Music, Art and Ljubica Marić’s ‘The Enchantress’

Ljubica Marić (1909-2003) was a path-breaking Serbian composer and conductor. Following her early education in Belgrade, she studied composition in Prague in the 1930s with Josef Suk and Alois Haba, becoming not only the first Serbian woman to obtain a degree in composition, but the first Serbian to do so. During her subsequent studies in conducting in Berlin (she was the first woman to conduct Czech Radio Symphony Orchestra), she met a host of avant-garde musicians who performed and promoted her music, including Hermann Scherchen, Dmitri Shostakovich and Béla Bartók. Unfortunately, Marić’s career got interrupted in the late 1930s due to the impending war and the arrests she endured because of her links with the Communist movement in Yugoslavia. After the Second World War she settled in Belgrade, where she taught at the University of Belgrade Faculty of Music from 1945 to 1967. 

A Serbian postage stamp of Ljubica Marić from 2009 by an unknown artist

The cultural turbulence of the early 20th century shaped both Marić’s varied musical idiom and the ‘silences’ in her compositional opus. In her early expressionist phase during her Prague studies, Marić experimented with atonality and quartertone music. The Second World War and its immediate aftermath, marked by her disenchantment with Communism, were the years of her ‘silent’ period. While disregarding ‘tradition’ in her early works, she eventually turned to the South Slav medieval past, resulting in her most fruitful period between 1956 and 1964. During these years, Marić drew her inspiration from a wide range of sources – including Byzantine chant, the epitaphs from Medieval Bogomil tombstones, and Virgil’s poetry. This creative period came to an abrupt halt in 1964 when Marić’s mother died. She only returned to composing in the 1980s, reimagining Byzantine influences in her last vocal and instrumental works.

The Enchantress

Marić was unconventional and outspoken throughout her life: early in her career, she was the first composer to use Byzantine chant in non-liturgical settings in 1950s socialist-Yugoslavia; in her advanced age in the 1990s, she actively joined political protests in Serbia. In the same vein, she was never drawn to archetypal mythical female characters from South Slav epic poetry depicting the region’s ‘golden-age.‘ Instead of mother-figures, favored at the time because they affirmed a patriarchal construction of femininity, she turned to Virgil’s eighth Eclogue to compose her 1964 melodic recital Čarobnica (The Enchantress). This work, one of Marić’s last pieces composed before the long composing hiatus that followed death of her mother, is a vocal culmination of her most fertile years. In this dramatic monologue for voice and piano, a woman casts spells to bring back her lover Daphnis. While painting the atmosphere of spells and magic rituals, Marić marks the heroine’s agency: she is not a Witch (veštica) or a Sorceress (vračara), but an Enchantress. Further affirming (or identifying) her heroine, Marić dedicated The Enchantress to her mother, a formidable role model who, widowed when Marić was only four, dedicated her life to supporting her only daughter’s musical education and career. 

Marić sets the magical, ritualistic atmosphere from the first verse, with the vocal line alternating between Schoenbergian Sprechgesang and almost tonal lyric passages (English translation by James Rhoades, 1921): 

Bring water, and with soft wool-fillet bind

These altars round about, and burn thereon

Rich vervain and male frankincense, that I

May strive with magic spells to turn astray

My lover’s saner senses, whereunto

There lacketh nothing save the power of song.

Ana Cvetković-Stojnić and Jasmina Raković gave a compelling performance of The Enchantress at Kolarac University Concert Hall in January this year.

Ljubica Marić “Čarobnica”(The Enchantress), 1964, performed by Ana Cvetković-Stojnić (soprano), and Jasmina Raković (piano)
Music and Art

Choosing some of the most performed among many of Marić’s works for the voice, pianist Jasmina Raković and soprano Ana Cvetković gave The Enchantress a new context. Following on previous projects on pioneering women in Serbia by painter Ljubica Radović at the gallery of Udruženje slikara i ljubitelja slikarstva Kornjača (Association of Artists and Art Afficionados, “The Turtle”) in Belgrade, Jasmina Raković curated a project that focused on Ljubica Marić.

Portrait of Ljubica Marić by Ljubica Raković (2021)

Juxtaposing musical works with an art exhibition was a fitting tribute for Marić, who was also an avid writer and painter. While Marić’s fascination with text and voice has attracted scholarly attention, it is in The Enchantress that we can find the testament of her esteem for the sung word. Whatever the powers of The Enchantress, it is the power of song that is at the forefront throughout the piece: “Draw from the town, my songs, draw Daphnis home. Songs can the very moon draw down from heaven;” the soaring lines of voice and piano calm only as the songs achieve their magic: “Give over, my songs, Daphnis is coming from the town, give over.”

Jasmina Raković, at the Exhibition dedicated to Ljubica Marić, Gallery of the Association of Artists and Art Afficionados, “The Turtle,” Belgrade 2021

Both The Enchantress and Marić herself defied convention. The Enchantress offered its composer an alternative feminine model. Marić, although achieving many ‘firsts’ as a composer and conductor, pointedly refused to discuss her gender in relation to her creativity, firmly believing and advocating that there was no difference between compositional gifts along gender lines. Gender aside, it is Marić’s varied and bold idiom influencing generations of composers that keeps her relevant. Whether because of her unique place in the Serbian art song ‘canon,’ or her captivating dramatic vocal lines, Marić and her work continue to enchant both performers and scholars. 


Notes

Melita Milin, “A Composer’s Inner Biography: A Sketch for the Study of Influences in Ljubica Marić’s Ouevre,” Muzikologija 4 (2004): 61-82.

Marija Masnikosa, “The Life and Work of Ljubica Marić – ‘Multifariousness of One’,” New Sound 33 (2009): 12-35.

Melita Milin, “The Music of Ljubica Marić: The National and the Universal in Harmony,” in Serbian and Greek Art Music: A Patch to Western Music History, ed. Katy Romanou (Bristol Chicago: Intellect, 2009), 67-80. 

Explore more

Breathing and Gasping

Joy H. Calico confronts the musical and – in our pandemic times – the emotional implications of breathing and gasping in recent compositions, focusing on Chaya Czernowin.

Read More