Some 20th-century composers are regularly mentioned in standard
musical dictionaries as being important names at a national level
while their music can hardly be found, if at all, on record, even LP.
This was the case for, say, Egon Wellesz until quite recently.
Milan Ristic (1908-1982) is another instance of this. He is
usually referred to as one of former Yugoslavia's main composers,
having completed nine symphonies between 1941 and 1976. Serbian
composer Slobodan Atanackovic once drew a bold and famous parallel:
"If the complexity of vocal music by Franco-Flemish polyphonists
can be most strongly grasped in Guillaume de Machaut's choral
miniatures, if Beethoven's depths can be reached through the maze
of his string quartets, if Milan Ristic's creative strength are
best displayed in his symphonies, then Mihovil Logar's nature is
most authentically reflected in his instrumental works and, in
particular, his concertante works."
Yet, I have never found one single symphony by Ristic either on LP
or on CD records. Stereorama, Serbia's classical music radio station,
broadcasts music by national composers at least once a week (on Saturdays
between noon and 1pm local time). Their programs can be heard online
on Saturdays and Sundays:
(programs are posted in Serbian every Friday for the following weekend:
Recently I wrote to ask whether they could give listeners an opportunity
to hear Ristic's symphonies and they decided to broadcast the complete
series, a year in advance before the centenary of that composer.
The series started last week with Symphony No.1. This is a wartime
piece still belonging to Ristic's first stylistic period. Ristic was
then part of that tremendously exciting maelstrom of experiments which
characterizes Central Europe's musical life in the 1920s and 1930s. His
First Symphony adopts a rather classical formal structure and ends with
a triumphant, if rather terse, march-like finale. Still, the harmonic
language is elaborate, atonal. It displays some features to be found
throughout his career, lean, clear-cut lines, a rather unsentimental
approach, discriminating and abstract use of "national" patterns, strongly
projected catchphrases, a hymnic quality which nonetheless avoids bombast.
All in all, this is a rather unusual symphony of the early 1940s. Its
immediate appeal may be less obvious than what we find in Martinu's 1st,
Honegger's 2nd, Prokofiev's 5th or Shostakovich's 7th and 8th but it is
well worth investigating, there is no questioning its invention, originality
and power. Another striking orchestral work of the same period is "Covjek
i rat" (Man and War), a symphonic poem completed in 1942.
Like so many Central and Eastern European composers, Ristic reverted to
a more tonal, "accessible" style during the dark times following Zhdanov's
report (1948-1956). Whereas Slovenia's Arnic or Croatia's Sulek managed
to maintain the essence of their respective styles, the difference between
Ristic's 1st and 2nd symphonies is quite obvious. Postwar Ristic had
turned neoclassical. This does not mean that the piece is dull - far
from that, it is brimming with energy, lighthearted without indulging
in aggressive buoyancy. Ristic's classical sense of concise form and
balance is demonstrated here in a limpid manner. Attractive, lively
music it is, with some expansive melodies and finely wrought solos by
the winds. Our orchestras could very well add it to their repertoire
alongside Prokofiev's 1st.
Next Saturday, Stereorama will broadcast Ristic's 3rd symphony. Don't
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