Ljubica Marić: an influential Serbian composer who brought together medieval music and the avant-garde

When asked about composers who combined early music and minimalist contemporary idioms, those who are well versed in late 20th-century music might point to the “holy minimalism” of Arvo Pärt and John Tavener. However, such a synthesis had been achieved two or three decades earlier by today’s subject, the Serbian composer Ljubica Marić.

Ljubica Marić 2009 Serbian stamp.jpg
Marić on a 2009 Serbian stamp (Wikipedia)

Marić was born in 1909 in Kragujevac, a Serbian city that was then part of Yugoslavia. Like many others, her compositional journey began from playing an instrument – she began studying violin at the age of eleven and started composing shortly afterward. In her late teens, she began formally studying composition with Josip Slavenski and Miloje Milojević, two influential Serbian composers who taught at the Belgrade School of Music. Even in her very early career, Marić showed great promise – in 1929, at the age of 20, she became the first ever Serbian to obtain a diploma in composition. Her studies continued at the State Conservatory in Prague where she studied both violin and composition, the latter with the renowned Czech composer Josef Suk and the great experimenter of microtonal music, Alois Hába.

By the end of her time in Prague, Marić’s music had already begun achieving recognition abroad, including at festivals in France and the Netherlands; furthermore, her work was promoted by the well-known German conductor Hermann Scherchen, a champion of then-contemporary music. One of her first works to achieve great prominence was the 1931 Wind Quintet, which premiered in Amsterdam at a festival of the International Society for Contemporary Music. A lively piece written in the prevailing musical language of the time, the quintet is a worthy addition to what remains a small selection of repertoire for that ensemble.

During the 1930s, Marić also conducted in Prague and Belgrade; she was even offered an associate professorship at the Prague State Conservatory by Hába but instead chose to return to Belgrade, taking up a position at the respected Stanković School of Music in 1938. For reasons I cannot find, practically all of her works from this period are lost, and the advent of the Second World War derailed performances of her compositions abroad.

Nevertheless, Marić continued to compose with equal fervor after the war; after landing a professorship at the Belgrade Music Academy, she wrote a number of piano pieces, songs, and an enchanting violin sonata. Containing colorful harmonies and a highly lyrical violin part, the violin sonata is, in my view, a true forgotten gem of the violin and piano repertoire.

The music that Marić wrote after the war is undoubtedly of very high quality, but it was not until the mid-1950s that she wrote some of her most memorable works. One work from this period that achieved major renown was the 1957 Passacaglia for orchestra, a haunting set of variations on a rather dissonant theme.

Another such piece is the 1959 “Byzantine Concerto” for piano and orchestra, which established her reputation as a composer who could fuse the old and the new; its unusual use of ideas from Byzantine church music would become a hallmark of Marić’s later work.

In 1967, Marić retired from the Belgrade academy and turned out relatively few pieces over the succeeding fifteen years. However, she began composing regularly again in 1983 with the piece “Invocation” for double bass and piano, continuing to write and revise music until a few years before her death in Belgrade in September 2003.

From Marić’s later period, two works in particular stand out: her 1986 minimalist masterpiece “Asymptote” for violin and strings, which explores both microtonality and more traditional harmony, and the 1996 work “Torso” for piano trio, inspired by two medieval Serbian texts.

During her lifetime, Marić was championed by a number of influential musical figures, from Scherchen to Bartok and Lutoslawski to conductor and author Nicolas Slonimsky to Shostakovich, who said of her music: “Ljubica Marić has used en entire arsenal of contemporary music in order to achieve a high goal. She speaks from the depth of her soul with clear and impressive language…” Despite such recognition, however, Marić remains almost completely unknown and unperformed outside her native Serbia, a fate that the quality and originality of her work do not deserve.

I’ve mentioned this already on the blog’s Facebook page, but if you liked my article and/or the music, I would really, really appreciate if any musicians could get in touch with other people about playing these works! If you know a wind quintet looking to perform music by women composers, if you’re a violinist looking for violin and piano repertoire, if you’re a conductor searching for new orchestral music to program…please get in touch with people you know or try buying some scores and parts yourself! The only way to rescue these wonderful composers from obscurity is by performing their music.

All my information in this post comes from a Wikipedia article on Marić and a short article from the Composers’ Association of Serbia. I’ll leave you with some more of her excellent music, in the form of the 1956 cantata “Songs of Space!”

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