Ivica Novakovic (faculty)

ISM Study Tour to the Balkans

Ivica Novakovic
Visiting Lecturer in Religion and Culture
Yale Institute of Sacred Music 2007-08

From May 9 - 20, 2008, more than 70 students and professors from the ISM participated in a ten-day study trip to Bosnia & Herzegovina, Montenegro, and Croatia. Eighteen years ago, these three countries were still part of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. Croatia and Bosnia & Herzegovina gained independence after very brutal wars during the 1990s, while Montenegro attained it peacefully in 2006. In the title, however, I refer to “the Balkans,” a term with many meanings. Geographically, the Balkan peninsula is the part of Europe bounded by the Mediterranean (and its branches) on the west and south, and the Black Sea to the east; nobody agrees about its northern borders. Some inhabitants of the region, however, prefer to call it “Southeast Europe,” because they think that the term “Balkan” carries negative connotations of cultural inferiority and tribalism, especially in the eyes of their West European neighbors. Others, like the Croatians, do not recognize either of the terms, and describe themselves as part of Central Europe. In the last several years, however, the work on the history of the term “the Balkans” and the images connected with it have caused a significant shift in the perception of this term. Numerous artists and musical groups from the region are now reclaiming it as a term that stands not for barbarism and old hates but for a rich and complex meeting point of different, and often opposing, cultures, such as West European and Byzantine, Central European and Mediterranean, and of different religions, such as Judaism, Christianity (Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox), and Islam.

We began our study tour in Sarajevo on Saturday evening (May 10). Sarajevo brings together all the elements of religious and cultural encounters that we wanted to study on our visit, and was also the site of the most intense fighting during the war in 1992-1995. There is a complex history of the Croatian Catholic Church and Serbian Orthodox Church with Muslim Bosniak community and a substantial Jewish presence. Even though after the war the demographic structure of the city radically changed in favor of the Muslim community, the main representatives of each religious community remain, hardly a block away from each other – which makes for an interesting “religious walk,” as one of my friends there called it. Our first visit was to the Serbian Orthodox Cathedral. In the presence of the Metropolitan Nikolai, we were introduced to the architectural and iconographic features of the church. Professor Rade Radovic and his Serbian Orthodox Choir from the University of Serbian (East) Sarajevo gave us an excellent concert of Eastern Orthodox music.

On Sunday, we visited the National Museum of Bosnia & Herzegovina, which hosts one of the best archeological and ethnographic collections on the Balkans, among them the famous Sarajevo Haggadah, even though only its facsimile is presented to the public. The museum was founded in 1885 by the Austrians, and it is therefore a good testament to the way the imperial Austria-Hungary understood its cultural role in Bosnia after the Ottomans left it. After that we went to the Croatian Catholic Church of St. Joseph. The service was a special one, organized as a Folk Mass by father Zvonko Martic, a Carmelite monk and a folklorist. He gathered together folk groups from different parts of Bosnia & Herzegovina, all in traditional costumes, who presented to us traditional Catholic songs indigenous to their villages, with melodic intervals that deviate from the tempered system, and harmonies that often come to rest on the interval of the second. After the Mass, we were invited to a real folk feast prepared for us in the basement of the church, with homemade food and drinks and traditional dancing and singing, such as “ganga,” where a lone singer carries on a wail, joined by others. Many of the traditional secular songs performed there originated in the church liturgy and were then further developed to address everyday concerns of the people. Many of our students joined in and we all marveled at our hosts’ fascinating openness and great hospitality. In the afternoon we went to the University of Sarajevo, where we met with Zilka Siljak-Spahic and Dino Abazovic, both Muslims and professors at the Center for Interdisciplinary Postgraduate Studies, and Marko Orsolic, a Franciscan friar and a founder of the International Multireligious and Intercultural Center. Their three short, but impressive, presentations offered views of the role of religion in the recent conflict and its aftermath, the role of women in the Bosniak society, and the state of the human rights in Bosnia & Herzegovina. The discussion that followed has shown that when we speak about the presence of religion in the public sphere, we share many common concerns, even when our histories differ greatly.

