Stevan Stojanović Mokranjac
Negotin is a small town concerning its population, but it is rich and great thanks to its spiritual, educational and cultural past. Among the first in Serbia, Negotin had its educational and cultural institutions, and it was the spiritual centre of this part of Serbia. Such was the background in which, according to many the greatest Serbian composer Stevan Stojanović Mokranjac, made his first steps.
Until the appearance of Stevan Mokranjac, musical life in Serbia was rather on the margins of the artistic creativity. Stevan Stojanović Mokranjac was a Serbian composer, choir conductor, real connoisseur of folklore, music pedagogue responsible for the introduction of Serbian national spirit in art music. The significance of Mokranjac in our culture is reflected both in his creativity and his performance. Throughout his life, he dealt with versioning of folk, secular and religious music as well as composing. This is how he was described by his contemporaries: “He was a joker, a bohemian, a butterfly – a character who gladly flew from one flower to the next in his youth, a figure who knew how to feast on Balkan kara – sevdah (a longing (for a loved one, a place, a time) that is both joyous and painful); he was an artist who was, at the expense of his personal creativity, totally dedicated to the society he lived in, a personality without a bad word to his name, except those given by professional enviers.
The most significant and most important Serbian composer was born in Negotin, on 9th January 1856. His father’s name was Stevan whose origins were in the village Mokranje, after which the Stojanović family was nicknamed Mokranjac. His mother’s name was Marija and she was from the village Sikole. Mokranjac’s father, a merchant who besides a shop also owned a hotel called “Europe”, died three days upon Mokranjac’s birth, leaving Marija in difficult financial situation with four more children to bring up and educate. Despite the tough life, she seemed to have been a woman of cheerful spirit, since Mokranjac said that he had learnt to sing in his early childhood listening to songs sung by his mother, his sister Vejka-Jelisaveta and his brother Laza. His singing stood out from the rest of his peers’, and his teacher Đoka Živković, who was the first to notice his talent, often sent him to church to ‘chant’ (a form of religious singing). During that period Mokranjac got a violin as a gift, and he quickly learnt to play each Serbian traditional song or dance he heard.
In 1870, having finished the 4th grade of grammar school, he moved to Belgrade with his mother, since his brothers already attended school there. After moving to Belgrade, to the 5th grade of grammar school, he began to study music more seriously and practise the violin and singing systematically, with professors Karlo Reš and Antonije Cimbrić. During that period he composed his first works: a choir composition My silver ornamented pipe (Serbian:Lulo moja srebrom okovana) and a composition Evening bells (Večernja zvona). In 1873 he became a member of the First Belgrade Choral Society, where he distinguished himself both as a singer and as a substitute and assistant of the choir conductor Davorin Jenko.
After he had finished grammar school, although strongly attracted to music, under the influence of Svetozar Marković’s anti-Romanticism, he enrolled in Higher School department for natural sciences and mathematics. Nevertheless, he temporary halted the studies two years later, since
natural sciences did not interest him much, and joined the Serbian army in Serbian-Turkish war, going to Negotin afterwards where he became the choir conductor in the Old church. He subsequently returned to Belgrade, where he finally gave up on the natural sciences and turned to music wholeheartedly. Since his musicality stood out, Belgrade Choral Society sent him to Munich Conservatory in 1879, where he studied harmony and composition. Due to his disagreements with the director of the Conservatory, Mokranjac lost the state scholarship during the third year of his studies and went back to Belgrade to become the choir conductor of the Choir Society Kornelije. His success, both as a choir conductor and as the composer of the First Garland (Prva Rukovet) and Requiem in G minor (Opelo u g-molu), won him another scholarship, so he went to Rome where he studied polyphony with Parisotti in 1884/85. He continued his studies in Leipzig, where he advanced in musical theory and conducting. Nevertheless, having lost his scholarship for the second time, he was forced to return to Serbia, just when he was preparing his graduate work which should have been performed publicly in Leipzig. Upon his return to Belgrade in 1887 he became the conductor of the First Belgrade Choral Society. His further activity is connected to the great artistic rise of the Society, which under his leadership acquired a big name at many concerts outside the country. As long as he lived, Mokranjac remained attached, both as a conductor and composer, to the Belgrade Choral Society.
The most important guest performances of this choir were: Thessaloniki, Skopje, Sofia, Istanbul, Plovdiv, Budapest, St. Petersburg, Nizhny Novgorod, Moscow, Kiev, Berlin, Dresden, Leipzig, Dubrovnik, Cetinje, Sarajevo, Mostar, Split, Šibenik, Rijeka, Trieste, Zagreb, Velika Kikinda, Subotica and Sremska Mitrovica. Compositions performed at concerts, besides works of local and foreign composers, were mostly those by Mokranjac, often written for the particular occasion.
