Few Croatian families can have had over several generations such a lasting influence on the cultural, artistic, political and social life of Croatia in the 19th and 20th centuries as that of Bersa.
Few Croatian families can have had over several generations such a lasting influence on the cultural, artistic, political and social life of Croatia in the 19th and 20th centuries as that of Bersa. First was their great progenitor Josip, who after moving to Zadar was from 1834 to 1840 the president of the College court of first resort (in 1839 the family had been accorded a patent of nobility), followed by his sons Antun (writer and historian) and Ivan (prosecutor in Zadar, later working in Dubrovnik). But particularly noteworthy are the children of Ivan’s marriage with Filomena de Medici (who came from the Dalmatian branch of the famed Florentine family): the composer sons Blagoje and Vladimir (Vladoje), writer and archaeologist Josip, sculptor Bruno and daughter Danica, a librarian in the National and University Library in Zagreb who presented that institution with the bequest of her brother Blagoje. Love for music, poetry and the theatre were particularly manifested by Blagoje, Vladoje and Josip; this latter lastingly provided his composer brothers with poetic models for their songs and choir music, as well as with opera libretti, and he also dealt with translations of verse from German and Italian into Croatian and vice-versa. Blagoje Bersa (Dubrovnik, December 21, 1873 – Zagreb, January 1, 1934) is one of the prime pillars of Croatian music of the first half of the 20th century, continuing the work of musicians like Ivan Zajc and Srećko Albini, who had in the 19th century laid the foundations for the professionalization and Europeanisation of Croatian musical culture, art and education.
Bersa learned composition from Ivan Zajc in the music school of the Croatian Music Institute in Zagreb; then he learned theory from Anton Stöckl, and cello from Hinko Geiger. From 1896 to 1899, he went on with his studies at the Conservatory in Vienna, studying under Robert Fuchs and Julius Epstein. After graduation, he returned home and worked as a choirmaster for singing associations in Sarajevo and Split. But as he could not find a job that suited him, he once again went to Austria, first to Graz, where he worked as conductor of the City Theatre; in 1903 he was in Vienna again, starting to work as a freelance artist and from 1911 to 1919 as musical adviser and arranger in the Doblinger publishing company. In the meantime, Žarko Savić, manager of the Croatian National Theatre in Osijek had invited Bersa to take over, in the 1908/1909 season, the leadership of the recently founded Osijek Opera. However, unable to adjust to the lifestyle and conditions of work in the Osijek of the time, Bersa left it after just three months, having made no very great impression on the place. Soon after the end of World War I, in 1919 Bersa settled down for good in Zagreb; in 1922 he became teacher of composition and instrumentation at the newly founded Music Academy. He was to remain in this post until the end of his life; from 1923 to 1927 he was the first head of the composition department. Bersa trained a number of highly respected Croatian composers, including Rudolf Matz, Mladen Pozajić, Zlatko Grgošević, Božidar Kunc, Boris Papandopulo, Milo Cipra, Ivo Brkanović, Josip Vrhovski, Bruno Bjelinski, Miroslav Magdalenić, Zvonimir Bradić, Slavko Zlatić, Nikola Hercigonja and Juraj Stahuljak. His increasing dedication to teaching soon led to a total cessation of his work as a composer, and thus the music drama Raskolnikov, after the novel Crime and Punishment of Dostoyevsky, on which he worked from some twenty years, remained incomplete.
The creative work of Blagoje Bersa can be divided into three periods. The first was the youthful period up to the end of his studies in 1899; from 1899 to 1919, mainly connected with his stay in Vienna; and the third after his return to his own country in 1919 to his death in 1934. Through the whole of this time, being of the opinion that the human voice was an unmatchable expressive resource, Bersa cultivated various forms of vocal music and wrote choral pieces, operas, songs to orchestra, melo-monodramas, devoting particular attention to the song, developing this form continuously from 1893 to 1918 as he moved around among Zagreb, Zadar, Graz and Vienna.
Bersa composed orchestral, chamber, piano and choral works, as well as operas and songs. The peaks of his work included the music drama Oganj / Fire (German title: Eisenhammer), which was a great success when it was first performed in the Croatian National Theatre in Zagreb on January 11, 1911, with A. G. Matoš stating in his review that the orchestral part was more brilliant than the vocal, remarking however »that this is the first artistic opera of a high and modern style to have been created by a Croat«. Of the orchestral works, particularly worth pausing on is Bersa’s symphonic diptych Sablasti (Spectres) and Sunčana polja (Sunny Fields), this second symphonic poem being one of the masterpieces of the Croatian orchestral literature…
Antun Petrušić (c) Muzički informativni centar
Citation: Petrušić, Antun, „The Songs of Blagoje Bersa“. From the Introduction to the sheet music: Blagoje Bersa. Songs, Croatian Music Information Centre, Zagreb 2008., pp. XXI-XXIV.