Stevan Stojanović MOKRANJAC
Mokranjac was born in Negotin on January 9, 1856. Completing grammar school in Belgrade, attracted by the positivist ideas exposed by Svetozar Marković, he enrolled at the Department of Natural Sciences and Mathematics of the High School (later Belgrade University). Having already shown an interest in music while in grammar school, he joined the First Belgrade Choral Society. Seeing him as a successor to Kornelije Stanković, this society enabled him to go to study in Munich in 1879. In 1883 he had to discontinue his studies, resuming them in 1884-85 in Rome, then in 1885-87 at the Leipzig Conservatory.
At this point Mokranjac began his long and varied music career in Belgrade. By 1884 he had already distinguished himself leading the Kornelije Stanković Choir, and from 1887 until the end of his life, he was director of the First Belgrade Choral Society which developed under his guidance into a first-class ensemble. He toured with this society, giving concerts throughout Serbia, other South Slav lands and foreign countries, serving as a kind of cultural ambassador of Serbia.
His activities were diverse. From 1887 until 1900, he taught music at the First Belgrade Grammar School, and after 1901 at the Faculty of Theology. In 1899, under the auspices of the First Belgrade Choral Society, he co-founded the Serbian Music School in Belgrade, Serbia’s first permanent music school, remaining its director and a teacher his whole life. With F. Mater, St. Dram and J. Svoboda, he started Serbia’s first string quartet, which played a pioneer role from 1889 until 1893, cultivating chamber music in these parts of Europe. At the founding meeting of the Serbian Musicians Society (1907), he was elected chairman. In 1906, he was especially honoured by being elected corresponding member of the Serbian Royal Academy (today the Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts). In 1912, ill health obliged him to gradually abandon his duties as director of the First Belgrade Choral Society. He died during the night of September 29 and 30, 1914 in Skoplje, where he had taken refuge with his family at the outbreak of the First World War.
Mokranjac devoted a large part of his opus to Orthodox religious music, based largely on the traditional chanting in Serbian churches. This includes his monumental Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, Requiem, Akathistos, Two songs for Good Friday, We Praise Thee, Glorification of St. Sava, and other works comparable in quality to his best in secular music.
Closely associated with his composing was his melographic work: recording the folk songs of Kosovo (only a small part published posthumously), a collection of Folk Songs and Dances from Levach, and two important collections of church chants: Octoechos and Feast Chants. The forewords to the Folk Songs and Octoechos were the first studies in Serbian ethnomusicology.
The religious music composed by Stevan St. Mokranjac surpasses in quantity and possibly in quality his secular music. Of the 500 secular folk tunes that he noted down, he used 90 in his choral compositions Garlands of Songs (Rukoveti), whereas from his recordings of over 2,000 pieces of church music, he created works of the highest order. His collection of religious music was published in the Octoechos (328 hymns) and Chants for Feast Days (over 1500 stichera, prokeimena, megalynaria, cherubika, heirmoi and sessional hymns), while many works which remained in manuscript form were beatitudes, troparia and kontakia for particular church feasts.
In the Serbian church melodies that he recorded, Mokranjac “discovered, selected and enhanced the psychological harmonies buried deep in the soul of Serbian people, making it difficult to believe that these people could have created anything of this order”.
Excerpts from the Stevan St. Mokranjac, Complete Works
by Vlastimir Peričić and Vojislav Ilić
Translated by Karin Radovanović and Danica Šćekić
Mokranjac and the Serbian Classical Music
As in all other countries belonging to the so-called European periphery, composers in Serbia faced the problem of asserting both their belonging to the European musical community and having specific differences. The former had to be displayed by their musical craftsmanship and creative individuality, while the latter were conveyed through the introduction of native folk elements as tokens of a specific identity.
Stevan Mokranjac (1856-1914) was the key-figure among Serbian composers before World War I. On his numerous tours abroad (Thessaloniki, Budapest, Sofia, Istanbul, Berlin, Dresden, Leipzig, Moscow), he received considerable appraisal for his choral works, which were primarily suites based on folk music (“Garlands of songs”).
The most important part of Stevan Mokranjac’s output are his Garlands of songs and church music, both composed for a cappella choir (Serbian church music is traditionally vocal a cappella music), but he also composed some works for voice and piano, for strings and incidental music.