We spent the greater part of Monday with the Muslim community, but we also visited the Academy of Music and the Franciscan Monastery. At the Faculty of Islamic Studies, professor Enes Karic spoke about the mystical Islam, which has its core in the love for God and the fellow human being, and its pervasive presence in Bosnia to this day. Professor Fikret Karcic traced the changes in the role of Sharia with the transition from the Ottoman period, where it was the law of the land, to Bosnia’s integration into the Austro-Hungarian Empire, where Sharia played more ethical and religious role. Interreligious openness and spirituality present in the mystical Islam thus went together with the ethicization and spiritualization of the Sharia law itself, and thus provided a framework for merging the religion of the heart with the religion of the law. Asim Zubcevic, the librarian from the Faculty of Islamic Studies, showed us the Ghazi Husrev-Bey’s complex, the mosque and the Medresa, and helped us better understand their role in shaping the Bosniak Muslim community. The Grand Mufti of Bosnia & Herzegovina, Dr. Mustafa Ceric, spent an hour with us speaking about the challenges facing the Bosniak Muslim community today, particularly those coming from the emerging fundamentalist Wahhabi groups that preach religious intolerance not only towards other religious groups but also towards moderate Muslims, and about his view of the relationship of the Muslim community in Bosnia to the modern secular state. In the discussion, it became clear that his claim of the continuous role of the Sharia law in the modern state differs significantly from the views of his former colleagues, Karic and Karcic. The Academy of Music organized a concert with two of their groups, the Ethno-Academic and Gaudeamus, who performed music from different religious traditions in Sarajevo and sang the love songs (Sevdalinka) characteristic of Bosniak towns. This concert was followed by the presentations of two ethnomusicologists: Jasmina Talam, who spoke about Sufi singing, and Tamara Karaca-Beljak, who spoke about the development of Sevdalinka in the last century. We spent the evening in the Fransiscan Monastery, where we had a conversation with friars and professors at the Franciscan Faculty in Sarajevo: Luka Markesic, the head of Bosniak Franciscans; Ivan Sarcevic, the chief editor of the main religious magazine “Svjetlo Rijeci”; and Ivo Markovic, the founder and leader of the Interreligious Choir Pontanima. Bosniak Franciscans showed us their commitment to multireligious and multicultural Bosnia, their interest in the future and the wellbeing of all people, and their respect for different faith commitments and communities. Markovic also explained to us how he came to the idea of creating an interreligious choir and how he experienced religious music as a medium of reconciliation. This was followed by a concert, where the Pontanima Choir sang songs from all four traditions represented in Bosnia & Herzegovina: Jewish, Orthodox, Muslim and Catholic, and a dinner party. Over supper, many of the choir’s members spoke about their love for Sarajevo and their decision to stay there even when conditions were most difficult.

On our journey to Dubrovnik on Tuesday, we made two stops: we visited the famous rebuilt bridge in Mostar and spent a few hours in Medjugorje, the village in the Croatian part of Herzegovina, where, in 1981, six children reported seeing and hearing the Virgin Mary, who, according to their testimony, has continued to appear to them and send them messages ever since. Medjugorje quickly became a popular shrine and in the last two and a half decades has surpassed Lourdes in France and Fatima in Potrugal in the number of pilgrims, which now number more that a million every year. Our guide to the Hill of Apparition and the host in her retreat center for priests, the House of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart, was Nancy Latta, a Canadian born near Medjugorje, who with her husband became a prominent promoter of the authenticity of Medjugorje, which is a very controversial issue among Roman Catholics. For some of us visiting the shrine was a deeply moving experience, while for others it raised many questions, but for all of us it provided a theme for numerous lively conversations in the following days.

On Wednesday, we visited Herceg Novi in Montenegro. Most of the population here is Orthodox, but this fact does not guarantee religious unity: there is a great conflict between the Serbian Orthodox Church, which holds almost all church property, and the recently established Montenegrin Orthodox Church, which is not recognized by the Serbian Church. During our visit to Herceg Novi, we had contacts with both communities. In the morning, we visited the monastery Savina, which is one of the most important sites of the Serbian presence in the region of Kotor Bay. Its head, Father Makarije, was an excellent host, but he rejected our request to allow the professors from Kotor and Cetinje, the members of the Montenegrin Orthodox Church, to speak to us on the monastery’s premises. We therefore had to organize the other meeting with them in the local Music School in Herceg Novi.

The same evening, the Faros’ Cantors from the island Hvar performed for us the elements from the Passion Week. This tradition, which developed almost five centuries ago, is preserved to this day, when six towns on the island perform it together. Some of the chants were very old, particularly the Stabat mater dolorosa, and stand firmly in the tradition of Glagolitic singing, while other chants contain the elements of tonal music and more recent harmonic progressions. Even though Katarina Livljanic had introduced us earlier this year to the singing traditions on Croatian islands, we were all surprised by the power and beauty of liturgy presented to us that evening in Dubrovnik. For me, it was one of the most moving experiences of the entire trip. On Thursday morning, shortly before we flew to Zagreb, we dedicated some time to getting to know Dubrovnik’s Old Town, which has become one of the most visited places on the Mediterranean because of its beauty, its impressive city walls, its Renaissance and Baroque buildings, and its Franciscan and Dominican monasteries with their collections of art and manuscripts. With the help of our two excellent guides, the Old Town came alive for us again. They were able to convey to us the inner workings of this merchant town – the core of the Republic of Dubrovnik – its rivalries with Venice, and its precarious relationship with the Ottoman Empire.

