Yugoslav Music

Composer and music critic, DRAGUTIN GOSTUŠKI was born in 1923 in Belgrade and studied fine arts at the University of Belgrade and musical composition at the Music Academy in Belgrade. His most significant compositions are PIANO TRIO, the symphonic poem BELGRADE, CONCERTO ACCELERATO, and a ballet, REMIS.


AT ABOUT the same time that Liszt and Chopin were establishing themselves in Paris in the 1830s, Prince Miloš of Serbia invited a little-known Austrian conductor, Joseph Schlesinger, to come to Serbia and assemble a musical band to embellish the festivities at Miloš’s court. At first glance this appears to have been an insignificant event, unworthy of mention. Yet there was something different here: it happened at a time when the Serbs ruled by this prince had lived for some four centuries under Turkish occupation, when the proof of physical fitness was that a man still carried his head on his shoulders, and when the peak of cultural achievement consisted of a knowledge of the alphabet. The prince, it should be added, possessed more than that kind of knowledge; to prove that he still had a head on his shoulders he covered it with a Turkish fez, and his clothes were peasant clothes woven by hand. Since he was a cattle merchant, he had a high social standing, and his magnificent court consisted of more than a room or two.

The Serbian people ruled by Prince Miloš had their first look at a manufactured musical instrument in the year following the death of Franz Schubert. That was also the first time that this people heard orchestral music based on major and minor chords. This incredibly advanced art, which was demonstrated to them in the playing of military marches, soon became a favorite entertainment, and the next step was the performance of theatrical pieces with songs, a rather primitive type of operetta. Today, only a little more than a century later, the descendants of the first listeners to orchestral music in Serbia have one of the finest and best-known opera houses in Europe.

In 1816, shortly before the above-mentioned events took place, there was a competition for the position of teacher in a new school of music in the capital city of Slovenia, Ljubljana. The future leader of this institution had to meet a few modest requirements: he had to be a well-educated singer, an accomplished organist and violinist, a connoisseur of wind instruments, and a capable teacher. In addition, he was expected to submit certificates from both the state and church authorities about his good conduct. Some nineteen applicants, completely unknown, made their bids; the twentieth applicant was Franz Schubert. The former Sängerknabe submitted a letter of recommendation from Antonio Salieri. He was still young, and from his documents it was not clear how well he could handle the trumpet or the flute. The board in charge of the election consisted of members of the Academia Philharmonicorum, which had been in existence in the city of Ljubljana since 1701 and was one of the oldest continuously functioning musical institutions in Europe. The criteria must have been harsh, for Schubert did not get the job.

These two facts illustrate the range of conditions under which the musical development of the peoples of Yugoslavia took place. In one area, there was a high international standing; in the other, an almost total lack of contact with contemporary European civilization. However, these peoples had common origins, language, and nationalistic aspirations. Today these groups have been brought into accord, and one specific element which binds them together is the concept of the music of Yugoslavia.

Contemporary Yugoslav music shows a wise middle-of-the-road orientation, which in my opinion suits it best at this moment — a nice balance between conservative academicism and extreme modernism.

Two essential elements contribute to this orientation. The first is the great richness of folk music. The second is the fact that musical composition in all parts of Yugoslavia developed toward the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century, despite the chronologically different beginnings of artistic life in individual areas. Thus, in the decisive moment of growth, the musical art in Yugoslavia came under the direct influence of romantic nationalism in music.

INDIVIDUAL Yugoslav composers have tried to express themselves through various stylistic modes of expression, such as atonality, quarter-tone music, dodecaphony, and related contemporary systems and techniques. The majority of musical compositions by Yugoslav composers could be recognized as Yugoslav even at the first hearing, though it may be difficult to define the reasons for such a feeling.

Most Yugoslav composers of the past studied in Czechoslovakia, Germany, and Austria, fewer in Italy, and almost none in Russia and France. This is rather a surprising fact, since the influence of classical Russian music is quite strong and some of the outstanding creative personalities drew their inspiration from impressionism. It is particularly interesting to observe composers who started from the same basic positions achieving in their works different stylistic colors and designs, even in cases where they used generically similar musical material. Perhaps the most impressive example in this respect is the comparison of compositions by Stevan Hristić (1885—1958) and Petar Konjović (1883).

