suppressed for five decades. But before the war, Vilnius had many synagogues. Around a third of the population must have been Jewish.
My mother came from Utena in eastern Lithuania. The town is almost in Belarus. Her name was Chaya Scharfstein. The mother of Jascha Heifetz, the famous violinist, born in Vilnius, had the same name. Although I do not know for certain whether or how our families were related, the connection inspires me. My mother attended a German school and always read Goethe to us. She wanted all of us to make music because she herself never managed to. She especially loved poetry. And she sang, anywhere and everywhere. When I finished school, my parents had doubts about whether I should study music; I was gifted in mathematics, too. But they accepted it; I was dying to attend conservatory in Moscow.
There, I found a great teacher in Mstislav Rostropovich, who was always encouraging composers to write pieces for him, which he then worked through with us in cello class. When I returned to Lithuania in 1971, I wanted to work the same way. I didn’t have much time, however. First I was sent to the army, and shortly thereafter, in 1975, my family left for Germany.
I only discovered pre-war Lithuanian music at a later point. The music was not merely oriented towards the folk tradition, but was also influenced by modern European movements. People like Juozas Gruodis – one of the greatest composers to follow Čirlionis – had already grappled with twelve-tone technique. His harmonies come completely from Schönberg. In his work, you can hear all the innovations the rest of Europe experienced. Even during the Soviet period, when it came to art, greater freedom prevailed in Lithuania than in other places; an enormous diversity of styles of expression thrived there.
When I returned as an artist in 1993, I didn’t come empty-handed. In Schleswig-Holstein, I received the “Kultur aktuell” prize, and used it to commission pieces from five Lithuanian composers. The first was Bronius Kutavičius, who had always preserved the purity of his political position. He was a symbol of the independence movement. His music is very original. He is considered a minimalist. The next was Osvaldas Balakauskas, who, as a teacher, is indisputably the leading mind of Lithuanian contemporary music. He is a representative of constructivism. In his work, not a single note can be changed. Everything clearly follows a system. Vytautas Barkauskas, in contrast, is influenced by the impressionist style. His “Suite de concert” also reveals a flair for colour and atmosphere. The fourth composer was Anatolijus Šenderovas, an artist whose expressive music moves listeners’ hearts. He composed “Due Canti,” which my wife Tatiana and I have played around the world. And the fifth in the group was Mindaugas Urbaitis, then the leader of the Lithuanian Composers Association. He loves working with motifs from other composers like Bach and Brahms. Since then, I have played a great deal of new music, often as the first performer to play it: works by Vytautas Laurušas, Vidmantas Bartulis and even younger people like Onutė Narbutaitė, Arvydas Malcys, Nomeda Valančiūtė, Raminta Šerkšnytė and Vykintas Baltakas. The scene is very lively in Lithuania. It makes me happy that this musical abundance and variety finds audiences outside of Lithuania, too.