For hundreds of years, most women classical composers lived and wrote in obscurity, often overshadowed by sexism or, like others profiled on this blog, forgotten due to the works of their better-connected male contemporaries. However, there is one composer whose place in her native country’s history has remained more secure – Dora Pejačević.
Born in Budapest in 1885 to a Croatian-Hungarian count descended from one of Croatia’s oldest families and a Hungarian baroness who was herself a well-regarded pianist, Pejačević lived a luxurious early life. After receiving her first piano lessons from her mother, she began composing at the age of 12; shortly afterward, she was sent abroad to study in Zagreb, Dresden, and Munich, receiving a few lessons in instrumentation and composition from Dragutin Kaiser, Walter Courvoisier, and Percy Sherwood. Pejačević also attended a number of concerts across the continent, including the 1911 premiere of Der Rosenkavalier.
Despite taking a few lessons in composition, Pejačević was practically self-taught, working through exercises in harmony and counterpoint in her notebooks. Her early period includes several short compositions for solo piano, including the 1898 piece Gondellied (somewhat reminiscent of Chopin in its style.) This piece was among many of her early works to be premiered in Germany.
Over the following ten years, Pejačević continued to develop her compositional style, writing more advanced chamber works, and the years after 1913 were the productive time of her compositional career. One of her first mature works was the Piano Concerto in G minor (1913), written in the lush later Romantic style of the early 20th century. Filled with rich melodies and masterfully orchestrated, this little-played piano concerto, the first by a Croatian composer, deserves a higher and more important place in the instrument’s repertoire.
Although raised as an aristocrat, Pejačević did not enjoy the privileges that came with her status, and she witnessed the sufferings of common people firsthand when volunteering as a nurse in her hometown of Nasice during World War I. These experiences not only solidified Pejačević’s socialist political leanings but also led her to throw herself into her compositions – the most prominent of which is the magnificent Symphony in F-sharp Minor, written between 1916 and 1917 and premiered in 1920 in Dresden. As with the piano concerto, Pejačević was also the first composer from her country to explore the symphonic genre; the renowned conductor Artur Nikisch was so impressed with this work that he regularly programmed it with the Leipzig Symphony.
In 1921, Pejačević settled in Munich and married the military officer Ottomar von Lumbe – also during the postwar years, through her friendship with the Czech aristocrat Baroness Sidonie von Borutin, she met and was influenced by several prominent writers and artists of the period, including Rainer Maria Rilke and the Austrian journalist Karl Kraus. Alas, just as a great career and international recognition seemed to be ahead of her, Pejačević passed away in 1923 from complications of the birth of her son Theo at the age of just 38.
We will never know what could have been had Pejačević been able to compose later in the 20th century, but she was a prolific composer and left behind 58 works in her short life. In addition to four symphonic works and concerti, she wrote over twenty pieces for solo piano, several songs for voice and piano and voice and orchestra, and sixteen pieces of chamber music, many of which would certainly be appreciated by concert audiences today. Despite her important place in the history of Croatian classical music, Pejačević’s work was played relatively little in her homeland for decades after her death; perhaps it will take many more years for this wonderful composer to appear with any frequency on other countries’ concert programs.
To conclude, I’ll let Pejačević’s music speak for itself; enjoy two works from her middle period, the “Slavonic Sonata” for violin and piano and the Piano Quintet in B minor (uploaded to YouTube in two parts, hence three videos).
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This profile includes information from Wikipedia and articles by Pamela Blevins and Martin Buzacott. (Information on Pejačević in English is in relatively short supply, but if anyone can read Croatian there’s probably a lot more out there to explore!)