DORA PEJAČEVIĆ - a Gender Pinnacle

DORA PEJAČEVIĆ (1885 - 1923) That Croatia, of all countries, should be the homeland of one of the few women symphonic composers – and one of the very best, at that – is truly astounding, seeing as how Croatia is not one of those countries teeming with composers to begin with. Dora Pejačević [pronounced Pay-a-say-VICH] is historically fascinating for many reasons: she was born in Hungary to a Hungarian mother and a Croatian father who was descended from an illustrious line of Slavonian [eastern Croatia] noblemen, making her part of the Croatian nobility. She is also the only composer that I know of who died in childbirth, a real tragedy since she was only 37 and might have had decades of composing ahead of her. The tragedy is for music, too, since her only symphony (in F-sharp minor – 1918, premiere Dresden 1920) shows much promise. It is in the late romantic style, in four movements with a playing-time of over 45 minutes, which is to say it is an ambitious work, is solidly crafted with good thematic material and is beautifully orchestrated. She holds the listener’s attention from beginning to end, no small task for a work of this length.

The first movement, Andante maestoso – Allegro con moto (16 minutes), starts right off with a grand theme, in tragic mode, for full orchestra, its dotted rhythm immediately delineating the noble and foreboding aspects of the home key. Effortlessly, the music flows into the main allegro part of the movement with just a hint of potential folk roots in the contours of the principle themes. I would like to say there is a subtle femininity in the development of the themes, but that, of course, is pure absurdity: there is no such thing as gender-disposition in music composition. Of particular merit is the end of the movement with the principle theme reaching a particularly high level of nobility. Otherwise, how would one reconcile the decidedly masculine assertiveness of the andante material when it returns at the end of the movement. It is not engendered; it is merely music-making of a high level. The second movement, Andante sostenuto (13 minutes), begins with a pensive English Horn solo in the minor, which slowly expands, passing through solo winds to the string choir. It strives to light-filled major triads but dark minor thirds anchor it in the gently melancholic. The magic of the movement is in how the theme meanders out of the dark, back into the light. Ultimately, though, it returns to the English Horn, ending in quiet, dark, brass cadences. The third movement, Scherzo: Molto allegro (8 minutes), commences as though it were a rustic dance but quickly becomes too elegant and urbane to sustain a bucolic air. A minute in, the brass have a regal and stirring passage that transforms the movement from then on to the contrasting middle section. Forward movement is interrupted by somber French Horn chords which persist against insistent upward figurations by flutes and plucked strings. An opulent melody emerges, elides and re-emerges even more luscious than before, finally returning to the Horn chords. And then the elegant scherzo music returns, sweeping on to the conclusion where, startlingly, the Horn chords are recalled to give an inventive twist to the end of the movement. The final movement, Allegro appassionato (10 minutes), main theme contains the theme from the very beginning of the symphony as a germ within its center. This theme – rather bombastic, rather sinister – provides a dramatic opening for the movement. Within two minutes it gives way to the second theme group – more romantic, lyrical and pastoral – which rises up and, within another two minutes, also subsides. Then follows a quite classical development section with the two theme groups battling it out. The sinister opening theme emerges the winner, bringing the symphony to a close in the ominous home key. The coda is short with a rapier-like finality.

The overall distinguishing characteristic of this symphony is the high level of expressivity achieved both in detail and in the grand overall scheme, reflective of a major musical talent. The listener is struck time and again with the exquisitely drawn melodic line that pulls one up short with unexpected turns and evolutions that carry a heavy weight of emotive cargo. Of course, this is the very fruit that catches the listener’s attention and binds it throughout the movement, and the symphony. There’s many a male colleague with a far wider reputation standing in envy of this ability.

A quick footnote on the key of this symphony: very few composers have used this key since it poses significant problems for musicians. It is in a sharp key, as opposed to a flat key, giving instant challenges to all those instruments that are constructed in flat keys: B-flat trumpet and clarinet, E-flat clarinet and F horns. There are three sharps in the key signature. The trumpet part ends up in the key of G-sharp minor (5 sharps) or A-Flat minor (7 flats), both difficult keys to play. Notwithstanding modern instruments’ abilities to deal with intonation problems, there are tones in these scales that require special attention to avoid sounding out of tune. Of the original Viennese classical composers, only Haydn wrote a symphony in the key of F-sharp minor. You know: The Farewell Symphony? Does that tell you something?

Pejačević has herein bequeathed us a work of surprisingly classical bent, given its creation in the late-romantic flowering. With such a sure grasp of musical structure, one inevitably conjectures what she might have done had she been granted more life to create other symphonic works. She is, without doubt, one of the most tragic of all the 20th c. symphonists. But Pejačević is worthy of more than an historical footnote, and this symphony deserves serious consideration by listeners and conductors.

To hear a recording of the Symphony in F-sharp minor go to Deutsche Staatsphilharmonie Rheinland-Pfalz, Ari Rasilainen conductor


from "On the Symphony in the 20th Century" by Jerré Tanner - a book surveying over 250 symphony composers and their works, many of them forgotten and no longer performed, composed in the 20th century that are worthy of the listener's attention