Great Baltic profiles: Two stories
By VMU professor Leonidas Donskis
Born on September 11, 1935, the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt is one of the most illustrious creators of contemporary academic music. Dubbed a classical postmodernist and master minimalist, he often provokes musicologists to coin new terms (mystical minimalism, sacred minimalism) to describe his art. Having left the Soviet Union in 1980 and emigrated to Austria, he lived in Vienna before settling in Berlin. One of the world’s most famous and recognized composers, Arvo Pärt has undoubtedly earned the status of a living legend.
Lithuanian experiences have occasioned the composition of his brilliant piano piece Für Alina (1976).
When I first heard it in Budapest, I was fascinated; but for a long time I didn’t know that this composition of enchanting beauty was written for a woman I was acquainted with: long-time London resident Alina Slavinsky, the daughter of Lithuanian theatre arts scholar, civic and cultural activist Professor Irena Veisaitė. Für Alina was created by the tintinnabuli method invented by Pärt and allowing the pianist to evoke a special piano sound with sacred harmonies and rhythmicity.
Für Alina was masterfully performed by the Lithuanian pianist Petras Geniušas in our joint cultural seminar in Antwerp on the subject of identity. While I talked about identity and its dilemmas and tensions, Geniušas played classical and modern works. One of his magnificent insights about Pärt immediately inspired me to work up this detail into a philosophical theory of identity. Petras Geniušas called attention to simple facts, which at once opened up to view both the depth of the modern connectedness between people and its simplicity.
Arvo Pärt himself is an Estonian Orthodox Church believer living in Germany; his composition is dedicated to a Lithuanian Jewish woman’s daughter living in England. Let me add that all vicissitudes of identity are finally centred in, and given meaning by, a musical language of superb inspiration, one external to ethnic identity or everyday language or whipped-up self-consciousness.
Performed in Antwerp’s historical Catholic chapel for an audience of Belgium’s Lithuanians at an evening filled with Lithuanian language and music, Arvo Pärt’s Für Alina seemed to me one of the most poetic and hopeful alternatives to the murkiness of our age, to the confusion of things that long seemed clear, and to the new onslaught of insensitivity and brutality in our world.
Born on January 9, 1928, Irena Veisaitė is a person through whose incredible life story we could write the history of the twentieth century. Like her cousin, Aleksandras Shtromas (Štromas, 1931–1999), a Lithuanian-born British-American political scientist and Soviet dissident, who was like a brother to her, Irena was born and brought up in independent pre-war Lithuania and then matured in another – Soviet and isolated – Lithuania.
They both survived the Holocaust in a miraculous way. Lovingly called by his friends Alik, Shtromas was to become a giant in the political science world, befriended by the greatest Russian dissidents and mentioned by Czesław Miłosz as one of two political prophets who predicted the collapse of the former Soviet Union. Another one was the Russian writer and dissident Andrei Amalrik. Irena’s and Alik’s story of survival and struggle reads as an exciting novel of adventure.
IrenaVeisaitė lived to see the restoration of independence in her country, whose story of emancipation and reintegration into Europe was inseparably linked to her own activities as a public persona and civil society activist. In all her social and political incarnations, she was and continues to be ahead of her time – not only in terms of her remarkable dispositions for tolerance, kindness, benevolence but also ability to forgive as a Holocaust survivor free of hate and anger, but also as a great visionary European who deeply believes in Europe’s reconciliation and its enormous creative potential.
Justly and rightly proclaimed a Person of Tolerance in Lithuania, awarded the Goethe Medal in Germany, and admired everywhere where she has friends, Irena Veisaitė has become an emblematic person in contemporary Lithuania – in a way, she represents the best of her country and its multicultural past, while at the same time remaining uniquely attentive and sensitive to the dramas and challenges of the present day.
She was married to Grigori Kromanov (1926–1984), an Estonian theatre and film director, who made, among other creations, much celebrated Estonian films, such as The Last Relic and Dead Mountaineer’s Hotel. Grigori Kromanov and Arvo Pärt were close friends, and this made it possible for Irena to join their club, which, as we have seen, symbolically included her daughter Alina.
This is how the miraculous Für Alina came into existence– through two Baltic stories.