Monday, September 10, 2012

Sonata of the Sun

Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis, Sparks II, 1906

Perhaps the most fitting posthumous tribute to a landscape artist is to name a landmark after them, although I imagine few would wish this to happen.  The Lithuanian composer and painter Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis has been honoured in this way with a plateau in Franz Josef Land, a peak in the Pamir Mountains, and an asteroid that orbits the sun every four years.  Of these, the asteroid may actually be the most appropriate memorial for a Symbolist who depicted moods rather than specific places and reached towards a cosmic vision in series of paintings like Sonata of the Stars and The Creation of the World.  Stars seem to drift in front of misty landscapes in Sparks I-III, small works on paper that can currently be seen in Edinburgh in the exhibition 'Van Gogh to Kandinsky: Symbolist Landscape in Europe 1880-1910'.  The catalogue essay by Richard Thomson quotes a letter Čiurlionis wrote in 1908 to his fiancée: 'I would like to compose a symphony of the murmur of the waves, of the mysterious whisper of a hundred-year forest, of the blinking of the stars, of our songs and of my endless yearning.  I would like to climb to the highest peaks - unattainable to mortals, and to make a wreath of the most beautiful stars to Zose - my wife.' 

Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis, Fuga, 1908

By the time Čiurlionis wrote that letter he had already composed two symphonic poems, The Forest (1901) and The Sea (1907), and was starting work on a new composition, The Creation of the World, based on the paintings he had completed in 1905.  In these years he was moving freely between music and art, fusing the two in synesthetic paintings like the Sonata of the Stars, one of a series that began in 1907 with Sonata of the Sun, with its four parts: 'Allegro', 'Andante', 'Scherzo' and 'Finale'.  In such hybrid works, variation in sound is suggested by the intensity of colour, changes in tempo by the rhythm of lines and shapes.  The treeline on the horizon in Fuga ('Fugue') now looks like the waves of a Soundcloud, recording the underlying harmonies of nature.  Čiurlionis experienced the landscape musically: he wrote of the Carpathians that 'the mountains, though not high, are very melodious.'  But sadly there was little time left to compose himself: in 1910, suffering from exhaustion, he was admitted to the Czerwony Dwór sanatorium.  Although his health began slowly to improve, Čiurlionis caught a cold one day while out walking, contracted pneumonia and died at the age of thirty-five.

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