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Project RastkoHistory of Serb culture
TIA Janus

Roksanda Pejovic

Musical composition and performance from the eighteenth century to the present

Chapter from the book
"The history of Serbian Culture"
The history of Serbian culture  


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While music played an important role in the Serbian medieval state (from the twelfth to the fifteenth century), official music died out during the period of Turkish enslavement. The Serbs in Vojvodina (within the borders of the Habsburg empire) once again became involved in European musical trends in the eighteenth century, but they did not forget their traditional roots. The patrons of iconostases, portraits and still life paintings also enjoyed music which set itself apart from oriental models. Even so, little is known about ecclesiastical and secular music of that time.

Although ecclesiastical eight-part melodies were sung from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, along with some other church songs, those melodies were created after the models of the fifteenth century. There is a likelihood that in the first half of the eighteenth century, church singing was done on the basis of the late Byzantine tradition and on the basis of Serbian folk singing (from 1713 onward, that music was in Church Slavonic). Under the Russian influence, forms of non-liturgical music such as chants appeared in Serbian dramas. In Belgrade, under Austrian rule at the time, a Greek singing school was founded in 1721, and at the end of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth centuries, the Karlowitz style of church singing was developed in Sremski Karlovci, the see of the Serbian metropolis.

Concert of the Belgrade Philharmonic at Sava Centre in Belgrade

The citizenry was becoming musically educated at that time. The centre of folk music was Irig, where gusle players would gather from far and wide.

Serbian music developed wherever the Serbs lived in the nineteenth century, in Serbia and the Austro-Hungarian cities where the Serbs had settled, and there were centres in Belgrade and in towns all over Vojvodina. The period itself was earmarked by amateurism, but Serbian music of the Romanticist style began then, based on the folk melodies. Apart from native Serbian musicians, the rise of music was also contributed to by foreigners, especially the Czechs, who were choir leaders in Serbian singing societies, playing in orchestras and teaching in the Serbian schools.

The music was mostly in the service of patriotic ideas and of the preservation of the nation, as indicated by the ecclesiastical performances of the time (concerts with mixed programmes -- choral, soloist and orchestra compositions, including dramatic pieces as well) which were put together by church choir societies, the pillars of Serbian musical life. Choral music reached its peak in Pancevo in the 1870s, and did the same in Belgrade, Subotica and Kikinda in the 1880s. Theatre music was fostered in the theatre in Kragujevac as early as the period of Milos Obrenovic, and later in the National Theatre in Novi Sad (founded in 1861) which put on performances for Serbian audiences in towns in Vojvodina and Slavonija, and at the National Theatre in Belgrade (founded in 1868). Most of the arrangements and the music for certain pieces were done by the Slovene Davorin Jenko (1835-1914), who was a director at the National Theatre for thirty years. Starting in the 1880s, both theatres put on performances of operas and operettas. "Opera on the Boulevard" by an opera singer of international reputation, the bass Zarko Savic (1861-1934), did not last very long (1909-1911).

Orchestra concerts began in 1842 in Belgrade, and soon after Johann Strauss did a guest performance there with his orchestra, performing his own compositions which had been inspired by the Serbian folk melodies as well, and other foreign artists followed suit. Symphonies were held from the 1890's onward. The pianist and composer Jovanka Stojkovic (1855-1892), who was it seems a student of Franz Liszt, did guest performances in Vienna, Graz, Pest and Paris. Meanwhile, Serbian audiences enjoyed the playing of the great violinists Jan Kubelik and Henri Marteaux, and Serbian violinist Dragomir Krancevic who played in Vienna, in German towns and in Pest. Likewise, the talents of pianist Sidonija Ilic were heard, as were the opera singer Sofija Sedmakov (who achieved a high reputation in the opera houses of Germany), the Belgrade Quartet and others. In 1899, the Serbian School of Music was founded.

Musicians and laymen wrote down the melodies of secular and ecclesiastical national music in order to preserve it and use it as an inspiration for composers. Music composition was oriented toward choral pieces, solos and theatre pieces, while the instrumental and vocal-instrumental opuses were less numerous. Fundamentally professional, nationally oriented music was performed by the composer, pianist and director Kornelije Stankovic (1831-1865), who also recorded national music. His followers, in their activities as directors and composers, took his conception of the national style as the only possible interpretation. They elevated Serbian musical composition, and certain individuals even edified it to the point of international recognition.

