Hearing colours, seeing sounds
by Jan Brachmann
When we have a cold, our sense of taste is greatly diminished. When we listen to music in the dark, it feels like rays of heat warming our skin. Our senses form a cohesive unit, which tends to go unnoticed unless one sensory organ fails to function. In 1927, researcher Erich Moritz von Hornbostel coined the term “odour brightness.” Through experiments, he discovered the close connection between nose, eyes and ears: Every human, he claimed, has the ability to identify the note on the piano that sounds as bright as the odour of lilacs. Yet, artists who are equally gifted in multiple domains are a rare breed. Lithuanian-born Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis was one of them. He was able to hear colours and see sounds – and one informed the other. He gained recognition not only as a composer, but also as a painter.
Kaunas, Lithuania’s second-largest city, is located at the confluence of the Neman and Neris rivers, near a vast reservoir. It is home to an impressive building which houses the most valuable and fragile pieces of Lithuanian art, namely, Čiurlionis’ light-sensitive and non-transportable paintings and graphics. A national museum was erected in his honour as the most important icon of Lithuanian culture.
Čiurlionis was born on 22 September 1875 and grew up in southern Lithuania, a region abundant with trees and water located between the Neman and Šešupė rivers. His father was an organist. Music, nature and ancient pagan rituals, which were performed every year during the summer solstice, permeated his childhood. This mystical world would find its way into his paintings, which are interspersed with decorative elements from traditional Lithuanian wood carvings. However, his greatest experience with nature occurred on a trip with the school orchestra led by the Polish duke Michał Ogiński to Palanga, where he saw the Baltic Sea for the first time. From then on, the ocean would become his ultimate symbol of life.
“I would like to compose a symphony consisting of the murmur of the waves, the mysterious whispers of a hundred-year-old forest, the twinkling of the stars, our songs and my endless yearning”,
he wrote in 1908.
As a student at the Warsaw and Leipzig Conservatories, Čiurlionis was initially drawn to the music of Chopin and Tchaikovsky. His symphonic poem “In the Forest” from 1901 marked the beginning of Lithuanian orchestral music. He then composed “The Sea” between 1903 and 1907, whose formal and orchestral structure was inspired by Richard Strauss, whom he held in great admiration. From 1904 onwards, Čiurlionis was actively involved in the Lithuanian national movement and collected folk songs, but his own musical work led him away from the traditional major-minor tonality. His later compositions for piano contain atonal sequences and chords that resemble the musical experiments of his contemporary Alexander Scriabin.
In 1902, Čiurlionis began to paint. Western European symbolism, with its paintings that could not be deciphered rationally, made a great impression on him. Yet, he was not fond of the dark and depressing features of these enigmatic artworks. Instead, he was drawn to light, life and to the ecstasy of a cosmic sensual experience. He incorporated his studies of ancient Indian philosophy and comparative religion into his paintings. But above all, his art embraced musical elements. He created cycles consisting of several paintings, such as the “Sonata of the Stars”, the “Sonata of the Pyramids” or the “Sonata of the Sea”, which, just like the movements of a symphony, are related to each other through common themes. Moreover, Čiurlionis tried to create a visual equivalent to polyphony, the consonance of independent voices. With this in mind, he created his dream visions that resemble layers of patterned veils. They are narratives of the creation of the world, in which exterior spaces wrap into interior spaces, the surface of the earth melts into the sky and clouds turn into cave ceilings.
Čiurlionis finally seemed to have some luck in life when people in St. Petersburg began to appreciate his art and he was able to start a family. However, he would not live to see his daughter grow up. The extremely stressful period between 1904 and 1909, during which he created nearly all of his paintings, left him exhausted and, in early 1910, he fell into a severe depression. His family took him to a sanatorium near Warsaw. In spring 1911, Čiurlionis was found in a forest, confused and suffering from hypothermia. He died from pneumonia on 10 April 1911 at the age of 35.