Vatroslav Lisinski

Vatroslav Lisinski (1810 – 1854) was one of the “greatest of Illyrian musical artists”…

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Franjo Ksaver Kuhač, music historian and “father of Croatian musicology” would not put Vatroslav Lisinski into his book Ilirski glazbenici / Illyrian Musicians. He did not wish to devote just a mere single chapter to this “greatest of our Illyrian musical artists”, as he had done with eighteen other Illyrian musicians and their biographies, rather dedicated to him a whole booklet. Although this writer had experienced “a little section of our musical history” in company with many of the “dedicated musicians” of the Illyrian movement, he was divided from Lisinski by both time and space. For while in 1854 Lisinski was lying on his bier in Zagreb, Kuhač, then a twenty-year-old, was completing his teacher training in Pest, and was not even aware of the existence and activity of the Illyrian musicians in whose footsteps he was to continue his work, making them familiar to his contemporaries.
We can discover the first attempts to establish a national language and culture in Zagreb and the founding moments of such endeavours in the second decade of the 19th century, while the creation of a middle class and its culture was still in swaddling bands. Bishop Vrhovac had endeavoured on the basis of Enlightenment ideas to encourage the collection of the national heritage (1813), Juraj Matija Šporer had intended in 1818 in Vienna to launch a paper in Croatian (Oglasnik ilirski) while at the same time Zagreb was not only inscribed on the map of international guest appearances but was able to furnish appropriate hospitality for travelling musicians in its aristocratic theatre and in its converted concert space. Not only were there the travelling German and later Italian and Hungarian itinerant theatrical and operatic troupes, but the Croatian language too gradually made its way into the music scene, first of all from the mouths of foreign musicians, and rapidly thereafter from local artists. It was in these circumstances that the first steps in music were taken by Vatroslav (Ignatius) Fux (Fuchs) (born in Zagreb, and christened on July 8, 1819), better known as Lisinski [deriving from a root meaning fox] and officially so named from 1850.
He spent his childhood and youth in the parental home on a little estate on the southern side of Ilica (today the site is occupied by house number 37). He went to elementary and high school in Gradec, together with future poet Ivan Trnski, the singer Albert Ognjan Štriga, secretary of the Croatian Music Institute Ivan Vardian and others. However, unlike his fellows, he did not acquire his musical training in 1829 with the opening of the music school of the Croatian Music Institute, itself founded two years earlier, but privately. Piano lessons (which then could not be had in the institute’s school) were meant to prepare him for the career of teacher and organist. There is little information about this period, and it is assumed that his teachers were the pianist and organist Juraj Sojka (a Czech), and then the excellently trained composer Juraj Karlo Wisner-Morgenstern (a German from Arad), from whom he learned music theory. At the same time he studied philosophy, subsequently law, and in 1842 began the obligatory unpaid training period as a notary. At that time he might have attended concert performances, usually organised either in one of the churches or in the hall of the Academy (in today’s Katarinin trg) or theatrical performances in the newly-opened public civic theatre, the Stanković, as it was called, on Markov trg, regularly covered by the German and the Croatian papers (Agramer Zeitung with its supplement Luna and Novine horvatzke and its supplement Danica, later Narodne novine and others). During the 1830s, companies of more or less successful impresarios filed through Zagreb, the most prominent being those of Carl Mayer and the Bornstein brothers. The audience was happy to see performances of Rossini’s operas Die Italienerin in Algier, Tancred, Der Barbier von Sevilla, Aschenbrödel, Diebische Elster, Die Frau am See, Boieldieu’s Die weisse Frau, Mozart’s Don Juan and Die Zauberflöte, Weber’s Freischütz (9. 1.), Auber’s Die Stumme aus Portici and the particularly popular Der Maurer und der Schosser, and at the end of the 1830s Bellini’s Montechi und Capuletti, Norma and Das Castell von Urbino, Hérold’s opera Zampa, Auber’s Die Ballnacht, Donizetti’s Gemma di Vergy, Elisir d’amore, Torquato Tasso. They applauded especially engaged vocal artists such as Maria Ehnes of Vienna and Mme Frisch from Odessa. An orchestra composed of musicians from the Zagreb infantry regiments, teachers at the Musikverein and the more skilled amateurs played under the baton of foreign and local conductors. However, the 1840s brought public dissatisfaction with weaker performances and an uninteresting repertoire. In the 1830s Germany singers were performing singspiel in Croatian translations or inserting “folk” songs in the German works of Bauerle and Muller or Schweigert. Heinrich Bornstein himself published in 1839 a proclamation proposing the foundation of an “Illyrian national theatre” and the introduction of the national language in the theatre, along the lines of the Czech and Hungarian. For the first performance, he proposed Kukuljević’s heroic play Juran and Sophia or the Turks at Sksak (with music by Livadić and Weisz), which two years earlier had been twice performed in Sisak at the Royal Hungarian Aristocratic Bodyguard by an amateur ensemble. In fact, Lisinski could have seen this very performance in 1841, the patriotic theatre company performing it in the yard of his birth house.