The central character in Serbian music was Stevan Stojanovic Mokranjac (1856-1914), who had been raised on the tradition of Serbian church and folk music. He studied in Munich, Rome and Leipzig. As the director of the Belgrade Choral Society, he turned the group into an exceptional performing ensemble, and then did guest performances with them in many towns in Serbia. Later, he took them on tours of Austro- Hungarian towns as well in order to awaken the national feelings of the Serbian population, arousing their need for unification, while maintaining a high level of interpretation at the same time. First they visited Dubrovnik, Kotor and Cetinje, and then Skopje, Salonica and Budapest. They held concerts in Sophia, Plovdiv, and Istanbul, and then in St. Petersburg, Niznij Novgorod, Moscow and Kiev, and finally (in 1899) in Berlin, Dresden, and Leipzig. These performances were attended by Serbian ambassadors and representatives of the countries in which the concerts were held, thus they extended a chance to show the artistic results of Serbian composition and performance in foreign countries. Such efforts were also made by other Serbian choir societies.

A scene from Petar Konjovic's opera The Marriage of Milos (The Fairy's Veil). The Opera of the National Theatre in Belgrade, 1923

Mokranjac's "Fifteen Song Collections" (1883-1909), an a capella choir composition, based on the folk melodies of Serbia and Old Serbia, and on that of Kosovo, Montenegro, Macedonia and Bosnia, is one of the greatest achievements of Serbian music. It is enchanting with its exceptional choice of folk melodies and their forms, with its dependence on "a sense for the latent harmonic basis of melody", with its application of modal solutions, with its use of counterpoint, and its "highly developed and flexible structure". The effective and humorous choral piece ‘Kozar’, based on two folk songs, also shows the composer's originality. Mokranjac's church pieces possess primordial, monumental, powerful, deep and warm themes (Requiem in F-sharp minor, Liturgy and I Praise You O God). This great composer was among the first Serbian authors of ethnomusicological studies.

Besides choir pieces, the contemporaries of Stevan Mokranjac composed operas, instrumentals and vocal-instrumental opuses, solos. Josif Marinkovic (1851-1931), who had studied at the Prague Organ School, was a director of the Belgrade Academic Choir Society called "Obilic". As a superb Romanticist, the author of patriotic choir songs (a famous one is The People's Gathering, which begins with the words: "Hey, bugler, from the embattled Drina"), a choir piece under the influence of folk music (The Round-Dance) and solos of exceptional highly developed melody based on the text of Serbian songs (A Prayer and Thunder by Vojislav Ilic).

Stanislav Binicki (1872-1942) proved his musical abilities as a director and composer. After graduating from the Munich Conservatorium, he performed symphonies with the Orchestra of the King's Guard, and he did Haydn's The Last Seven Words of Christ and The Creation with this ensemble and the "Stankovic" Choir Society; in 1910 they continued with Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, which was an exceptional musical event in old Belgrade. He was the first director of the Belgrade Opera and the founder of the "Stankovic" Music School. Among his compositions is also the opera Rising Early, in the style of Italian veristic opera and Serbian urban folklore.

The composer Isidor Bajic (1878-1915), a student of the Pest conservatory, proved himself to be a skilled organiser in the musical life of Novi Sad, where he started the "Serbian Music Journal" and a notated edition of the Serbian musical library. He also founded the Music School. He directed, wrote articles and textbooks and did some composing (the opera Prince Ivo of Semberija, songs which the populace gladly accepted, and other works as well).

Listening to the renowned Czech choirs such as "Hlahol" and the "Moravian teachers", and world famous interpreters such as Korto Uninski, Rubenstein, Francescatti, Pichoda, Mainardi, Saljapin and Renet-Barton, the people of Belgrade also followed the development of domestic artists. Due to the aid of Russian immigrant singers, Liza Popovaj, Ksenija Rogovskaja, Pavel Kholodkov, Georgiy Yurenyev and Lev Zinovjev, the Belgrade Opera, founded in 1920, led by Stevan Hristic and Lovro Matacic, developed a rich repertoire. Apart from the standard works, the operas of P.I. Tchaikovsky, A.P. Borodin and M.P. Moussorgsky were put on, followed by Wagner's Flying Dutchman, Lohengrin, and Tannhauser, Richard Strauss's Salome and others. These pieces were performed by a group of singers, among them Zdenka Zikova, Zivojin Tomic, Vojislav Turinski, Melanija Bugarinovic and Bahrija Nuri-Hadzic, the protagonist at the premiere of Berg's Lulu in Zurich in 1934. The high quality of the ballet was also maintained with the aid of Russian artists, followed by Natasa Boskovic, Milos Ristic and others. Apart from Romanticist ballets, modern ballet was also available to the audiences, such as Igor Stravinsky's The Firebird.