A happy blend of tuneful, singable melodies and a powerful, frequently asymmetric rhythm, which is associated with the southern parts of Yugoslavia, brought tremendous popularity to Hristić’s ballet The Legend of Ohrid. The opera Koštana (named for a gypsy) by Petar Konjović contains musically related themes, yet it substitutes an expressive recitative for broad melodic lines. The structure of this opera is close to the Czech nationalistic school concepts, which are foreign to Hristić.

As is well known, Croatian melodies frequently served as the inspiration for Haydn’s themes. In modern times, Jakov Gotovac (1895) from Zagreb has been most successful in his use of Croatian folk music. His opera Ero the Joker is one of the most frequently performed works of its kind in central Europe, including Germany. Krešimir Baranović (1894— ), conductor and composer, also enjoys a significant international reputation. His music is inspired by the same sources as those which Gotovac uses. Yet, while the latter prefers to employ traditional expressive means, Baranović uses in his ballets The Gingerbread Heart and Imbrek With the Nose some harmonic progressions and orchestral timbres which remind one of Stravinsky.

The choral works of Anton Lajović (1878-1960) and the symphonic works of Matija Bravničar (1897), such as the overture King Matthias and the symphonic poem Kurent, show a different style, in which the impressionistic and romantic moods are expressed in a modern musical language. These works reflect to a great degree the natural talent for music of the Slovene people.

The highly original personality of Josip Slavenski (1896-1955) deserves special mention. Turning his attention alternately to the musical motifs of Macedonia and of his homeland of Medumurje, a province bordering Hungary, Slavenski demonstrated the possibility of molding folk art into large symphonic forms in a new and specific way. The primitive power of the sound and melodic turns, the surprising atmospheric changes, and the archaic color received their best formulation in his suite Balkanophony and in the cantata of monumental proportions, The Symphony of the Orient. In these works Slavenski certainly reaches the level of, and perhaps even surpasses, his great contemporary, Béla Bartók.

I stated that Yugoslav music acquired a strong nationalistic foundation from which it could move on to explore other types of artistic expression. It is uncertain whether this will lead to the adoption of a single international musical language — if such a thing exists. One wonders whether such a musical aspiration is desirable or whether it would, in the absence of local wealth in variety, lead to the impoverishment of the universal musical fund. At any rate, it is characteristic that both the older and younger Yugoslav composers, conservatives and modernists, are neither exclusive nor particularly stubborn. They frequently attempt similar tasks, such as excursions into more complex tonal combinations or the utilization of folk tunes as bases for technically more perfect and larger forms. This has been the decisive factor for the past and present, and perhaps will be for the future of Yugoslav music.

WHAT is it that the Yugoslav musician has in his blood? Systematic studies of folk music are pursued in five specialized research institutes located in the capitals of Yugoslav republics.

Diligent musicologists are still able to record on tape the precious samples of ancient music which disappeared from other parts of Europe several thousands of years ago. In the creviced and barely accessible mountains of the Dinaric range, there is preserved a way of singing in pairs, as in a duet (diaphony), which defies all theories of the evolution of music, all historical and ethnological hypotheses, and even musical acoustics. This twopart singing is done in intervals of major and minor seconds. To an uninitiated listener, it may appear as unexpected discord and the result of unskillful improvisation. The musicologist knows, however, that such music has fixed rules so bold, as one might say today, that even the most extreme composers of the musical avant-garde avoid such practices.

In order to be able to follow the complicated and gradual evolution of Yugoslav folk music to its present-day manifestations, it is necessary to become thoroughly acquainted with the history and geography of Yugoslavia. It is sufficient for us to single out some of the more important elements: the Slavic migration to the Balkan Peninsula by the seventh century; a gradual linking of the western parts to the German and Hungarian ruling dynasties, especially since the twelfth century; and the occupation of the eastern territories by the Turks from the fifteenth century on.

