Jeronimas Kacinskas

Modernist composer who fled Lithuania for the US
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The Independent Online

Jeronimas Kacinskas was one of a generation of Baltic composers wrenched from their homelands by the twin evils of Nazi and Soviet occupation in the 1940s. The Estonian Eduard Tubin, with 25,000 of his countrymen, fled to Sweden; Kacinskas and his fellow Lithuanians Vytautas Bacevicius and Vladas Jakubenas, like the Latvian Talivaldis Kenins, were among those who settled further afield, in North America. Kacinskas was one of the few who lived long enough to return to see his country in liberty.

Kacinskas' father was a church organist and, at the age of six, he began to take music lessons from him. During the First World War the family was evacuated to Russia. Back in the newly independent Lithuania, Kacinskas was showing the signs of the intellectual curiosity that was to characterise the rest of his long life: he would play through all the scores he found in his father's library, and he started to compose.

When in 1923 he had finished his studies at the Vieksniai secondary school, he took his father's advice and enrolled at the Music School in Klaipeda, a port on the south-west coast. There he studied piano and, from 1925, viola. His first student compositions showed signs of both impressionism and expressionism - dangerously radical trends for some of his teachers. But some Czech members of staff there stepped in and recommended that he transfer to Prague and the Conservatoire there. He graduated from Jaroslav Kricka's composition class in the spring of 1930 and a year later added a BA in conducting.

The major influence on Kacinskas in Prague was Alois Hába, who is best remembered for the use of quarter-tones (a further subdivision of the semi-tone) in his music. Kacinskas took to the idea enthusiastically and used quarter-tones to compose his Second String Quartet. Hába wanted Kacinskas to stay in Prague, but he had work to do back home, and in autumn 1931 moved to Kaunas (the provisional capital, since Vilnius was still occupied by Poland) with the aim of making his mark on Lithuanian musical life. He was to find it tough going. A formal position evaded him, forcing him to make ends meet as an accompanist.

Nothing daunted by conservative opposition, Kacinskas founded the Association of Progressive Musicians and a journal, Muzikos barai ("Fields of Music"), intended to propagate modern music. In 1932 he composed his most important early work, the Nonet for strings and winds, which uses atonality. Lyrical but tightly woven, it can now be seen as an important milestone on the road to modernism, but, when the Czech Nonet toured the work to Lithuania later in the year, it baffled most of his audience.

Kacinskas had already given up on Kaunas. At Klaipeda, with scarcely realistic enthusiasm, he set up a quarter-tone composition course that soon faltered for lack of interest. He ploughed on with practical music-making, teaching piano and chamber music, conducting local choirs, trying to re-establish an earlier orchestra and found an opera house. Against the odds, he did manage a few large-scale performances, but the last opera - which he conducted himself - was heard in spring 1935 and the orchestra was shelved a year later.

He scored a moral victory in 1937 when he succeeded in having Lithuania accepted as a member of the International Society for Contemporary Music, the first Baltic state in that august organisation. A year later his Nonet was included in the ISCM festival in London, earning him the congratulations of Bartók, among others.

By now he had been appointed conductor of the radio orchestra in Kaunas. With the return of Vilnius to Lithuania the radio moved there, Kacinskas and his orchestra giving two live broadcasts a week and a public concert every month.

Darker days were on the horizon. The initial Soviet annexation of Lithuania in the summer of 1940 was followed by the Nazi invasion in June 1941. Though Kacinskas lost all the Jews from his orchestra (a total of 165,000 Lithuanian Jews, the country's largest ethnic minority, were slaughtered), he carried on as best he could; by 1944 he had given around a thousand concerts.

The Communists re-occupied Lithuania that summer. Kacinskas had already experienced

one year under Stalin and it was very harsh. One of my wife's brothers was shot, another was sent off to Siberia. The Russians had forbidden my compositions to be played after the state declared them bourgeois and decadent. I became outspoken and perhaps too provocative towards them because I felt so strongly that they should not interfere with my work.

Three years later his insubordination had not been forgotten:

Someone informed me that my name was on the second list of people to be taken away to Siberia. So, in June of 1944 my wife Elena and I escaped. I put a few necessities and what was left of my manuscripts, concert programmes, and reviews into a horse-drawn farm cart, and we left. We managed to get about 250 miles from Vilnius, avoiding encirclements on three separate occasions. Finally we were caught in the middle of a battle and had to abandon the cart in the road. At that point my only thought was to save my wife's life. I don't know what happened to my music. I'll probably never know whether it was picked up or thrown away.

They carried on westwards on foot, often going hungry, aiming for Prague - and narrowly avoiding capture when they discovered the Soviet army had got there first. After a year on the road he and Elena took shelter in a colony of Lithuanian refugees in Hochfeld, just outside Augsburg - in the American zone.

Kacinskas once again threw himself into feverish musical activity, conducting, accompanying, composing. But he knew he couldn't stay there forever and applied for a visa for the United States. Arriving in March 1949, he was offered the post of organist in St Peter's Lithuanian Church in Boston, and with one brief interlude that city remained his home for the rest of his life.

Just as the Nonet had been the culmination of his earlier style, in 1951 Kacinskas composed the work by which he is best known, the Missa in Honorem Immaculati Cordis Beatae Mariae Virginis for soloists, mixed choir, organ and brass which married Gregorian chant and medieval organum with the atonality of his own style; it was also an expression of his own deeply held religious beliefs.

Kacinskas' American break came in 1958, when he persuaded his compatriots to sponsor a concert of Lithuanian music with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. In 1960 he became conductor of the Melrose Symphony Orchestra in the Boston suburbs (he had to be persuaded that his English was good enough), relinquishing the post only in 1967, when he began to teach conducting and composition (including a jazz course) at the Berklee College of Music; he retired in 1986.

Kacinskas' first return to Lithuania, in 1991, was jubilantly greeted with a festival of his music; upon his second visit, in 1992, he was awarded the Lithuanian National Prize. Back in Boston, he finally retired from St Peter's Church in 1995; a year later he began work on his Fourth String Quartet, and he was still composing at the dawn of the 21st century.

Martin Anderson