The Belgrade Philharmonic was founded in 1923, and it advanced artistically under Stevan Hristic and Lovro Matacic. From 1931 to 1937, symphonic and vocal-instrumental opuses were performed, Honegger's Le Roi David, Stravinsky's Oedipus Rex, Verdi's Requiem, Handel's Messiah, and Beethoven's Missa Solemnis. The duo of Marija and Olga Mihailovic (violin and piano) was heard on the concert podium, as were the pianists Ljubica Marzinec and Emil Hajek, the vocal soloist Jelka Stamatovic and the Belgrade Piano Quartet. Music teaching was held in two music schools and at the Academy of Music, founded in 1937.

In the period from 1918 to 1941, Serbian composers showed interest in various stylistic trends, from romanticism to quarter-tone music. All the other musicians of the first Yugoslavia worked in the shadows of four powerful personalities, P. Konjovic, M. Milojevic, S. Hristic and J. Slavenski.

A scene from the ballet The Legend of Ohrid of Stevan Hristic, the Ballet of the National Theatre in Belgrade

Composing, writing about music and organising musical activities were Petar Konjovic's (1883-1970) main areas of interest. He was the director of the Zagreb opera, the manager of the Osijek opera, and one of the founders of the Academy of Music and the Institute of Musicology in Belgrade. He composed operas inspired by folk music, stylistically close to the work of Leos Janacek. His operas, The Prince of Zeta (1929) and Kostana (1931; performed in Brno in 1932 and in Prague in 1935) were done conceptually as musical dramas: in the former the milieus of Montenegro and Venice are set in opposition through the proper musical language, and in the latter the ambient of Vranje is impressively conjured up, and the desire for youth is vividly shown. Konjovic's solos, Romanticist or Romanticist-impressionistic (Chanson), are often close to the folk melody (Under the Windows). Although they are varied in terms of content, his texts about music are related to the themes which he was mostly interested in, and that was music done in national styles.

At the Munich Conservatory, in France and in Prague where he took a doctorate in musical scholarship in 1924-25, Miloje Milojevic (1884- 1946) added depth to his knowledge of music. He enriched the Romanticist and national-romanticist tendencies with the stylistic trends of Richard Strauss, with impressionism, and even with elements of expressionism. He was most expressive in his solos (the collection Before Magnificent Nature) and in his piano compositions (Melodies and Rhythms from the Balkans, the suites, Camaieux). He was the leading music critic of Belgrade and the author of valuable musical texts about Serbian and Yugoslav music.

Stevan Hristic (1885-1958) received his musical education in Leipzig, Moscow, Rome and Paris. He was the director of the Belgrade Philharmonic and the Belgrade Opera. He showed a special inclination for vocal music, composing technically cultivated works in the neo- romanticist, veristic and romanticist-impressionist style, sometimes hued with the folk melodies. The chamber opera Twilight (1925) faithfully renders old patrician Dubrovnik, and the ballet Legend of Ohrid (1947) owed its popularity to Serbian and Macedonian folklore, to its remarkable melodics, to its temperamental rhythm and sophisticated orchestration. His church music showed a Russian influence (Requiem in F-sharp minor).

Josip Slavenski (1896-1955), a Croatian composer, was another of the famous characters in old Belgrade. He expanded his enchantment with Medjumurje folklore to the Balkans (the orchestrated Balkanophonia) and to oriental music (the vocal-instrumental Religiophonia, or the Symphony of the Orient).

The representatives of the Romanticist style were, among others, Petar Stojanovic (1877-1957), a violinist who per‚formed throughout Europe, composed concerts and sonatas for the violin, viola and other instruments, along with other chamber pieces. Petar Krstic (1877-1957) was an opera and solo composer, as was Kosta Manojlovic (1890-1949), the author of modally hued choir pieces who dealt with music history and ethnomusicology.

In their first works, the Serbian students of the Prague generation were interested in impressionism, neo-classicism, expressionism and quarter-tone music. Except for Vojislav Vukovic (1910-1942), their representatives would continue their activities after 1945. This composer and doctor of musicology left expressionism behind and turned to the influences of Soviet composers in orchestrated, vocal- instrumental and other works.