Lisinski first showed his attachment to Illyrian ideas as a high school boy, and during his higher studies he conducted the “First Illyrian Music Society”, founded by Štriga; for it, he harmonised and did the instrumentation for vernacular or popular compositions, soon after trying his hand at composing small pieces for choir, as well as piano pieces for the dance nights that the Illyrians regularly put on. Although still not adept at instrumentation and inexperienced in composing larger musical kinds, he agreed, at the urging of Štriga, who the whole of Lisinski’s life was his main spiritus movens, and of other friends close to the ideas of the Illyrian movement, to compose an opera. Kuhač thinks that the original idea was to compose a singspiel, a number of arias and duets with piano accompaniment, linked by some combining content, which could have chamber performances in the house of a music lover and the supporters of Illyrianism, but the original awkward text of amateur poet Janko Car, and then the expert working-up and the new garb with the national theme introduced by the professional, Dimitrija Demeter, enabled Lisinski to compose a work that surpassed even his expectations. The essential assistance in instrumentation of the expert Wisner Morgernstern and the enthusiasm of all those involved – members of the theatre orchestra and other employees of Venetian opera producer Mazza (which the impresario Karl Rosenschön sub-leased) and of the group of patriotic amateurs led by the aristocratic songstress Sidonia Rubido Erdödy enabled on March 28, 1846, the performance of the “first original Illyrian opera” Love and Malice by Vatroslav Lisinski. This crown of Illyrian aspirations that, in line with the wishes of the Illyrians, showed that the Croatian language was quite suitable for the music stage, represented the theme of patriotism and the national music of the city to the delight of the audience, and to the respect of reporters from Milan, Paris and Vienna. The patriotic enthusiasm of the Illyrians embraced and celebrated Lisinski; yet awareness of the need to cultivate his musical talent and sensibility indicated the essential need for him to have further musical training.
With much sacrifice and financial assistance from friends and admirers, particularly from leading personalities from the political and cultural sphere (Josip Jelačić, Ladislav Pejačević, Janko Drašković, Naum Mallin, Dimitrij Demeter and others), Štriga collected contributions, because for maintenance and tuition in Prague the composer needed a least 50 forints a month; small revenues and a lot of experience were gained from concerts given in Zagreb as well as on tour in Belgrade, Novi Sad and smaller towns. In 1847 Lisinski set off for Prague. Musical life there was extremely vital, primarily thanks to newly founded institutions for the training of musicians (a conservatory, an organ school) and to the societies that organised concerts (the Music Association, the choirs), as well as to the many guest appearances by composers and virtuosi. In evidence at the same time were the endeavours of young composers – adherents of the Czech revival, as well as those who were traditionally oriented. Lisinski, however, was too old to be regularly enrolled in the conservatory (the upper age limit being 20), and for unknown reasons did not enrol at the two-year organ school, but paid conservatory director Jan Bedřich Kittel for private lessons in music theory and instrumentation. While he was thus working irregularly, in sickness and want, he was overtaken by the revolutionary events of 1848. Then the music situation in Zagreb was very difficult, in spite of the political optimism. The Music Institute was eking out an existence on the edge of collapse, there were no operatic performances, Štriga had set off as a volunteer to the anti-Hungarian front, Franjo Stazić was singing in Pest, Sidonia Rubido was patronising the sewing of military flags, and the National Illyrian Harmony Association had been abolished. Although an advocate of Austro-Slavism, Lisinski did not get involved in political events, but composed according to the requirements of his teacher. During his three year Prague studies (interrupted twice by a visit to Zagreb), particularly in 1849, he composed much: songs to Czech words, mazurkas, orchestral overtures, and worked very hard on the opera Porin to a libretto by Dimitrija Demeter; in August 1850, his orchestral idyll Večer / Evening was first performed, after which his collection of Six Czech Songs translated “into Illyrian” was published. The Croatian papers gave occasional reports about him, sometimes indeed on the basis of Czech stories about the talented young Croatian composer who in spite of many recognitions had to be content with private certificates and recommendations.
His return to Zagreb, in the shade of neo-absolutist pressures, brought Lisinski a lot of activities: performances of his own works, conducting the ensemble at performances of the Music Institute in a city impoverished in terms of culture, the composition of new pieces. Still, the inability to find permanent employment in the musical world, where he had to content himself with the volunteer assignment of “supervisor of musical classes” at the school of the Musikverein, the dwindling interest of the public, all encouraged him to collect money through dedications of his works to prominent personalities (for example to Bishop Strossmayer) and their donations, the sale of sheet music of his compositions and private tuition fees. In the following generation, the independent scholar Franjo Ksaver Kuhač would have to fight for his living in an indifferent milieu in similar ways. For a number of unhappy circumstances, totally despondent, he abandoned his work in music and dedicated the last year of his life to his first calling, working in the central court as trainee. Overcome by ill-health and poverty, towards the end of his life he had to pawn the score of Love and Malice to get a loan from the theatre; he died on May 31, 1854, and was buried the following day at the St Roch Cemetery
This sickly and sensitive composer left, according to the study of Lovro Županović, “142 original works and 25 arrangements, reworkings or transcriptions of his own, others’ or folk melodies”, among which special attention is claimed by 60 or so songs in Croatian, German, Czech and Slovak (a new selection of songs was published by the Croatian Academy in 2010). Apart from that he also composed popular choral works (and harmonised other people’s works), a number of piano miniatures and dances, orchestral overtures and so on. Standing out in his oeuvre are the two operas, Love and Malice (1846, a kind of rescue opera in two acts) and Porin (1850, a grand or heroic opera in five acts). While the first opera, though, was awaited with impatience and was performed six times to full halls, Porin never had a contemporary complete performance, being shown only in a few fragments (during the author’s lifetime and later). Thus the continuity of the creation of the Croatian national opera was suddenly cut short – so much the more did Ivan Zajc in 1870 (a century later) have to create the national operatic repertoire from the beginning. The absence of any powerful and educated composerly personality in this period was one of the most important causes of the vacuum.

Vjera Katalinić (c) Croatian Music Information Centre

Citation: Katalinić, Vjera, „Vatroslav Lisinski (1819-1854) and His Age“. Introduction to the sheet music: Vatroslav Lisinski. Porin. Chivalric Opera in 5 Acts, Croatian Music Information Centre, Zagreb 2011, str. XIX-XXI.