Mokranjac was only two years younger than Leos Janacek, but the Czech master outlived him by 14 years. Both of them studied for a while in Leipzig, though not at the same time (Janacek in 1879, Mokranjac in 1885-87). There is, however, a great difference between their works, which is quite understandable when their native social and cultural milieus are taken into consideration.
The overall Czech musical culture that gave birth to Czech musical nationalism, provided strong support for Janacek as a composer. His predecessors – Bedrich Smetana, Antonin Dvorak and a number of other Czech composers – had successfully integrated their nationally orientated music into the European developments. During that time, Serbian musicians were still fighting to achieve European standards of music culture.
Russian composers are deliberately not mentioned in relation to Stevan Mokranjac because their music – apart from church music – was little known in Serbia before World War I. It was only the next generation of composers that came under the influence of Russian music, and that, via Prague. Some similarities in musical thinking between Mokranjac and the Russians could be explained by common characteristics in musical folklore, as well as essentially similar ideological frameworks.
Like Stevan Mokranjac, the young generation of Serbian composers studied abroad, mostly in Germany, during the first and second decades of 20th century. Consequently, they adopted a western (i.e. Central-European) stance in the evaluation of Mokranjac and other domestic composers. They called him the “Serbian Palestrina”. These composers highly valued Mokranjac’s ability to select what was typical in folklore and to create organic forms on the basis of folk music, and they particularly praised the way he stylized folk melodies.
They were also aware that Mokranjac had succeeded in penetrating the “laws” of latent harmony hidden in folk melodies and thus fully displayed their magic. On the other hand, some members of the generations of composers following Mokranjac, criticized him directly or indirectly for the lack of a bolder, more elaborate approach to the use of folk melodies, for keeping to little more than simple harmonisations, and for restricting himself to choral a cappella music. By that, they essentially meant that Mokranjac ought to have composed elaborate instrumental and vocal-instrumental works, and not just clung to choral music, despite his creative efforts.
Mokranjac was respected as the father of Serbian national music. Mokranjac’s most talented successors knew that it was the historical task of their generation to attain international recognition of Serbian music, by leaning on Mokranjac’s heritage – by using it as the basis for works that would explore wider formal conceptions and more modern forms of expression more closely resembling contemporary developments in European music.
We should note that Mokranjac’s orientation to choral music was probably due to his position as a conductor of the renowned First Belgrade Choral Society, the choir which gave the first performances of all his compositions. It could be concluded that he simply was not attracted to orchestral sounds, preferring instead vocal expression.
It is also possible that he was so impressed by Alessandro Parisotti’s lectures on vocal polyphony in Rome (1884-85) that he decided to devote his talent and skills to that genre. According to some scholars, Mokranjac produced the kind of music that the Serbian audience demanded and was receptive to.
Mokranjac’s predecessors were usually designated as folklorists, along with some of his minor successors, and strangely enough, though only exceptionally, so was Mokranjac himself. The reason for the latter stemmed from the ambivalence regarding the evaluation of Mokranjac’s choral suites either as a series of harmonised folk songs or as “real”, fully artistic compositions. The dominant view today is that Mokranjac was an exquisite composer who devoted his talent to a modest medium, but who knew how to compose works characterized by the use of refined harmonies, formal perfection, and a balanced use of homophony and counterpoint.
Serbian composers active in the first decades of the century often stressed the importance of founding a national musical style based on typically Serbian folk music, which remained free from foreign influences. The several centuries of occupation under Ottoman rule had led to the penetration of some oriental – Turkish but also Gypsy – elements into Serbian folk music, leaving only rural areas untouched. Therefore pure folklore was sought from rural areas that had conserved archaic and authentic features. It was generally assumed that Stevan Mokranjac knew how to choose genuine folk melodies, the best example being his tenth Garland, but it is noteworthy that the two most popular tunes from that work, belong to Mokranjac’s own invention.
For Stevan Mokranjac and his predecessors, it was common practice to introduce authentic folk tunes, more or less modified, into their works, but sometimes they wrote tunes that, while being their own, had a folk-like character. Many composers built their own collections of folk music that they brought from villages. This method was seen as a problem by composers of the following generation, who became aware that under the influence of Smetana’s works a certain transposition or composing “in the spirit of folk music” was more appreciated than the use of citations.
Excerpts from “The National Idea in Serbian Music of the 20th Century” 2002
by Melita Milin, Musicologist (Belgrade, Serbia)