After returning to the old models, in the second half of the twentieth century, Serbian music began to keep up with the tendencies of Western Europe. Musical life intensified and many of its representatives achieved acclaim in Europe. The Belgrade Opera was at the forefront on this account, because of its director and conductor, Oskar Danon (b. 1913) and his collaborators: the composer and conductor Kresimir Baranovic (1894-1975), the conductor Dusan Miladinovic (b. 1924), the stage director Mladen Sabljic (b. 1923) and the scenographer Dusan Ristic (b. 1913). The Opera did guest performances from 1955 to 1963, including Wiesbaden, Paris, Lausanne, Venice, Cairo, Florence, Warsaw, Turin, Barcelona, Monte Carlo, Alexandria and Edinburgh. Among others, performances were given of Moussorgsky's Boris Godunov and Hovanscina, Aleksandr Borodin's Prince Igor, Massenet's Don Quixote, Leos Janacek's Katja Kabanova, Gounod's Faust, Sergej Prokofiev's The Love for Three Oranges and The Gambler, Smetana's The Bartered Bride, and Nikola Hercigonja's stage oratory The Mountain Wreath. The ballet corpus had a series of notable performances both at home and abroad, including the Hristic's popular Legend of Ohrid, Baranovic's Cake in the Shape of a Heart and China Story, not to mention Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet and Bartok's The Miraculous Mandarine. The ballet's success was contributed to by Dimtrije Parlic (1919-1986) who was the head of the ballet of the opera in Vienna and Rome.

The cover page of the musical drama Treasure of Medjuluzje by Momcilo Nastasijevic

The Belgrade Philharmonic under K. Baranovic and Zivojin Zdravkovic retained the primacy of the first Belgrade orchestra, apart from the orchestra of Radio-Television Belgrade (directed by Mladen Jagust, b. 1924), and the Artistic Ensemble of the Yugoslav Army. Contributions to the music life and guest performances abroad were made by: the Chamber Ensemble, the Belgrade Piano Trio, the Serbian String Quartet, and the "Dusan Skovran" String Ensemble (under the direction of Aleksandar Pavlovic). Choir groups likewise contributed: the Radio-Choir under the direction of Borivoj Simic (b. 1920), the "Branko Krsmanovic" student choir led by Bogdan Babic (1921-1980), and the women's choir Collegium musicum directed by Darinka Matic-Marovic. Foreign acclaim has been achieved by opera singers Biserka Cvejic and Radmila Bakocevic, violinist Stefan Milenkovic and many others. The same is true of the ballet dancers Jovanka Bjegojevic, Dusanka Sifnios, Milorad Miskovic and Zarko Prebil (now the director of the ballet of the Rome Opera).

Novi Sad is also a significant musical centre, the home of the Vojvodina Philharmonic and opera house. Many chamber ensembles have also played there. This city also has a Music Department at the Academy of Arts, and there is an Electronics Centre within that department. The Musical activities of Nis are directed mostly toward Yugoslav choir festivals, where choirs from all over the country and abroad are gathered.

The former students of the Prague Conservatorium, along with other composers of the same generation, had a wide variety of stylistic inclinations. Milenko Zivkovic (1901-1964), Svetomir Nastasijevic (1902-1979) and Stanojlo Rajicic (b. 1910) used tradition as a starting point, and Rajicic created a thrilling polytonic harmonic musical language. He composed the opera Simonida, operas for television and cycles for voice and orchestra (In the Linden Forest, Yellow Leaves, and others), symphonies and concerts for various instruments. Jovan Bandur (1899-1956) was inspired in his cantatas by the folk melodies, as was Mihailo Vukdragovic (1900-1984) the author of a cycle of solos entitled The Vocal Lyric. Marko Tajcevic (1900-1984) was the creator of a sophisticated, moderately formed and nationally hued short form, greatly nuanced in a mostly modal harmony. He wrote Seven Balkan Dances for the piano, choir pieces (among which is his Four Spiritual Verses), and solos. From late Romanticism and Strauss's orchestra came the opuses of Mihovil Logar - the ballet The Gold Fish and the opera The Parvenu. The works of Predrag Milosevic (1904-1988) and Milan Ristic (1908-1982) belong to the world of Neo-Classicism; their symphonies indicate a clarity and brevity of form, work with a thematic core and programmatic elements. The orchestra opuses of Dragutin Colic (1907-1987) and Ljubica Maric (b. 1909) owe their musical conceptions to expressionism. Maric creates within the unity of the ancient and the modern, for she is original, inspired, primordial in expression, bound to the land from which she came. Beside the cantatas Songs of Space and Pasquil for orchestra, she composed a cycle based on single voices of the Osmoglasnik which Mokranjac had noted: Oktoih I, The Byzantine Concert for piano and orchestra, the cantata The Threshold of Sleep, and Ostinato super thema octoicha for the harp, piano and strings.

