Theatre of Osijek, 1931

Jan Urban’s “Klavieralbum” released in 2010 by:

Jan Urban (1875 – 1952)

Bohemia has been described as the “Music Conservatoire of Europe”. A long line of Czech musicians - from the time of Zelenka up to that of Bohuslav Martinu - departed their homeland, musical crusaders bearing the Lyre in place of the Cross.

In the early years of the 18th century, having undergone a severe period of repression by the Habsburgs, Bohemia found itself Germanized. Countless musicians (Stamiz, Benda, Dussik,Vorisek….!) emigrated to take up top posts in the courts and theatres of the German-speaking countries. Some as great Antonin Reicha continued their journey to Paris.

1848 - the Year of Revolutions - triggered a period of national re-awakening throughout Europe and ushered in a new epoch. Johann Gottfried Herder, the German philosopher, had earlier greatly excited Slav thinkers by resurrecting the ancient idea of the Slavs as a peaceful, bucolic people, imbued with the spirit of union and brotherhood and for whom war was anathema.

All this forms part of the intricate cultural context into which the Czech composer Jan Urban is born, into an aristocratic Prague family, in the year 1875-. As a young man he belongs to an idealistic group of Czech musicians intent on spreading musical culture throughout the South Slav lands. Graduating from Prague Conservtory in 1896, three years later he settles in Valjevo (Serbia) by 1899 , having married Milka , young women of remarkable beauty . For the rest of his life he will with touching commitment found music schools, choirs and orchestras and devote his time to teaching, conducting and composing.

His opera “The Mother” is given in Belgrade in 1909. It is considered the “second Serbian opera” (Binichki “ Na uranku” being the first.) His 4-volume “Klavieralbum” appears already 1905.

The colourful “13 Slavonic Dances”, as well as his “8 Serbian Dances”, contribute to Urban being termed “the Serbian Dvorak”.Some of theme are recorded by Symphonic Orchestra of Radio Belgrade.

Urban serves as Kapellmeister in the Serbian Army during the 1st World War. In one of his letters from the Salonika Front we read: “The soldiers are dying. Mens’ limbs are being amputated. And I have to write a March.” Several of his works commemorate this period: “In Memory of Corfu”, “Crossing Albania”, “From the East” “The Peonies of Kosovo”.

We encounter Urban once more as an opera composer at the State Theatre of Osijek(Croatia) where he conducts his “Sin of Iguman”, “Bewitched princess”, “Djul-Beaza”, and “Rose of Terpsihora” between 1925 and 1939.In this most creative period he composes numerous marches ,waltzes ,polkas, mazurkas, 8 string quartets , children songs and also National Mass and Croatian Mass.

Twice in his life Urban travels with the intention of re-visiting his native country, his Prague. On both occasions having reached the Czech border he stops and turns back.
The declaration of the fascist-run, Hitler-supported, Independent State of Croatia finds Urban leaving the country at the onset of the 2nd World War and returning to Serbia.

After the war Urban’s output diminishes.. In Tito’s Yugoslavia he composes a number of songs celebrating the Partisan Resistance to the Nazis such as “Sutjeska” and “The Death of the Hero”.
Forty brilliant studies for solo violon comprise his last works : the aged Urban is now inseparable from his violin floating like one of Chagall’s dream figures suspended in the sky beyond the wars , troubled , tragic countries; himself alone ..free.

The richness of the rhythms and tunes of his adopted country suffuse his music. But behind these elements his Bohemian homeland always shines through with particular clarity. Jan Urban dies in February1952.
Biljana Urban