The same afternoon, we flew to Zagreb, the capital of Croatia and its cultural and religious center. Zagreb was in full mid-May swing, with a fair of antique crafts in the central square of the city and the Urban Festival, the public presentations of the artworks, in other squares. The first evening we went to hear Verdi’s Nabucco performed by Zagreb Opera at the Croatian National Theatre, and attended the rehearsal of the famous choir “Ivan Filipovic” under the direction of Goran Jerkovic. Friday was our main day in Zagreb. We visited the Catholic Theological Faculty and its Institute of Church Music, the Music Academy, and had several presentations in the Baptist Church. At the Catholic Theological Faculty we met with professors Zeljko Tanjic, Ante Crncevic, and Miroslav Martinjak, who spoke about the Roman Catholic Church in Croatia and its present challenges, liturgy, and the way it trains its musicians. Tanjic particularly emphasized the still-prevalent problems left by the radical secularization of society during the communist era. At the Music Academy, we had two presentations, one on Croatian music by Ennio Stipcevic and the other on ethnomusicology by Josko Caleta, which enhanced our appreciation of our numerous encounters with it in Sarajevo and Dubrovnik. In addition, ISM organists visited the Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Jesus with the great Croatian organist Mario Penzar, and played on its Rieger organ (built in 1905), while ISM choral conductors had an hour with Goran Jerkovic. In the Baptist Church we had presentations on the Protestant tradition in Croatia, Croatian religious art, and the Church and politics on the Balkans. Peter Kuzmic, professor of European Studies at Gordon-Conwell Seminary in Boston and the founding president of the Evangelical Theological Faculty in Osijek (Croatia), placed our experiences with different religious communities into a fresh perspective, and held an extensive discussion with our group about the role of religion in this part of the world, historically and against the backdrop of the recent wars in the 1990s.

On Saturday, organ players went with Mario Penzar to the Church of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Lepoglava, about an hour’s drive north from Zagreb, which houses the oldest organ in Croatia, built in 1649 and restored by Ivan Janisek in 1737. The rest of us remained in Zagreb, visited the Museum of Naïve Art and the Gallery of Modern Art, and, with the help of art historian Vladimir Goss, were introduced to Zagreb as a typical Central European city, with its medieval and fortified uptown and well-structured and open nineteenth-century downtown. Sunday morning was reserved for visiting local churches, from those with Eastern liturgy (Greek-Catholic Church and Serbian Orthodox Church) to the main Roman Catholic Cathedral. At the end, we all gathered in St. Mark’s Church, where we attended the Solemn Mass concluding St. Mark’s Festival. On the same weekend, a small group of those interested in Glagolitic singing visited the island of Krk, attending the Sunday Mass in town of Dobrinj, which incorporated traditional Glagolitic chanting performed by a local choir.

Our last stop on the visit to the Balkans was Istria, known for its intercultural context, picturesque costal towns dating from the Roman period which remained under Venetian influence until the end of the eighteenth century, as well as for its numerous medieval hill towns. In Pazin’s Museum of Istria, Lidija Nikocevic, the director of the museum, organized several presentations on different cultures of Istria, medieval frescos, traditional musical instruments, and Istrian religious music built on the five-tone Istrian scale and characterized by two voices singing in a harmony characterized by very small intervals. On Sunday evening, we had the ISM dinner party in the former fish-market in Rovinj, with music performed by the local group “Batan,” which introduced us to “bitinadas,” a special type of singing involving a peculiar imitation of the background instruments. This was also our last evening together, which we used to enjoy each other’s company and appreciate the contributions of all who made this study trip such an excellent learning experience.

Before saying goodbye to the Balkans, we made a visit to the old coastal town of Porec and the medieval hill town of Motovun. In Porec, we visited the impressively well preserved Episcopal complex of the Euphrasian Basilica (the basilica, atrium, baptistery, and Episcopal palace), built in an early Byzantine style in 6th century, where the bishop allowed us to sing Duruflé’s Ubi caritas in the Basilica’s apse, known for its extraordinary acoustics. In Motovun, the birthplace of the sixteenth century music printer and composer Andrea Antico da Montana, we met for the last time with Mario Penzar. He gave us a short but very impressive farewell organ concert on the organ built by the Venetian Gaetano Callido in 1797 and restored two years ago.

Thanks to the arrangement of our flights, we left Europe via Venice and Vienna, two of the places that made – together with Constantinople/Istanbul – the deepest impact on the culture and spirituality of the part of the Balkan peninsula that we visited.

For many of the ISM travelers, the study tour created a new awareness of rich layers of transculturality that so pervade the whole region. It also induced us to think deeply and in new ways about religion, culture, the role of political and economic powers, and their impact on our lives – the issues that we face with intense urgency in today’s increasingly globalized world. The Balkan experience will in many ways inform our understanding of our own world and our tasks in it, even at a far remove of time and place.

Here you can read some of the students’ impressions of the tour; you will be able to see, through their eyes, the intimate relation of the ISM study tour to its mission.