Stevan Stojanović Mokranjac is a highly respected composer in Serbia, considered as “the father of Serbian music” and the most significant music creator of Serbian romanticism. His works represent the cornerstone of musical artistry in Serbia, whereas Serbian Orthodox church songs he composed made the basis for most modern church singing. As a composer, Mokranjac consistently cultivated the national musical style, following the steps of Kornelije Stanković who was the first musician to turn to the national music style in the mid-19th century. With equal zeal he created both the secular and the church music. He held a realistic perspective of Belgrade and Serbian social setting at the time, thus he opted for choral creativity, since choirs had both the audience and the performers. Mokranjac was dedicated to church singing throughout his life. He listened to it and practised it as a child in Negotin church. He wrote choral spiritual music based on the traditional melodies, from student days until his death. Using folk art as a foundation he created musical works of eternal value: fifteen choral suites Garlands (Rukoveti), Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom (Liturgija Svetog Jovana Zlatoustog), Goatherd (Kozar)…
Mokranjac experienced exceptionally glorious moments in his native Negotin while unveiling a memorial stone to Haiduk Veljko, on the second day of Pentecost in 1892. On this occasion Mokranjac appeared with his Belgrade Choral Society premiering the Sixth Garland (Šesta rukovet) dedicated to Haiduk Veljko, composed for the particular event. It was a real triumph for Mokranjac in front of Negotin audience, who gave him a wholehearted, warm welcome. This is how one of the journalists described the moment: “The impact was enormous. When this beautiful
melody vigorously and hypnotically echoed through the quiet summer night, the audience were simply astounded and only when the curtain fell, they roused themselves again and a big round of applause filled the air! The choirmaster resisted, but the requirement to repeat the song was overwhelming, and the maestro finally had to give in … And then, when the curtain rose again and Mokranjac stood opposite the singers to start conducting, a pleasant surprise occurred: Đoka Stanojević, the president of the Belgrade Choral Society, stepped out facing Mokranjac and in a few brief and smart words expressed the initiative of the administration of the Society of St. Sava to award Mokranjac for all his accomplishments, at that very moment.” It was then that Mokranjac was awarded the St. Sava silver medal.
Mokranjac was not a man of one task. Composing, educational work and choir conducting were not sufficient for him. In 1889, on Mokranjac’s initiative, the first Serbian String Quartet was founded, and he played second fiddle. The other members of the quartet were: first violin -Ferdinand Melher, viola -Stevan Šram and cello – Josif Svoboda. In 1899, with a pianist Cvetko Manojlović and a composer Stanislav Binički, he founded the first Serbian Music School, where he was a teacher of theoretical subjects and principal until 1913.
He left Belgrade in 1914 and moved to Skopje to avoid World War I. “Mokranjac, sick as he was, had to witness the bombing of Belgrade, and eventually flee from it with his family on a cart. Mr. Uroš Predić took photo of him leaving “Slavija” on a cart which took him to the first railway station, wherefrom he went to Skopje”. In Skopje he wrote his antemortem opus, a choral composition Winter days (Zimnji dani), for the verses of Jovan Jovanović Zmaj. “Two days before he died, he wanted me to sing O Virgin Pure (Radujsja nevesto) and so we (Aga -alto, me-soprano and Stevan -tenor) sang. This was his last singing”. At night between 28th and 29th September 1914, Stevan Mokranjac died in his fifty-ninth year. He was buried in the presence of friends and admirers in the Skopje cemetery. Nušić wrote about the last days of Mokranjac’s life: “We met twice in our lives, down there behind the Kopaonik and the Suva Planina. Once it was a long time ago, in the nineties, when Mokranjac had already released seven of his Garlands, which were exhilarating and elating the Serbian nation. He went down to Kosovo then, where I worked as a consul, and spent many, many days as my guest, gathering material for The Eighth Garland. We worked together every day and gathered peasants, older town folks, known singers from different parts of Kosovo, to spend the whole day with Steva who recorded each note and variation. This job seemed strange to the local people and they could not possibly understand the artist. Many years passed from our first encounter and then one day – he arrived in Skopje. But it was neither a moment when a man felt like singing, nor was Steva able to record these songs. This was the fatal 1914 when enemy grenades showered the Serbian capital and made great many families run away. Together with his family, Steva went through a very difficult time on that exhausting refugee route. Besides, his already troubled spirit slumped even further, and when he finally got to overcrowded Skopje, hardly finding a roof for his family, he failed to find much needed peace and comfort. And then one day – it was on the Feast of the Cross day – having returned home very tired after a long walk, his wife read in his eyes clearly that that had been his last walk. We all gathered at his bedside, sensing that that would be the last meeting with Steva. The whole Skopje drew together the next day to pay their last respects to the remains of the great artist. The funeral procession was
first on the left and then on the right bank of the Vardar River, while far up north the enemy cannons were pounding the death threats over the Serbian capital.”
The remains of Mokranjac, with the help of Mica Mokranjac and the Belgrade Choral Society, were transferred to Belgrade in 1923. His Mica joined him in 1949, and his son Momčilo Mokranjac, a doctor of chemistry, known expert in toxicology and chemistry professor at the Faculty of Pharmacy, died in 1967, ending the Mokranjac family line.