The prehistoric and pre-Christian music of the original settlers, the Slavic tradition as well as the new influences from the east and the west all meeting, as they did, on the territory of Yugoslavia created there the richest musical deposit in Europe. Of course, the folk music of Greece, Bulgaria, Rumania, and Hungary also possesses precious materials, and their melodies vie with one another as to beauty and originality. Yet Yugoslav folk music stands far ahead of that of its neighbors in its variety and in its quantity.

Starting from Slovenia, where the music is close to the well-known types of melodies from the Alps, and extending as far as Macedonia, where one finds a happy mixture of traditions of antiquity with Oriental influences, one encounters everywhere innumerable variations on original creations of purely Slavic character, of Mediterranean, of Asian (pentatonic scale), and of the universally European type.

In the eastern part of Yugoslavia, where the inhabitants have been under the jurisdiction oi the Serbian Orthodox Church, there is another and quite special type of musical expression, which is neither pure folk music nor purely artistic — the Serbian church chant. The chant derives its roots from the oldest Christian communities of Asia Minor and found its highest achievement in the medieval music of the Byzantine Empire. From Byzantium it was transmitted to the Slavic tribes, beginning in the ninth century. In its repeated usage, this chant was substantially transformed under the influence of elements of folk music.

As for the western parts of Yugoslavia, Slovenia, Croatia, and Dalmatia, for nearly a millennium it was impossible to develop in them nationalistic, political, and cultural potentialities, because of Germanic pressure. Nevertheless, within these territories a contact was established with the highest achievements of Western civilization.

Eastern sections of Yugoslavia were freed from Turkish supremacy in the course of the nineteenth century, except for Macedonia, which was under Turkish domination until 1912. This repression has to be kept in mind in order to grasp what a tremendous effort had to be made by the Serbs, Montenegrins, and Macedonians to move from a most primitive way of life, conditioned by extreme poverty, to a normal and contemporary European standard. The time interval, which could picturesquely be described as from shepherd’s pipe to the opera and symphony, was less than one hundred years.

The evolution of the art of music was very logical. The natural disposition of Yugoslavs toward vocal music led to a rapid growth of first-rate choral compositions for quite exquisite choral groups. This essentially nineteenth-century tradition continues to our day. Side by side with the amateur groups and professional choirs of worldwide renown (choirs of the television stations in Belgrade, Zagreb, and Ljubljana; the choir of the Yugoslav Army; and the students’ choir, Branko Krsmanović), the opera houses grew. The various groups became known outside Yugoslav boundaries because of their appearances at international festivals or through invitations extended to individual soloists — Zinka Milanov, Biserka Cvejić, Vladimir Ruždjak, Miroslav Čangalović, and others. In a short time, the singing in the mountains and in the river valleys came into modern concert halls. Today, there are ten opera houses in Yugoslavia, more than in many a European country which did not suffer from a similar vacuum in its history.

The highest level of professional training can be obtained at four music academies which have entrance requirements comparable to those at the best European institutions. In these academies, new generations of young Yugoslav composers are for the first time fully educated in their own country.

There are also music festivals, some of them with a tradition of long standing, at which a foreign observer may obtain a competent impression of the level of contemporary musical life in Yugoslavia. I should mention here the annual Summer Festival in Dubrovnik. This medieval city-state on the Adriatic coast, a permanent rival of Venice, always was a first-rate center of culture. Today, a part of its heritage — the architecture of the city and its parks — makes a magnificent surrounding for performance. Every summer, Yugoslav as well as foreign artists are introduced to an international audience performing select works of older and younger musical composers. The newly established Biennale in Zagreb will probably soon be numbered among the significant European festivals of modern music.

The art of our own day is itself in a peculiar situation, in this unsettled period of temporary laws. Within the framework of the world’s music, contemporary Yugoslav music is not an exception. The problems which Yugoslav musicians face are similar to those with which American or, say, Japanese musicians are coping. The future rating of composers of our generation will be established by the way they solve debatable aesthetic problems. In mentioning some Yugoslav composers, I may have sinned against others. But were I to list all the names, I am afraid that they would be forgotten. Names are remembered by their products. I would be happy to introduce Yugoslav composers through their authentic expressive means, not by way of words but with the sound of their musical creations.

Translated by Miloš Velimirović.