Neo-Romanticism is often the inspirational warp for composers of a balanced modern language, composers who graduated from the Belgrade Music Academy. Some of the composers were inclined toward impressionism or neo-classicism, but there were also those who aspired for the new realms of sound. Vasilije Mokranjac (1923-1984) - in dramatic, temperamental, almost eruptive symphonies - used short, concentrated ideas which could include only one chord, thick orchestral fabric and multi-layered harmony in the framework of a broadly conceived tonality. His piano compositions also have impressionistic reflections (Echoes).

A balanced modern language characterises the work of Radomir Petrovic (1923-1991), the author of cantatas and choir pieces, as it does the work of Dragutin Gostuski (b. 1923) who got his doctorate at the Faculty of Philosophy in Belgrade and who is known for his violin concert and choir pieces. Kosta Babic (b. 1927) composed his witty choir pieces in the same style, as did Dusan Kostic (b. 1925) in his orchestra and vocal-instrumental opuses, and Vlastimir Pericic (b. 1927) in his orchestra compositions and solos.

Traditional but also modern means of expression characterise the symphonies of Aleksandar Obradovic (b. 1927), which have a sharp orchestral intensity. Vitomir Trifunovic (b. 1927), in his synthesis of tradition and avant garde elements, spoke out in a sound of new dimensions in Syntheses 4, Associations, and Concert for the Violin. Constant metamorphoses characterise the works of Rudolf Bruci (b. 1917), inclined toward orchestra and vocal- instrumental forms. His Sinfonia lesta received an international award at a competition in Brussels.

The Dusan Skovran String Ensemble, directed by Aleksandar Pavlovic

The works of Enriko Josif (b. 1924) have a neo-classicist character, powerfully expressive and polyphonic in conception, in the unity of the ancient and modern. Among them are the stage visions Stefan Decanski, the ballet Bird, Don't Fold Your Wings, and Piano Concert. Dusan Radic (b. 1929) in his List, for voice and piano and his The Tower of Skulls, grew out of the same stylistic source, as did his other works. The same neo-classicist source was used as a constant inspiration by Dejan Despic (b. 1930) in his Triptych for violin and orchestra, his concerts and piano opuses.

Among the composers who appeared in after 1956, there were those who studied in Paris, Warsaw, Stuttgart, Cologne, Utrecht and Princeton. They accepted neo-classicism as their starting point, using aleatory music, serials, electro-acoustics and tape music, as well as post- modernist techniques.

Liberated from tonality in his works of intensified sound quality, Petar Ozgijan (1932-1979) was the most expressive in his compositions Triptych and Nocturne. The remarkable character of Vladan Radovanovic (b. 1932), the director of the Electronic Studio of Radio Belgrade, is avant garde in the fields of music, painting and literature. Sphaeroon and Sonora are among his musical opuses. Srdjan Hofman (b. 1944) is in constant search for new means of expression, from his vocal-instrumental Cantus de morte to the post-modern technique of Deja vu).

Composers reveal the atmosphere of the Serbian past and interpret it with modern means of expression. In the tendency toward a specific colourite, a sophisticated transparent colour is achieved, as are powerful sounds.

The archaic patina echoes in the orchestra (Sinfonia - polifonica) and chamber compositions (Incantations) of Mirjana Zivkovic (b. 1934). The presence of the ancient, especially of the distant Serbian past, was brought to life through a language close to that of the Polish school, characterises the musical ideas of R. Maksimovic, S. Atanackovic, Z. Hristic and Z. Eric. Rajko Maksimovic (b. 1935) composed the madrigals Singing from the Gloom done according to medieval records, and The Rebellion against the Dahijas. Slobodan Atanackovic (b. 1937) is interested in the archaic layers of Serbian musical folklore. His oratoriums are Dies gloriae and Akathistos. Zoran Hristic (b. 1938) is inclined to unusual tonic combinations (the choreo-oratorio Step, akin to total theatre, the ballet Darinka's Gift, a vocal- instrumental composition). The works of Zoran Eric (b. 1950) are embued with a complex, tonally transparent structure in his music for piano and orchestra Mirage, in the ballet Banovic Strahinja and in numerous chamber opuses. Vuk Kulenovic (b. 1946) achieves a powerful emotiveness in his Quasar OH 471, Icarus. The expression and recognisability of the style of Milan Mihailovic (b. 1945) rest on the use of specific moduses (the chamber composition Lamentoso), and a transparent colourite (Symphonic Metamorphosis). The modern language of Vlastimir Trajkovic (b. 1947) owes itself to impressionism in his orchestra piece Tempora retenta, in his work Duo for the Piano and Orchestra and in his chamber pieces.

The individuality of each modern composer cannot be dealt with in just a few sentences. Undoubtedly, they have their own uniqueness and are worthy of greater presence in the music of Europe and the world.

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