THE COMPOSER’S BIRTH HOUSE
Fate of Mokranjac’s house in the 20th century was determined by its historical importance. During the processes of celebrating Stevan Stojanović Mokranjac and his legacy, between the two world wars, the place of his birth aroused interest in the public. In May 1934, on the basis of statements by private individuals, the first data about the composer’s birth house appeared. It was a completely dilapidated house in the town centre, which belonged to the family Cajić. In 1950, upon the invitation of the Museum management, a Belgrade architect Ivan Zdravković examined Mokranjac’s birth house, noted that it was ruined and recommended restoration and preservation from further deterioration. In June 1963, at the request of the Museum, Institute for protection of National Heritage sent an architect, Ivan Kostić, to Negotin to record the birth house of Stevan Mokranjac on video tape and collect the data for making the restoration plan for the house. As the house was completely ruined, the work included complete restoration, conservation and adaptation, in order to make the house functional. This project was undertaken to highlight the ethnographic importance of the original house, as a monument of residential bourgeois culture from the first half of the 19th century, since none of the similar residences still existed in the town centre.
The restoration began on 1st April 1964, and on 29th September of the same year it was already officially opened for visitors to mark the 50th anniversary of Mokranjac’s death. For that occasion, the memorial plaque was unveiled. The inscription on the plaque says: “This is the place where Stevan Mokranjac was born and where he spent the first days of his childhood”. Mokranjac’s son, Momčilo, and his nephew, Vasilije Mokranjac, were also among the first visitors. Four hundred visitors visited the house during the day. In November of the same year the Museum council made the decision to purchase the house from the owner Cajić Mihailo, a teacher from Bor, for 300,000 dinars, while the other part of the house was bought in June 1968, and works on conservation and restoration lasted from May to September 1969.
The house is characterized by modest features of a traditional Balkan town residential home. The ground floor originally housed the basement lined with stone, while the upper floor, designed for living, was built in wooden framed structural system, and it consisted of two rooms and a kitchen. It has a gabled roof covered with roof tiles. Major work on the refurbishment of the complex around the Mokranjac’s house in Negotin was undertaken in the period from 1980 to 1981 according to the project by Milorad Vojinović, an architect of the Institute for Protection of National Heritage in Niš.
The museum display is placed on the first floor. It occupies four interconnected rooms. The exhibits are arranged in a way that enables the visitors to make the most of their visit. The house has two entrances with porches and a fireplace (odžaklija). The large porch leads into the largest room in the house. There are panels on the walls which show a short biography of the distinguished composer, the work of Zoran Josić. The exhibits illustrate the life, work and society in which Stevan Mokranjac lived and created his works. Displayed documents, correspondence, photographs and personal items were kindly and considerately given to the Museum for safekeeping by his family – for the next generations to rediscover Mokranjac’s life and work from the first day to the end of his life. Also, part of the permanent exhibition is the memorial room to Momcilo Mokranjac, the son of the famous composer. The biography of Momcilo Mokranjac – a well-known chemist, toxicologist, and professor, is presented on the panels. Exhibited documents, correspondence, and personal items lead you through the life and work of Momcilo Mokranjac from his early days to the end of his life.
While the visitors browse through the house of Stevan Mokranjac they can hear the melodies of Garlands and Liturgy played in the background leading them into the composer’s world and making their impression richer and more powerful.
There is a bronze statue in front of the house, the work of Nebojša Mitrić. The statue was laid and ceremoniously unveiled on 20th September 1980.
Since 1966 Negotin has had a traditional annual Choral Music Festival The days of Mokranjac, (Mokranjčevi dani) in memory of the great composer. The festival is not just another in a line of many musical festivals in Serbia, nor is it a mere wish of the town to have a ceremony. The idea of organizing an event like this arose with the need of the hometown of our great composer to express gratitude for all he had done for our music. The first festivals coincided, both in time schedule and structure, with the famous Negotin Fair, one of the oldest and largest in Serbia, a three-day event from 21st to 23rd September, during the religious feast of Nativity. With time, “The days of Mokranjac” have become a separate event, which has grown from a national to an international festival. Start time and duration of the festival is different every year: it begins between 9th and 13th September and lasts for 6 to 8 days. Basically, the idea of the festival is to express appreciation for the composer, but also to encourage present-day creative strengths in the areas in which Mokranjac was either profficient, or which he marked. There are various concerts, book presentations, poetry evenings and the like at Mokranjac’s house during the festival. The content of the festival has grown in time, especially in the field of music, but also in many other accompanying events. Mokranjac’s hometown, the festival called after him, as well as the Krajina Museum which has its permanent role in the festival organization, can be proud of the fifty years’ period of the festival.
Besides during the festival, the birth house of Stevan Mokranjac is open every 9th January to mark the birthday of the famous composer. The house is open all day and the visitors are welcome to small commemorative concerts, academic panels, presentation of books and Mokranjac magazine…