ON DORA PEJAČEVIĆ (1885–1923)
[This is the third in a series of posts of “blogified” short entries from the forthcoming second, enlarged edition of my Historical Dictionary of Romantic Music [Lanham, Maryland] — i.e., entries whose style is lightly adapted to make them more blog-friendly. For an explanation of where this little series of posts comes from and why I’m doing it, see here. Let me reiterate here that because of the size/space restrictions of the book — it’s a one-volume dictionary, not an encyclopedia, or even book chapter — every entry is brief. My hope is that the entries will be “appetizers,” jumping-off points for further exploration by interested readers. If the entry leaves you wanting more, that is by design.
(Boldface text will be cross-referenced in the book itself.)]
I first heard the name of Croatian composer Dora Pejačević (1885–1923) when I was an undergraduate student at Florida State University. Unfortunately, I had never heard of her before; and even more unfortunately, I evidently forgot whatever I learned about her on that occasion. I assume she earned a spot in a course and/or concert that I attended because 1985 was the centennial of her birth and the musical world, which in those obviously transitional and highly uncertain years of the Cold War was paying more attention to central and eastern Europe than it previously had, made note of her birth, her remarkable life, and her equally remarkable music.
In any case, I remember that fleeting encounter because (1) to my young and unseasoned musical mind, who knew that Croatians produced notable composers? (This embarrasses me now, but I have to tell the truth); and (2) I neither spoke nor read Croatian — I still don’t — and there was something fascinating and beautiful about her surname itself. (Here’s the pronunciation, for those who are interested.)
Those are not very impressive motives, but please remember that I was young and was only just beginning to learn how very much I had yet to learn, just beginning to understand that no matter how much music one knows, one can never know enough.
In any case, I’ve now had occasion (via the second edition of the HDRM) to indulge my thirty-seven year interest in Dora Pejačević. Here’s a brief summary of her life and works, framed by her early Ave Maria and her second string quartet, with one of her orchestral songs and a concerted work for piano and orchestra in-between. You’ll quickly see how incredibly rich and exciting this unjustly marginalized composer’s music is, and how dramatic her growth over the course of those tumultuous years of the early twentieth century!
To start, here’s Pejačević’s early Ave Maria, Op. 16 scored for soprano with violin and piano or organ and published in 1903:
PEJAČEVIĆ [PEJACSEVICH], DORA (1885–1923). Hungarian-born Croatian composer of the Modern Romantic Generation; composer of the first Croatian symphony to be performed within Croatia. Her first teacher was her mother, a Hungarian countess, who began teaching her piano at age two, and she later studied briefly at the Croatian Music Institute (Zagreb). Her parents then sent her to Dresden and Munich, where she studied composition privately with Walter Courvoisier (1875–1931) and Percy Sherwood (1866–1939) and violin privately with Henri Petri (1856–1941). Her social standing brought her into contact with a Bohemian countess who introduced her to pianist Alice Ripper, writers Annette Kolb (1870–1967) and Rainer Maria Rilke (1875–1926), sculptor Clara Rilke Westhoff (1878–1954), and journalist Karl Kraus (1874–1936).
Pejačević is often credited with having introduced the orchestral song — well known in the oeuvres of canonical composers ranging from Berlioz, Richard Strauss, and Mahler — into Croatia. Here is one of her four orchestral songs: Verwandlung (Transformation), Op. 37b (1915):
Pejačević’s introduction to those other cultural and artistic luminaries, especially Karl Kraus, had a far-reaching and unforeseen consequence: born into a distinguished aristocratic family and reared and educated in privilege, she came to view her life of privilege as unjust and contemptible, a conviction that intensified as she witnessed the horrors of World War I, the deadliest war in human history, and saw those horrors magnified by the social inequities that shielded her own social class while leaving millions of others all the more exposed and vulnerable, with few social protections or compensations to reward them for their service in the conflict that had been created by, and for, her own class. Working as a volunteer nurse, she wrote that the aristocracy were “only excited when they are threatened with the danger of losing part of their wealth . . . [and] weren’t in the least upset about the most wretched and disgraceful acts in the War.” “They are devoid of all higher feelings,” she continued, “far from all big ideas, any kind of humanity, or any social progress. . . . I cannot continue to associate with the members of my own class.” She married a German military officer, Ottomar von Lumbe,in 1921 and bore a child in 1923, but died from kidney failure four weeks later. She resisted the unjust privilege that dominates in capitalist and aristocratic society to the end: her last wish was that she be buried outside her family’s mausoleum with no family name on her headstone, and that en lieu of flowers mourners should make donations to the families of impoverished musicians.
Here is her Phantasie concertante for piano and orchestra, Op. 48 (1919):
Pejačević was thirty-seven when she died. She had been composing since the age of twelve. In those twenty-five years she produced fifty-eight numbered opera (published under her own name, in contravention of the sexist customs of the day), leaving more works behind in manuscript. The familiar works include a symphony (1918, rev. 1920), a concerto and a phantasie concertante for piano and orchestra (1913 and 1919), a concert overture (1919), three string quartets (1908, 1911, and 1922), one piano quintet (1918), two piano trios (1902 and 1910), two violin sonatas (1909 and 1917)and one cello sonata (1913), thirty songs on Croation and German texts for voice with piano, four songs on German texts for voice with orchestra (1915–1920), and fifty-four works for piano solo (1897–1921), among them two sonatas (1914 and 1921) and one song without words (1898). During her lifetime her works were performed extensively outside Croatia. Her style was intimate in her earlier works and became increasingly chromatic and emotionalist after about 1910. Performances and recordings have proliferated since the centennial of her birth in 1985, and she is the subject of a quasi-biographical 1993 Croatian film Countess Dora. All of her published works are now in the public domain, but a source-critical collected-works edition and catalog of her works are still major desiderata of the continuing interest in her life, work, and significance.
To close, here is Pejačević’s C-major String Quartet, Op. 58 (1922) — her last completed work, published in Dresden by H. Bock just months before her death:
To learn more about Dora Pejačević, see:
Croatian Music Information Center, “Dora Pejačevič: Dean of Croatian Women Composers,” The Kapralova Society Journal 20 (2022): 8–9
Koraljka Kos, “Pejačević [Pejacsevich], Dora,” in Grove Music Online (permalink)
Originally published at https://cooperm55.wixsite.com on May 21, 2022.