Born on March 18, 1909, in Kragujevac, Serbia; died on September 18, 2003, in Belgrade, Serbia and Montenegro. Education: Studied the violin and composition with Josip Slavenski at the Stankovic Music School in Belgrade; attended the Prague Conservatory (1929-37), where she studied composition with Josef Suk and Alois Hába, and conducting with Nikolay Malko.

In his Great Code: the Bible and Literature, Northrop Frye commented on a "certain impersonal element" that is often discerned in the experience of great music. "What we hear," Frye observed, "is still 'subjective,' in the sense that is obviously Bach or Mozart, and could not possibly be anyone else. At the same time there is a sense of listening to the voice of music itself. This, we feel, is the kind of thing music is all about, the kind of thing it exists to say. The work we hear is now coming to us from within its context, which is the totality of musical experience; and the authority of that total context reinforces the individual authority of the composer."

This impersonal element can be clearly heard in the music of Ljubica Maric, particularly in her Monodia octoicha, a work for solo cello that she wrote for Ksenija Jankovic. Inspired by Johann Sebastian Bach's magnificent Six Suites for Solo Cello, and incorporating echoes of Byzantine church modes, this work unleashes a power that may transcend the composer's intentions. Taking in the soulful, almost human, voice of the cello, it is astounding to discern--in moments when the music finds repose in the simple, yet mysterious, phenomenon of open strings sounding the interval of a fifth--an inexplicable call to reach deeper in our being. Suddenly occurring, as in Bach's works, in the wider context of a complex musical structure, these moments take the listener back to an unreflected, visceral, even unconscious perception of music in its purest form. In a career spanning almost six decades, the Serbian composer Ljubica Maric (pronounced: LYOU-bit-sa MA-rich) composed some 30 works, hardly a large oeuvre, but these compositions, as critics and fellow composers have asserted, in many ways fit Frye's definition of musical greatness.

A poet and a visual artist as well as a musician, Maric understood her existence as an illuminator of the mysteries of time, remembrance, and immortality. In every way a modern European composer deeply familiar with the intellectual and technical conundrums of twentieth-century music, Maric relentlessly sought a deeper, even magical, timeless dimension of music, which the general quest for new modes of expression completely ignored. Despite her profound knowledge of her country's traditions, Maric did not look to folk music as the magic key to unlock music's soul in a time of arid intellectualism. Even her subtle, and profoundly moving, references to Serbian history, particularly the cruel darkness of foreign rule that engulfed and destroyed a brilliant medieval culture, are not literal. When Maric conjures forgotten voices from the past, she initiates the listener into the mystery of time.

While the essence of music is temporal, there are instances in Maric's music when the listener's perception of time (real time and time remembered in the music) yields to a feeling of silent and inexplicable timelessness. For example, in her haunting and mournful cantata From the Darkness Chanting, a powerfully suggestive setting of writings left by medieval monk-copyists in the margins of holy books, Maric adds an irresistible dimension, which, read with her music, may strike the listener as almost inaudible echoes from a dead past. In Maric's dialogue with darkness, these voices are not only living, gripping utterances but they enter the listener's consciousness as familiar, even intimate, voices. Such is the power of Maric's music that the listener starts experiencing the composer's insights as intimations of remembered realities. The music underscores the dark, troubling, and inextinguishable relevance of fragments such as "Jovan wrote these words; let he who can, read them; let he who cannot, be astonished." Not only does her music teach that these distant, unknown voices are also our own, but she also beautifully illuminates the idea, known to mystics, that every individual life, although circumscribed by ordinary time, contains seeds of immortality.

Maric's music is truly intimate and thoughtful, relying on understatement and delicate expressiveness while shunning grand gestures, unusual sonic effects, bizarre harmonies, and brilliant colors. Unconsciously, one listens to Maric between the lines, so to speak: Initially, a solitary melody might seem unobtrusive, even neutral, but an expected insight, expressed through a subtle intervallic shift or an unexpected emphasis introduces an uncanny feeling, a tone of strangeness, which the listener instinctively identifies as the familiar-unfamiliar feeling that existing, being alive, is a strange experience. Instead of grand mystical visions, Maric offers small epiphanies. However, listening to her music is nevertheless a walk along a precipice, for the listener never knows when this sudden epiphany will shatter a comfortable idea or received mental construct. For example, in her Ostinato super thema octoicha, for piano, harp, and string orchestra, the piano's opening utterance, a solitary voice, quickly enters the sheltering light of the accompanying strings. There is nothing unusual about an accompanied voice. However, in Maric's music nothing really is as it seems. Do the warm, reassuring harmonies played by the strings symbolize a deliverance from the uneasiness of living in a cold universe, or is the music just the beginning of a quest that is beyond the listener's imagination?

Maric was still a student at the Prague Conservatory when she wrote her Wind Quintet, a work that brought her instant recognition. Although influenced by her teachers in Prague, including Alois Hába, known for his quarter-tone music, the Wind Quintet was recognized as a work of striking originality by audiences in Prague, Amsterdam, and Strasbourg. When she returned to Belgrade, she worked as a teacher at the Stankovic Music School, eventually obtaining a post at the Academy of Music, where she taught music theory.

Not long after Maric's return from Prague, World War II broke out in Europe. If wartime was hard, the postwar period in Yugoslavia brought further unexpected difficulties for creative artists. The new Communist government imposed the doctrine of socialist realism on all creative artists, including composers, stipulating that the artist's duty was to glorify reality. For musicians, this meant that only unsophisticated, simpleminded music was tolerated. Unwilling to conform, Maric devoted herself to studying traditional and medieval Serbian music. While these studies did not influence her later work in a literal sense, her affinity with the melancholy spirit of the Serbian Middle Ages obviously informed her artistic vision. During the 1950s, when artists regained some freedom, Maric started composing music inspired by medieval themes. A representative work from this period is the Songs of Space cantata, Maric's homage to the memory of the Bogomils, a religious sect that rejected the physical world as evil. Having admired Bosnia's mysterious Bogomil tombstones, Maric translated their enigmatic, yet compelling, symbolism, inscriptions, and images into music of rare suggestiveness.

Intending to underline the Byzantine background of Serbian medieval music, Maric developed the idea of the Byzantine oktoechos, the series of eight church modes, in her music. For Maric the oktoechos was not a literal technique but rather a symbol of archaic simplicity. And, as evidenced by works composed in the 1990s, Maric never stopped searching for her musical ideal of absolute archaic purity.

by Zoran Minderovic

Ljubica Maric's Career

Taught at the Stankovic Music School; taught music theory at the Academy of Music in Belgrade.

Ljubica Maric's Awards

July Seventh Award for Life Achievement; Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts, corresponding member, 1963-1981, member, 1981-2003.

Famous Works

Further Reading


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