Musicians Making a Difference: An Interview with Dr. Danica Petrovic from Belgrade, Serbia
Dr. Danica S. Petrović is a Serbian musicologist, and graduate of the Belgrade Academy of Music and assistant at the Institute of Musicology at the Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts in Belgrade. She studied in Oxford with Egon Wellesz and earned the doctorate from the University of Ljubljana in 1980, with a dissertation on Oktōēchos in the musical tradition of southern Slavs. She was professor of music history at the University of Arts, Novi Sad (1993-2010). From 2001 to her retirement in 2012 she was the director of the Institute of Musicology of the Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts. Dr. Petrović’s musicological interests include Slavonic music manuscripts of the 15th to the 19th centuries, Greek-Slavonic and Russian-Serbian cultural links in the 18th century, and links between Serbian music and European
musical traditions of the 19th century. Her research has demonstrated the continuity of Serbian music from late medieval times to the present. She has contributed to the complete edition of Stevan Mokranjac’s works, prepared editions of Traditional Serbian Orthodox Church Singing written down by Nenad Barački and Tihomir Ostojić and has been working on the critical edition of the Complete works of Kornelije Stanković.
1. What attracted you to Orthodox musical culture? It was my mother’s religiosity, life in an Orthodox family and my early interest in medieval history and art. It was the base foundation from which I was attracted to the study of Church music, particularly Orthodox Church music. 2. Your work as a musicologist focuses on Serbian chant and choral music, and much of your work focuses on the 15th-19th Centuries. What did you find most fascinating to study in these areas? I was born in Yugoslavia, just after the Second World War, so I spent half of my life in the communist state with strong atheist ideology in which church music, particularly Orthodox Church music, was not welcome. In my elementary and middle music school in Belgrade, we learned about Western European music history, about different music forms and styles. We analyzed and wrote canons, motets, even knew by heart the parts of Latin Mass–but we learned nothing at all about Orthodox Liturgy or about orthodox liturgical music. Even today you are not able to study specifically church music at any of music schools or academies in Serbia. Traditional Serbian Church Chant is studied in some detail only in Orthodox Seminaries. The interest in Orthodox Medieval music was brought to Serbia from England, specifically from the University of Oxford where Kosta Manojlovic, during the First World War, arrived to study music. He returned to Serbia after the war and started, with great enthusiasm, to look for medieval music manuscripts with Byzantine neumes in Serbian monasteries and libraries. Unfortunately, he found only two sources, one from the 15th Century in the National Library in Belgrade and the other from the 18th Century in the Monastery of Dečani. The first one contained two hymns written in Church Slavonic and Greek language by “kyr Stephan the Serb”, and it was the earliest piece of music written down by someone who signed his name as “the Serb.” Manojlovic knew this was music, but he could not read the notation that was used to write it down. It was only after the Second World War thirty years later that Dimitrije Stefanović, a young musicologist from Belgrade who had studied with Egon Wellesz at the University of Oxford, transcribed two hymns composed by kyr Stephan into modern notation and had them performed (1960). So, the beginning of written music in Serbian history was extended from the 19th to the 15th century. When I started to work with prof. Stefanovic at the Institute of Musicology in Belgrade (1970), my question was: what has happened with the liturgical music of the Serbian Orthodox Church during the turbulent history since the 15th century? 3. You have examined the ties between the musical traditions of Serbia and Russia, and with the West. What, for you, is different about performing Orthodox Church music vs. Western Classical music and, in particular, Western sacred music? These are two different questions! At first we have to know that Serbian and Russian liturgical music traditions, although they both originate from the Byzantine sources, developed at a geographically great distance and under very different historical circumstances. The Christian Mission of two Greek brothers from Byzantium–St. Cyril and St. Methodius in the last quarter of the 9th Century–had a fundamental importance for the Southern Slavs (Bulgarians & Serbs). Russians received Christianity also from Byzantium, a century later, at the end of the 10th Century. They accepted Cyrilo-Methodian traditions–Glagolitic and Cyrillic letters, translations of liturgical books into the Old Slavonic language, and the main liturgical services. Starting from that unique tradition, they would develop through the centuries their specific liturgical practice, hagiography, hymnography, church architecture, painting and liturgical