The Czech born composer and conductor Jan Urban, after graduating from the Prague Conservatory in 1897, accepted an invitation by the Serbian Government and settled in the Kingdom of Serbia, in March 1899. He was part of around 250 Czech musicians, who in the last decades of the 19th century emigrated to the Southern Slav countries in order to improve local musical culture. Serbia was particularly interesting to them as the free country in Europe not dominated by the Ottoman or Habsburg empires.
Bohemia has been described as the “Music Conservatoire of Europe.” Jan Urban was part of that illustrious lineage of Czech’s – from the time of Jan Zelenka in the 17th to that of Bohuslav Martinu in the 20th century – who departed from their homeland to become musical crusaders bearing the Lyre in place of the Cross. Countless musicians before him, like Stamiz, Benda, Dussik, Vořišek, Reicha and many others were part of what the French musicologist Guy Erismann calls ”la grande émigration.” They took up important positions at the great European courts and theatres, in mostly German-speaking countries. Some went further afield, like the great Antonin Reicha, who journeyed on to Paris and taught composers such as Liszt and Cesar Franck.
After settling in Serbia, Ján Urban married Milka, a woman of remarkable beauty from the renowned Perić family of Valjevo and changed his first name to Jovan, after conversion to the Eastern Orthodox church. Milka bore Jan-Jovan six children.
For the rest of his life he fervently strove to improve the musical education and culture of what was first the Kingdom of Serbia, later became the Kingdom of Yugoslavia and after the liberation in 1945, non aligned SFR Yugoslavia. There he was pivotal in establishing the first national orchestras, music academies and cultural societies, all the while conducting and composing music of all genres.
The great contribution of Urban to Serbian classical music is his contribution to orchestral music. His orchestral output – around 20 overtures, innumerable dances and suites of remarkable orchestration – was the first of its kind to be written for full symphony orchestra. His highly imaginative orchestration of the folkloristic ”Poskocica”, as well as his ”Serbian Dances“, contribute to Urban being termed “the Serbian Dvořak.” From the early 1920s up until the 1990s, most of these works have been performed and recorded by the Belgrade Radio Symphony Orchestra. In Skopje, Macedonia, he founded the first orchestra and became its Opera’s first conductor.
Urban served as Kapellmeister in the Serbian Army during the First World War. Several of his works commemorate this period: “In Memory of Corfu“, “Crossing Albania“, ”La Serbie de l’Orient” (In the East), “The Peonies of Kosovo“, ”Sounds of Medvednik mountain.”
”La Serbie de l’Orient” was performed in Bizerta, Tunisia during the war. In Paris and other French cities this remarkable work was performed under the name of superior officer, Captain Dragutin Pokorny, so depriving Urban of his well deserved accolade.
The celebrated composition ”March on Drina”, written in Valjevo in 1915 and signed by Stanislav Binički, is also believed by his family and the citizens of Valjevo to be Urban’s work. It was later conducted by Herbert von Karajan in the Vienna Philharmonic’s famous New Year’s Concert of 1987.
Witnessing the unprecedented magnitude of the horrors of war, Ján Urban wrote poignant letters to his wife from the front.
Despite his deep rejection of such violence, he was obliged to keep writing heroic marches based on national tunes, in order to strengthen and boost the troops’ moral. After The Great War Urban would never again write another ”heroic march”. Quite likely he was aware of the romantic cult of heroism these propagated and knew of Karl Kraus’ satirical essay ”Das Technoromantische Abenteuer” (Technoromantic Adventure).
In the first decade of the 20th century Serbia had only one large orchestra, the ”King’s Guard”. Urban, together with another Czech born musician, the above mentioned Dragutin Pokorny, established 20 further wind orchestras post WWI. He also established and ran the first Music Military Academy in Vršac, in 1927.
From 1920 to 1941 we encounter Jan Urban as an opera composer and conductor at the National Theatre of Osijek (in today’s Croatia). At that time the city of Osijek, or ”little Prague”, boasted an astonishing cultural life, deeply marked by the Vienna Secession in architecture, literature and music. Around the year 1924 Urban founded the ”Osijek Philharmonic Orchestra”, together with his close friend the conductor Lav Mirsky. The members of that orchestra were mostly Czech musicians drawn from Urban’s promenade orchestra.
Urban’s children opera Enchanted princess (1926), created in collaboration with the city’s leading writer, reflected the aesthetic of the ‘Art Nouveau’. For his operetta Sin of Iguman he chose a libretto characteristic of the hilarity of Hašek’s humor. Leaving the heroic music narrative behind, Urban’s artistic expression of that period leaned toward modernity. This was mostly in the sense of Victor Žmegač’s finely stated ”Modernism is the pluralism of styles”, since Urban’s harmonic language remained fairly conventional.
The declaration of the fascist-run Independent State of Croatia found Urban fleeing the country and returning to Serbia at the onset of the Second World War. His best friend, the Jewish conductor Lav Mirsky, together with whom he paved the way for modern Opera and symphonic musical life in Osijek, was deported.
Among Jan Urban’s compositions dating from the Second World War we find 40 studies for violin solo and a fantasy for violin and piano, the Wanderer (Putnik) after a poem by Petar Preradović: ”Merciful beloved God, lost am I in the roadless land….”
After the war compositions continued to flow, including a number of works celebrating the Partisan Resistance to the Nazis, such as Sutjeska and The Death of the Hero.
Jan Urban passed away on February 9th, 1952 in Valjevo, in what was then still Yugoslavia. He was celebrated and widely performed there after his death, in appreciation for his tireless contribution to having elevated the country to the high standard in music, arts and education.
During his life, the composer covered vast musical ground mastering opera, orchestral works, chamber music and piano miniatures. Among Ján Urban’s most significant works are two operas, Mother and Djul Beaza, two operettas Sin of Iguman and Terpsichore, two children’s operettas and more than 90 piano pieces, the latter published between 1905 and 1910 in Belgrade. His oeuvre further included Nine Serbian Dances and Thirteen Saltarelli (Poskočica) for large orchestra, five suits, countless overtures, potpourris, marches, waltzes, works for solo violin and other chamber music. A recently discovered musical play Šokica suggests his opera output to have been even larger. Although about two-thirds of his works were either lost or destroyed, as the consequence of five wars, his remaining output left to posterity is considerable.
The richness of the folkloristic rhythms and tunes of his adopted South Slav (Yugoslavian) countries suffuse Urban’s music. Behind these elements, his Bohemian homeland always shines through with particular clarity. Yet Urban is not an epigone of his Czech predecessors. The poetical images of his piano works, his operettas and Strauss-like orchestral waltzes reveal more strongly the hallmarks of ‘Art Nouveau’. Furthermore, elements of so-called oriental modes are woven into visceral ingredients of Jan Urban’s harmonic language. The alchemy of these styles marks a consummate multinational composer whose music is the apotheosis of dance where the Orient and Occident dance embraced.