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An unexpected fusion of numerous colourful traditions, values and influences: this is what characterises the Lithuanian culture. This complex phenomenon has successfully combined elements of pagan mythology with Christianity. It received a significant input of West European influence on the birth of the professional Lithuanian arts in the period of the Renaissance and later. Fruitful links between Lithuania and the rest of Europe in the first period of independence in the 20th century made a notable contribution to the development of modern Lithuanian culture.
The diversity of the Lithuanian culture has its roots in the multiethnic legacy of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania (14th to 18th century). The limits of the Lithuanian cultural identity have always exceeded the limits of the ethnic territory of Lithuania. Due to historical reasons, the Lithuanian culture exists today in Poland, Belarus, Russia, Ukraine, the United States of America and numerous West European countries.
Though tolerant for numerous influences, which came with guest artists, occupations, forced and strategic unions, and cultural and scientific exchanges, for centuries Lithuanians have arduously safeguarded the identity-forming elements of their traditional culture. As a truly unique example of Lithuanian folk music, glees or sutartinės (from the word sutarti, ‘to be in concordance, in agreement’) represent an ancient form of two and three-voiced polyphony, based on the oldest principles of multivoiced vocal music: heterophony, parallelism, canon and free imitation. Lithuanian multipart songs (sutartinės) are inscribed on UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. One of the most prominent phenomena of traditional Lithuanian culture, the Cross-crafting and its Symbolism, is also on that list. This tradition originates from the pre-Christian world. It refers to making wooden crosses and shrines. Adorned with geometric and floral decorations, which have symbolic meanings, each cross is erected in accordance with a specific intention in graveyards as well as, by the roads or at crossroads, or close to dwelling places.
The Lithuanian Song and Dance Celebration tradition, which has lasted for a hundred years now, is one of the largest cultural events in Lithuania. Taking place every four years, the Song and Dance Celebration is seen as the most universal manifestation of the Lithuanian national, cultural, artistic, public and political identity nationwide. It has become a link between the archaic folk cultural heritage and a contemporary national culture, as well as the professional art. The tradition and symbolism of the Song and Dance Celebration in Lithuania has been proclaimed by UNESCO a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.
The history of the modern Lithuanian professional art started with painter and composer Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis (1875–1911). His uniqueness has hardly any parallels in Lithuanian art, though he was not isolated from the artistic currents of the time. The work of this gifted artist embraced Symbolism and Romanticism. He is considered a pathfinder both in the professional art and music.
The most contemporary cultural phenomena in Lithuania are strongly influenced by the traditions of the rich local culture and the European context. The excellent reputation of the Lithuanian theatre has been proved many times in front of domestic and foreign audiences. Lithuanians foster national cultural pride in such directors as Eimuntas Nekrošius, Oskaras Koršunovas, Rimas Tuminas, Jonas Vaitkus and Gintaras Varnas.
Strange as it may seem, the Lithuanian theatre reached the level of appreciation even before the re-establishment of the independence of Lithuania 11th March 1990. Great Lithuanian theatre artist Juozas Miltinis, during his years of studies at Charles Dullin “Theatre de l’Atelier” in Paris, became known in Paris cinema and theatre scene. Among his friends there were such famous and talented artists as Jean Vilar and world-known mime Marcel Marceu. After finishing his studies, Juozas Miltinis returned to Lithuania and established the drama theatre in Panevėžys. Among his students there were famous and talented Lithuanian artists such as Bronius Babkauskas, Gediminas Karka, Donatas Banionis, Algimantas Masiulis, Stasys Petronaitis and Dalia Melėnaitė. The opening night of every new performance was an important event in the theatre and sometimes even caused a sensation. Although it sounds unbelievable, but at that time many admirers of his theatre used to come from Moscow or Leningrad (St.Petersburg now) to Panevėžys (not to Vilnius or Kaunas) in order to watch a performance directed by Juozas Miltinis.
The country can boast of a number of well-known professional symphony and chamber orchestras, choirs, opera singers and ballet dancers. It would suffice to mention such eminent operatic singers as Violeta Urmana and Edgaras Montvidas, pianists Mūza Rubackytė and Petras Geniušas, or young pianists Indrė Petrauskaitė and Lukas Geniušas, whom the world honours.
Cultural events all the year round include an excellent choice of annual international festivals of classical music, theatre, cinema and poetry, featuring many prominent Lithuanian and guest performers. Lithuania is also widely known as a country of jazz performers and fans. They are happy to hold several annual international festivals in Kaunas, Birštonas and Vilnius.
Despite the fact that Lithuania is a relatively small country, its culture has spread throughout the world. In the previous century Lithuanians were a nation of emigrants. They settled down in Western Europe, North and South America and Australia. A very active and influential community of Lithuanian emigrants is located in the United States of America. A few names of emigrants, who the cherished Lithuanian culture are worth a mention: archaeologist and researcher of mythology Marija Gimbutas (the United States), theoretician and sociologist of culture Vytautas Kavolis (the United States), Lithuanian filmmaker, writer, and curator, often called "the godfather of American avant-garde cinema” Jonas Mekas (the United States), semiotician and literary scholar Algirdas Julius Greimas (France), art historian Jurgis Baltrušaitis (France) (his father Jurgis Baltrušaitis was a Lithuanian diplomat in Moscow, known as a poet writing in Russian and also one of the greatest Russian symbolists), theorist of politics Aleksandras Štromas (the UK and the United States) and philosopher Algis Mickūnas (the United States), Tomas Venclova, a poet and literary scholar, Yale University professor. In 1981 in Chicago, he edited a selection of poems “Lithuania in the world”. His poetry is translated not only into English, but also into Russian, Hungarian, Polish, Slovenian and German.