music. Western church music developed over the centuries adapting to different stylistic periods. With time the differences between concert and church music, including the performance styles, grew. We can see a similar pattern in Russia and the Ukraine in the 18th Century. In the Balkans this process only started to happen in the 20th Century, especially during the interwar period (1920’s and 1930’s). The knowledge of and the exposure to the western music influenced primarily the composers who built their work on the modern stylistic elements. This, however, took them further away from the live church services, a process that we can witness to this day. 4. Historically, what have you found to be the role of the Orthodox Church musician and the church choir, both in Serbia, other Slavic countries, and in the diaspora? Do you think these Slavic cultures view the church musician and the church choir similarly or differently? It would be very difficult, even impossible, for me to include in this answer all other Slavic (and other Orthodox) countries. These countries and churches have vastly different histories, developed under different cultural and/or political influences, and are currently living under different circumstances. I will, therefore, limit my answer to what I know the best, the Serbian Orthodox Church. Church Choirs and harmonized church music appeared for the first time among the Serbs in the 1840’s and 1850’s. This was an important part of the process of urbanization and the appearance of the urban middle class. The first Serbian Church choirs were established in several towns of the Habsburg Lands (Austro-Hungary) (Pančevo, Novi Sad, Petrinja, Arad, Temišvar, Pešta, Trieste, Kotor, and in Belgrade in the Principality of Serbia since 1853). Only three of the here-mentioned towns are in Serbia today! The Serbian choirs in Austro-Hungary were exclusively tied to the Serbian Church and its activities, although they did perform some secular music as well. On the other hand, in the Principality (later Kingdom) of Serbia, the choirs were founded as the secular singing societies, who also sang at the church services. 5. How do you view the role of composed music, in some instances what could be called “concert music,” in the liturgy, as opposed to the role of chant-based singing, either by a chanter or an ensemble? Composed, concert, liturgical music has existed in the western traditions for centuries. It has been a part of some Orthodox traditions (Russia and the Ukraine) since the beginning of the 18th Century as well. In the Serbian milieu it started to develop only in the last decades of the 20th Century. The choral music of the Serbian 19th Century composers, as well as the music of numerous composers who worked in the first half of the 20th Century, was fully suited for liturgical use. The development of music education and music as art in general often took composers to new frontiers of creativity and often takes them away from the content, order (flow), and even the purpose and meaning of the liturgy. 6. A major focus of your work emphasizes the life, career, music, and accomplishments of Stevan Mokranjac, describing him as a pioneer of Serbian music. How has he influenced Serbian Orthodox music, and what influence does he have regarding Serbian Orthodox music in America? The pioneer of the Serbian liturgical music was Kornelije Stanković (1831-1865) –member of the Serbian community in the Habsburg Lands. He was born in a well-to-do Serbian in Buda (part of today’s Budapest) and educated in Vienna. He was introduced to Orthodox choral music at the chapel of the Russian imperial legation (embassy) in Vienna. With the support of the Metropolitan of Karlovci, Josif Rajačić, and the Metropolitan of Serbia, Mihailo, he started the first systematic effort to write down the broad repertoire of the traditional Serbian church chant. I am currently on a project to publish Stankovic’s exceptionally fertile work (over 2000 pages). The largest number of the church chant melodies (hymns) that he wrote down, he also harmonized for a four-part choir. An important next step in the similar type of work was done at the end of the 19th century by Stevan Mokranjac (1856-1914); born in eastern Serbia, he studied in Belgrade, Munich, Rome and Leipzig. Mokranjac was also an exceptionally important ethnomusicologist (transcriber), chanter, and music teacher. He put a great deal of effort into improving musical literacy of the seminarians and to create a simplified, cleaner melodic line in the church chant melodies. He was able to recognize and express through chords the inner harmonic character of the church chant melodies. The choral music of Stevan Mokranjac remains to this day some of the best music written in Serbian, and one could even say Orthodox, music tradition. 