Stevan St. Mokranjac is the most outstanding figure in Serbian music at the turn of the 19th and 20th cenSuries. Mokranjac was born in Negotin on January 9, 1856. Completing grammar school in Belgrade, attracted by the positivist ideas espoused by Svetozar Markovic, he enrolled at the Department of Natural Sciences and Mathematics of the High School (later Belgrade University). Having already shown an interest in music while in grammar school, he joined the Belgrade Choral Society. Seeing him as a successor to Kornelije Stankovic, this society enabled him to go to Munich and study under J.Rheinberger in 1879. In 1883 the scholarship was revoked because of some incident and he had to discontinue his studies, resuming them in 1884/85 in Rome with A. Parisotti, then in 1885-87 at the Leipzig conservatory with S. Jadassohn and K. Reinecke.
At this point Mokranjac began his long and varied music career in Belgrade. By 1884 he had already distin guished himself leading the Kornelije Stankovic Choir, and from 1887 until the end of his life he was director of the Belgrade Choral Society, which developed under his guidance into a first-class ensemble. He toured with this society, giving concerts throughout Serbia, other South Slav lands and foreign countries, serving as a kind of cultural ambassador of Serbia (1893 – Dubrovnik, Cetinje; 1894 – Thessaloniki, Skoplje, Budapest; 1895 – Istanbul, Sofia, Plovdiv; 1896 – St. Petersburg, Moscow, Kiev; 1899 – Berlin, Dresden, Leipzig; 1910 – Sarajevo, Split, Cetinje; 1911 – Trieste, Rijeka, Zagreb). Occasionally he directed other choirs (the Jaksic Typo-graphers Chorus, Serbian-Jewish Chorus).
His activities were diverse. From 1887 until 1900 he taught music at the First Belgrade Grammar School and after 1901 at the Faculty of Theology. In 1.899 under the auspices of the Belgrade Choral Society he founded, together with Stanislav Binicki and Cvetko Manojiovic, the Serbian Music School in Belgrade, Serbia’s first permanent music school, remaining its director and ateacher his whole life. With F. Melher, St. Sram and J.Svoboda, he started Serbia’s first string quartet, which played a pioneer role from 1889 until 1893, cultivating chamber music in these pans. At the founding of the Serbian Musicians Society (1907) he was elected chairman. In 1906 he was especially honoured by being elected corresponding member of the Serbian Royal Academy (today the Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts). In 1912 ill health obliged him gradually to abandon his duties as director of the Belgrade Choral Society. He died during the night of September 29 and 30,1914 in Skoplje where he had taken refuge with his family at the outbreak of the First World War.
With a few exceptions (some solo songs, music for a play Ivko ‘s Saint’s Day, five fugues for string instruments during his student days) Mokranjac’s entire opus consists of choral music. In his fifteen “garlands of songs” (rukoveti) he created a classic pattern for the artistic stylization of folk songs and provided a firm basis for the national movement in Serbian music. The “garland” pattern also includes Coastal Melodies, sets of Hungarian and Russian songs written when the Belgrade Choral Society was touring these countries, and also Turkish and Rumanian songs. Less important are his compositions setting verse to music. Of special interest is his witty choral scherzo Goatherd, one of his finest achievements in the creative use of folk themes.
Mokranjac devoted a large part of his opus 10 Orthodox religious music, based largely on the traditional chanting in Serbian churches. This includes his monumental Liturgy (Divine Office of St. John Cnr\sosiom), Requiem, Akathist, Two songs for Good Frida\’. Praise the Lord, Glorification of St. Suva, and other works comparable in quality .to his best in secular music. Closely associated with his composing was his mclographic work: recording the folk songs ot Kosovo (only a small part published posthumously), a collection of Folk Songs and Dances from Levac‘and two important collections of church chants: Octoechos and Holiday Chants. The forewords to ihe Folk Songs… and Octoechos are the first studies in Serbian ethnomusicology.
Yet what is it that makes Mokranjac’s works seem so alive and fresh today when many contemporary Serbian composers have been all but forgotten? The reason is not simply thai almost his entire opus was inspired by the folk idiom (or traditional church music), for Mokranjac was not the only one to do this. In the middle of the 19th century Kornelije Stankovi^ had already staled his romantic thesis that Serbian art music should be developed on the foundations of Serbian folk music. Bringing to Serbia the spirit of the Slovenian revival, Davorin Jenko had attempted to find kinship with the musical folklore of his new home. Josif Marinkovic, theonly composer whose importance can be compared with Mokranjac, brought an artistic quality to this national style. Mokranjac, however, plunged deeper into the spirit of the folk melody, emphasizing through stylization the hidden values of anonymous folk tradition. With a sure hand he selected from this treasury what was most valuable and best reflected the spirit and life of the people. Here one notices traces of a realistic approach that were certainly not accidental since Mokranjac’s beginnings parallel the development of realism in Serbian literature.
He clad folk motifs in robes of pure, rich choral harmony, framing them in a coherent formal structure. Thus, the “adaptation” of folk melodies became original compositions, and for several decades Mokranjac was a model for all Serbian composers attempting a national musicidiom, from Stanislav Binicki, Petar Krslic and Isidor Bajic, through Petar Konjovic, Milojc Milojevic, Slevan Hrislic and Kosta Manojiovic, to Marko Tajcevic, Milenko fcvkovic or Svetomir Nasiasijevic. Such composers appeared in later generations as well, and Mokranjac’s influence did not bypass composers with similar aspirations among other Yugoslav peoples.