Music Music in the Balkans
Jim Samson
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 April 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 April 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199757824-0258


For the purposes of this article, “the Balkans” refers to the territories of present-day Albania, Bulgaria, Greece, Romania, and the successor states of Former Yugoslavia (Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, and Slovenia). The geographical scope has been determined principally by Ottoman presence and legacy in Europe, though the European part of present-day Turkey is not included. Nor is Hungary, despite the Ottoman presence there, since its cultural history is more closely aligned to Habsburg Central Europe. Conversely, Slovenia, which was never occupied by the Ottomans, is admitted, since it was drawn into the political communities of the two Yugoslav states. These days it is usual to describe the wider region as South East Europe, implying an accommodation to the European project. In contrast to this, the term “Balkans” has acquired pejorative connotations in some circles, signifying what is taken to be the darker past of the region. The art music of the Balkans is not widely known. Of individual composers, only George Enescu and Nikos Skalkottas have achieved anything like international visibility, though Josip Slavenski and Manolis Kalomiris are highly valued in some quarters. As a result, the major studies of art music are by native scholars, and in languages that are arcane to most. Yet there is no option but to persevere, since these studies are in many cases the only source of detailed information, especially given the absence of published scores for much of the repertory. In contrast, the traditional music of the region has been much foraged by scholars from without, and notably by North American academics. Partly because premodern music-making survived longer in the Balkans than in many other parts of Europe, ritual repertories from agrarian communities have highly distinctive qualities, and have often been subject to appropriation, a prey to exoticist agendas from without or to nationalist agendas from within. It is partly to correct an ideologically motivated imbalance in coverage that a number of younger scholars have been giving greater attention to Ottoman-influenced urban traditions from the early 20th century, and to present-day popular music. A separate scholarly thread running through literature on the region concerns the Orthodox chant that is found across the Christian Balkans. There is an industry of publication in this field, much of it dealing with the distribution and provenance of specific manuscripts. It should be noted that although this is a transnational repertory, it is frequently incorporated within national narratives. Once again, it has fallen to younger scholars to mitigate the distorting effects of this national perspective, notably by examining the connections that exist between Orthodox traditions and Ottoman sanat (art) music.

Balkan History and Culture

Contextual knowledge is vital to any understanding of the music of this region. Since there is a wealth of bibliography on Balkan political, social, and cultural histories, the list presented here is ruthlessly reductive. It includes a historical atlas (Hupchick and Cox 2001), several general histories of the region (Jelavich 1983, Mazower 2002, and Wachtel 2008), a more specific study of Ottoman presence and legacy (Shankland 2005–2013), and two commentaries on Balkan identities, with a focus on the roles of religion and language, respectively (Roudometof 2001, Greenberg 2004). In addition, there are two volumes dealing with perceptions of the Balkans from without and from within (Jezernik 2004, Krivokapić 2015).

  • Greenberg, Robert. Language and Identity in the Balkans. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.

    Inversely related to Roudometof 2001, this book assesses how far political disintegration in the western Balkans led to cultural disintegration. The principal focus is on the splintering of Serbo-Croat following the wars of Yugoslav succession, but the book is valuable more generally as a case study in the counterpoint of culture and politics in the wider region.

  • Hupchick, Dennis, and H. E. Cox. The Palgrave Concise Historical Atlas of the Balkans. New York: Palgrave, 2001.

    An indispensable reference text, in the form of a sequence of historical maps with commentaries. Given the complexity of Balkan history, it is an essential guide to the historically shifting borders of the region and to key dates in its political history.

  • Jelavich, Barbara. History of the Balkans. 2 vols. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1983.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511523694

    A detailed history, though the emphasis on political at the expense of social history reduces its explanatory value a little. The narrative is shaped above all by emergent nationalisms, their conflict with the dynastic principle of imperial rule, and their formalization as nation-states. Volume 1 deals mainly with the 18th and 19th centuries, and Volume 2 with the 20th.

  • Jezernik, Božidar. Wild Europe: The Balkans in the Gaze of Western Travellers. London: Saqi Books, 2004.

    One of several books to document the “invention” of the Balkans by the West. It is mainly a synoptic account of the many western European travelers to the Balkans, but balances these views with insider perspectives that were articulated in indigenous nationalist-orientated ethnology from the mid-19th century onward. The book’s profusion of detail does at times threaten coherence, but it makes for a colorful, if not an intellectually demanding, read.

  • Krivokapić, Marija, ed. The Balkans in Travel Writing. Newcastle-upon-Tyne, UK: Cambridge Scholars, 2015.

    Usefully multidisciplinary in its approach to travel writing from the 20th century and beyond, this collection is mainly by native Balkan authors. It is variable in quality, but for the most part it is more rigorously theorized than Jezernik 2004. There are especially good chapters by Maja Muhić on attitudes to the empire, and by Antonia Young on the ideology concealed in travel writing.

  • Mazower, Mark. The Balkans: From the End of Byzantium to the Present Day. London: Phoenix, 2002.

    This is a landmark study, and the best of several concise histories of the Balkans. It is boldly interpretative on a geopolitical level, notably in its attempt to dispel some of the myths about the Balkans as a cauldron of ancient and endemic ethno-religious conflicts. Good on the influence of Balkan ecologies (rivers and mountains) on the sociopolitical history, and on the destructive effects of nation-building. First published 2000.

  • Roudometof, Victor. Nationalism, Globalization and Orthodoxy: The Social Origins of Ethnic Conflict in the Balkans. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2001.

    A world-historical analysis of the struggle for national identity within the Ottoman Balkans, especially good on the social dynamics of the Serbian and Greek independence movements, on the wider relationship between globalizing and nationalizing tendencies, and on the intertwining of religion and nationalism. It is in part deconstructive, exposing the weaknesses of two earlier explanatory models (Roudometof calls these “incorporation” and “decentralization,” respectively), and proposing instead a more multidimensional model.

  • Shankland, David, ed. Archaeology, Anthropology and Heritage in the Balkans and Anatolia: The Life and Times of F. W. Hasluck, 1878–1920. 2 vols. Istanbul: Isis Press, 2005–2013.

    Counteracts the tendency of several native Balkan historians to understate the longer-term influence of the Ottoman Empire. Good studies of Alevi and Bektashi Muslim traditions in Greece and Albania, on Christian-Muslim relations in the late Ottoman era, and on heritage and nationalism in both Anatolia and the Balkans. The central figure is Frederick Hasluck, a scholar of Christian-Muslim symbiosis who engaged in detailed ethnographic research on the Sufi lodges in Bulgaria, Romania, Macedonia, Greece, and Albania.

  • Wachtel, Andrew Baruch. The Balkans in World History. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.

    Another positive spin on the region, looking especially at the effects—political and cultural—of overlapping imperial presences: in other words, viewing the Balkans as a site of intersecting Venetian, Ottoman, Habsburg, and Romanov dynasties. The larger trajectory outlined by Wachtel is well described by the subtitle of his final chapter, “From the Balkans to South East Europe.”

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