Since the early 19th century, Serbian music and Serbian musicians have been a presence in Vienna, as it hitched a ride with the settlers drawn from the edges of the Habsburg Empire. One of those was the Serbian Prince Miloš Obrenović, who came to this city after his exile in 1839. For his first ball, he commissioned a piece from Johann Strauß, the “Waltz King,” who obliged with Serben-Quadrille, melding the composer’s debonair style with zestful folk music of his patron’s homeland. Today, the composition is still played each year at the St. Sava Ball in Vienna, a yearly event patterned after that first ball held more than a century and a half ago.
It is a sentiment still embodied by the Serbian musicians working in Austria today, who proudly bolster their unique blend of Austrian musical heritage with Serbian fervor.
One of these is Djurdjica Gojković, a soprano who moved to Vienna in 2014 to study vocal performance. “When I first came to Vienna, I was so captivated by this city and its appreciation for classical music,” she says. Shortly thereafter, she packed her bags, “in search of all this city could give me,” she says. We met in Café Gerstner in late September, her favorite spot in the city. Djurdjica has had a tumultuous couple of months. With most of her concerts and tours canceled due to the pandemic, it has been a struggle, something she has unfortunately shared with many others. But the hard times she experienced as a student taught her to embrace a challenge:
“As the time went by, I was facing the inevitable difficulties of staying here and providing for myself as a foreigner.” But if you want something badly enough, she knew, you learn to push through and then find a way to go further. In all of it, she knew she could count on her Serbian peers: “We support each other; there is always a sense of unity of which I’m very proud.” But most important, she said, is their way of feeling the music. “In Serbia we have a saying, ‘Singing or playing with soul.’”
Grow, Play, Adapt
The distinguished pianist Nataša Veljković began her career right here at the University of Music and Performing Arts (MDW). Moving to Vienna when she was only 14, she studied under the guidance of the famed Austrian pianist Paul Badura-Skoda. She then spent a year at Julliard before returning to Europe to study at the Conservatoire de Musique de Genève. But Vienna was waiting for her: She was offered tenure at MDW when she was only 25. “So, I happily returned.” During her years in the “capital of music,” she has seen it grow and adapt.
“Vienna has changed, of course,” she said. “It has become much more modern and open to new artistic ideas. It has left its porcelain box of conservative notions of art.” The works of Mozart have always been a core interest. A fitting choice for a one-time child prodigy, who performed Maurice Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G Major with the Zagreb Philharmonic at the tender age of 11. Nowadays she is helping a new generation of musicians, among others, Serbs, come into their own: “I’m always happy to see Serbian students helping each other at MDW; they’re friends, they collaborate with each other; it’s a pleasure to work with them.” After performing all over the world, her favorite venue is still her home city: “The greatest privilege is to perform in Belgrade,” she said. “In those moments I always reminisce, about my beginnings, my childhood. You can’t replace that.”
Singin’ in the Rain
While only 12, Marko Dimitrijević has already shown great promise, not only as a singer but as a composer as well. After his parents noticed his talent and drive, they arranged for him to audition for the Vienna Boys Choir, which he joined three years ago.
“Being a member of one of the best choirs in the world is not only a great honor, but an enormous learning experience,” he said. “[Choir] practice is always my favorite time of the day.” After spending countless hours touring and rehearsing together, his fellow students have became an integral part of his life: “The most important thing is that we are all a big family, which supports and complements each other.”
Still, COVID-19 has disrupted all the regular operations of the choir, leaving next year’s tour plans in the balance: “Our last tour to the US was canceled because of the pandemic, which I hope doesn’t happen with our Japanese tour next year – because I was really looking forward to it.” Can he see himself doing music in the future? He grinned: “For me, music is like the air I breath; I can’t imagine my life without it.”
No matter how far they’ve come, Serbian musicians of every generation demonstrate that success isn’t worth much if you don’t share it. Decade after decade, they continue enriching Austria’s musical legacy with a sense of community and an unwavering passion, felt in every note they create.