Berklee Today

Berklee Beat: The Long Way Home

This article originally appeared in the Spring 1992 issue of Berklee Today

For retired Berklee professor Jeronimas Kachinskas, the road home has been a long one. Forty-seven years after fleeing from the Communist regime that conquered Lithuania during World War II, Kachinskas has been invited back to his native land to receive its 1991 composition prize.

This journey in February–coinciding with the first anniversary of Lithuanian independence–will be Kachinskas second visit home since 1944. His first return was last October, when a six-concert festival of his music served to reacquaint the Lithuanian people with one of their most important 20th-century composers and conductors.

 

Not Forgotten

Though nearly five decades have passed since his departure, Kachinskas was never forgotten. The new Lithuanian Ministry of Education and Culture (created after the collapse of the Soviet regime) and an association of Lithuanian composers supported an effort to seek out and present the music of distinguished Lithuanian emigres. As part of the program, Kachinskas was invited back to Lithuania in October 1991 for an extensive homecoming celebration and festival devoted exclusively to his chamber, choral, and orchestral music. The event netted full television coverage, and captured the attention of the national press.

For Kachinskas, the trip home was a deeply moving and emotional one, full of reunions with friends and relatives, and visits to places he had not seen since the war years.

 

Genesis

For Jeronimas Kachinskas, who describes his life as an odyssey, the journey began in Vidukle, Lithuania, where he was born in 1907. The son of a church organist, he was exposed to classical music very early in life. Upon reaching his twenties, he entered the conservatory in Klaipeda to study viola, piano, and composition. Further studies took him to the Prague Conservatory in Czechoslovakia in 1929. There, after earning his bachelor's degree in composition, he stayed on to pursue study in quarter-tone composition and conducting before returning to Lithuania in 1931.

As his compositions began to attract attention at European music festivals, he became acquainted with Paul Hindemith, Luigi Dallapiccola, and Alan Rawsthorne, his peers in the rising generation of composers.

In 1938, his Nonet was performed at the International Festival of Contemporary Music in London. After the concert, which also featured a work by Oliver Messiaen and the premiere of Bela Bartok's Concerto for Two Pianos, Percussion, and Orchestra, Bartok praised the work of the younger Kachinskas.

At the same time, Kachinskas held a teaching position at the State Conservatory in Vilnius, the Lithuanian capitol. He also held a succession of conducting posts with the Klaipeda Symphony Orchestra, the Kaunas Radio Orchestra, and the State Opera and Philharmonic orchestras. His career continued uninterrupted–even during Lithuania's German occupation. By 1944, he had directed more than 1000 orchestral performances, opera concerts, and radio broadcasts.

 

Exodus

But Kachinskas' musical world shifted dramatically when the Russians overran Lithuania in 1944. Many of Kachinskas' early scores were destroyed in bombing attacks. Personal clashes with the new conquerors convinced him that he could not live under Russian domination.

"We spent one year under Stalin and it was very harsh," he remembers. "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.

"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."

The couple left most of their belongings, including his piano, in their apartment and made their exodus with a group of others.

"I put a few necessities and what was left of my manuscripts, concert programs, and reviews into a horse-drawn farm cart, and we left," he explains. "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."

Jeronimas and Elena walked another 300 miles to Lednice, Czechoslovakia. Finding it also occupied by the Russians, they continued on to the American-held territory of Augsburg, Germany. They were taken to a displaced persons camp where the Americans fed and housed them.

While at Augsburg, the indomitable Kachinskas set about organizing groups for choral concerts in the camp. With help from former contacts, he arranged for appearances as guest conductor in three Ludwigsbouw Hall concerts with the Augsburg City Orchestra, as well as appearances with the Prague Radio Symphony and the Duborknik Symphony Orchestra in Yugoslavia.

Eventually, with advice and help from new American friends, Jeronimas and Elena Kachinskas made their way to America, arriving on March 24, 1949.

 

New Beginnings

Settling in Boston, Kachinskas took a job playing organ and directing the choir for the parish at Saint Peter's Lithuanian Church in South Boston. He met Berklee College of Music Professor John Bavicchi who became an important advocate, helping him find work and mounting numerous performances of his works.

"I encouraged him to apply for a job as conductor of the Melrose Symphony Orchestra," Bavicchi remembers. "He was concerned that his English might not be strong enough to communicate his ideas to the orchestra, but he was hired, and language was not a problem. Later, when Berklee needed a conducting teacher, I felt it would be of benefit to the college to have someone of his stature teaching the subject, so I recommended him."

Kachinskas joined the Berklee faculty in 1967, teaching conducting and composition for the next 19 years. During those years, Bavicchi and other Berklee faculty members presented and participated in numerous performances of Kachinskas' works including his Mass, saxophone quartets, choral music, and songs.

"Teaching at a jazz school did not hurt me," jokes Kachinskas. "I remember once Berklee founder and Chancellor Lawrence Berk played me a classical melody and asked if I could identify the composer. I jokingly asked if he thought I could still be trusted to do that as I'd been teaching at Berklee for so many years. I enjoyed my time at Berklee very much, and met many gifted students."

 

A Tale to Tell

Retired from teaching, Kachinskas continues to play the organ at St. Peter's in South Boston. And he continues to compose. During his recent homecoming to Lithuania, he received a commission from the Klaipeda Conservatory to compose a four-movement work for chorus and orchestra. The work will commemorate the 750th anniversary of the city's founding by German crusaders.

"I'm working like mad to meet the May deadline," he says. "My cantata will blend modern themes with those of traditional Lithuanian folk music. The text is historical, and describes ancient patriotic tales as well as modern ones. Through the ages, Lithuania has known many invading armies."

As a witness to some of the most dramatic events of Lithuania's 20th-century history, Jeronimas Kachinskas seems to be the ideal composer to tell the tale.