7. What is your impression of the church composer in today’s Serbian and American societies? How did composers of church music function within the Church in the past and is it possible to maintain that relationship in the Church today? It is difficult to compare a large and varied Orthodox population in the USA, with a small Balkan nation with a long history, situated at the ‘global’ geopolitical crossroads, which often spells conflicts, over many centuries. The modern world changes at an astounding pace, while the traditionalism of the Orthodox churches strives to preserves the inherited; the question that of course gets asked is whether this leads to loss of communication with the contemporary society. If the modern composers want to tie a part of their work to the liturgical music, it needs to be done in collaboration with the clergy, who would be able to instruct them in the better understanding of the liturgy, meanings and symbolism of certain rites, feasts and specific texts. 8. Generally speaking, what is your impression of Serbian Orthodox music here in America? I don’t have enough current information to be able to give you a well-informed opinion about the general state of Serbian Orthodox music in the US. At the time (in the interwar period) when most of the choirs in the US were founded it was not easy to obtain music publications from Serbia. After the Second World War these links were almost completely absent for a long time, while the Orthodox music back in the ‘old/home country’ was neither popular nor performed nor published. Serbian parishes in the US continued to use the material they had obtained before, but also the works of Russian composers. An additional challenge was that there were no professional musicians among those early 20th century immigrants. I have had the opportunity to witness the exceptional dedication to the church services of the Branko Radičević” choir (the so called ‘Brankies’) of the Holy Resurrection Cathedral from Chicago (1906). They have more than a century long, great mission. Another date of great importance for the Serbian orthodox choir music in the US was the foundation of the Serbian Singing Federation (SSF) in 1931; an exceptional undertaking that has substantially contributed to the organization and collaboration of the Serbian singing societies across the North American continent. The existence of the choirs, large and small singing groups, was of invaluable importance for the communal life of the Serbian parishes, for the upbringing and education of the youth and for the preservation of the local traditions. The dedication of the choir singers to the liturgical life of their parishes was a great contribution and often inspiration for other types of activities. It is important to mention the irreplaceable work of some parish priests who harmonized traditional church chant and even wrote some music for the use of the choirs. I would also like to commend the exceptional efforts of prof. Nikola Resanović on adapting the melodies of the traditional Serbian church chant to the liturgical texts in English. Among the Serbs in the US and Canada the church choirs had, and still have, a significant educational and social role, not only in their local communities but also more widely in the pan-Orthodox context. 9. If you had an overview of American Orthodox church music, where would you like to have it go? It is an unrewarding task to give any kind of recommendation from this distance. There are so many different Orthodox traditions gathered together in the US and that is a great treasure of different languages, traditions, and melodies. I would lend my support to that diversity. Any attempt to unify different traditions would only be a loss. 10. What is the relationship between professional Orthodox Church musicians and amateur church musicians? What do you think we here in America can learn from that relationship? The church belongs to all faithful, to all parishioners who gather there. Musicians are important partners, but they are neither the only nor the most important in the context of liturgical music (in contrast to concert performances). On the one hand, it is important to have a good collaboration with the clergy, on the other hand there is a need for patience and often somewhat tiring work with amateur musicians. From my long experience as a choral singer I know first-hand that it is not always easy, but I believe it is the most beneficial way. 11. In your opinion, how can the American Orthodox church involve more professional musicians, choir conductors, and composers? It is difficult for me to comment on the situation in the US. The life today is fast and sometimes exhausting. In the US, cities of great distances present an additional challenge. Leading a church choir, selecting the repertoire and preparing the music material, especially if it also included singing at (weekday) services even when the choir was not able to attend, would constitute a proper full-time job. I am not sure though that there are parishes, or indeed priests, who think about church music in that way. This interview was conducted by Theodore Zajler, Society Board Member-at-Large. Mr. Zajler has assumed the role of Lead Editor of the newly-conceived Society Review. He holds a Bachelor of Science in Music Degree in Music History and Theory from the University of Evansville and is a tonsured Reader of the Orthodox Church in America. He is pursuing a Master of Music degree in Music Business at the University of Miami.