Sacred Songs of Serbia — Program Notes: Part Two

Bogdan Djakovic | Sacred Songs of Serbia

Sacred Songs of Serbia

Serbian Chant and Church Choral Music

Part One
Polyphonic singing appeared for the first time in Serbian churches in the 1830s as a result of European and Russian influence. The expansion of newly organized Serbian church choirs was enormous and very soon the main problem was the lack of indigenous sacred choral repertoire. With a restricted choice, these choirs used for the liturgy compositions by Russian and lesser known local, foreign authors – Gottfried Preyer and Benedict Randhartinger in Vienna, Francesco and Guieseppe Sinico in Trieste and Wilhelm Weiss von Berenfels in Petrinja. All these works were written without recourse to the traditional chant. In the early 1850s, a Serbian musician born in Budapest, Kornelije Stanković (1831-1865) who studied composition in Vienna, for the first time wrote down the chant in Western notation and harmonized it. His composition It is meet and right represents one of the most popular 4-part arrangements of a Serbian liturgical melody, believed to have been composed by a Serbian bishop and a well known Latin classical poet, Lukijan Mušicki (1777-1837).

Very much dedicated to romantic music genres (Lieder, music for the theatre, piano music, romantic and patriotic secular choral works) Josif Marinković (1851-1931), a Prague music student and the enthusiastic listener to Eduard Hanslik’s lectures in Vienna, in general wrote original Orthodox choral music. While the Our Father from the Liturgy of St John Chrysostom (1883-1889) is rather close to the 19th century Western motet, the beautiful arrangement of the traditional chant melody O Heavenly King Tone VI, shows his roots in Serbian Orthodox tradition.

The idea of Mokranjac’s (1856-1914) “classical” style in church choral music is based on the romantic style, but with classical proportions, artistic discipline and calm and subtle beauty. Besides the very good education he obtained during his studies – in Munich under Rheinberger, especially in Rome with Parisotti studying works of Palestrina and in Leipzig with Jadason and Reinecke – Mokranjac was a talented practical church musician. He always understood the chant repertoire as a tool for liturgical function, at the same time using it as his most important compositional material. In the terms of the choral structure, his typical “choral polyphony” brings delicate individualization of every choral line despite the rather complex polyphonic treatment, with its resulting stylistic purity. The most famous part from his Liturgy (1894/95) is the Cherubic Hymn based on a melody of Tone I, with its delicate use of polyphony and modal harmony. Another important part of Mokranjac’s sacred choral music are the original compositions, the “imaginative church music” that is to be found in his Opelo (Requiem, 1888). The interrupted harmonies that accompany the quasi-chant theme at the beginning of the heirmos No-one is as holy, make an unusually expressive effect, almost as though the remaining voices were “breathing”. The artistic approach in the Kontakion With the Saints is that of a very direct reaction to the text; after a short fugato, the music accompanies the spiritual content of the words in chromatic-enharmonic chord progressions, otherwise rarely used by him. The brighter sound of G major introduces the theme of eternal life. We praise Thee/Te Deum (1904) composed on the basis of the melody „Slavoslovije“ (Doxology) of the Tone VI, ranks among the best Mokranjac’s pieces. He wrote it in the year 1904 as an integral part of a repertoire prepared for the coronation ritual of the King Peter I Karađorđević. Through extraordinary sonorous and effective choral harmony it keeps the wonderful balance between the Western choral concept and the Orthodox style of chant arrangement.

Between 1918 and 1941, Serbian sacred choral music underwent a very interesting development. Through a general process of modernisation, composers’ approaches to church music were mainly artistic, though still strictly retaining liturgical function, at the same time becoming examples of contemporary musical expression, and presented mostly from the concert stage. The complex array of elements employed came from Western romantic and earlier choral music, as well as from traditional and modern aspects of Eastern Orthodox, especially Serbian, idioms. Composers moved freely through these stylistic fields, usually producing neo-romantic and eclectic pieces, mature concert-artistic works and even experimental music. In highly original pieces in particular, the lack of “chant material” was successfully replaced by the balanced treatment of all the other elements employed. In the communion hymn from his Liturgy (1931) O Lord, receive my prayer, the specific simplicity of Marko Tajčević’s (1900-1984) use of “diatonic sound with a modal flavour” often contrasts with traditional tonality. Imaginative church music also is also characteristic of Kosta Manojlović (1890-1948), who in the sphere of modality continued the style of his teacher Mokranjac, but making the polyphony more complex. His pieces With the Saints from his Opelo (Requiem, 1934) and the short Holy Serbian Saints represent the subtle modernization of this genre. Again, modality as a common harmonic idea unites the arrangements of the Troparia from Holy Friday (Noble Joseph and The Angel stood by the tomb) by Petar Konjović (1883-1971) and two heirmoi from the Easter matins, The angel cried, Tone I, and from the Liturgy of St. Basil the Great, All Creation Rejoices, Tone VIII, by Milenko Živković (1901-1964).

The outbreak of the Second World War, and the post-war socialist period of the second Yugoslavia, frustrated everything that had to do with the Church and church art. The turning point began in late 1980s, when all the Yugoslav nations (Croats, Slovenians, Albanians, Macedonians…) actually before the formal breakup of the federal country, strongly emphasized their own particular national values. The revival of Orthodox choral music among Serbian composers shows few mutual characteristics: strong neo-Mokranjac and neo-Russian Orthodox Choral orientation, original music without use of Serbian Chant, modal tonality, homophonic style with non-imitative polyphonic elements, or strong “concert” style. Vlastimir Peričić’s (1927-2000) harmonization of the Christmas prokeimenon Who is so great a God as our God (ps. 76:14, 15) (1998) represents a beautiful traditional approach with neoromantic harmonic language.

—Bogdan Djokavić

Sacred Songs of Serbia:




Friday, 24 October 2014, 8:00pm
St. Joseph’s Parish




Saturday, 25 October 2014, 8:00pm
St. Mary’s Cathedral