Six things... on what it means to be a Yugoslav pianist

Monday, April 29, 2019 - 15:17

Pianist Tamara Stefanovich, a regular collaborator with our Artist in Residence Pierre Laurent Aimard, returns to Southbank Centre on 2 June to perform Stockhausen’s Mantra in Queen Elizabeth Hall. Ahead of this performance, Stefanovich tells us about her journey to becoming the revered pianist she is today, and what it means to be from a country that has ceased to be.


What comes to mind when I tell you I am Yugoslav? That the country of Yugoslavia doesn’t exist? Try to imagine what it is like to be from a country that no longer exists; you are invisible, nonexistent, without roots. It is a country that in 50 years made incredible developments, forwards and backwards, and I witnessed the best and worst my country could produce. Yet now, if I am brave enough to tell strangers I am from that same country, they seem to feel entitled tell me that my country doesn’t exist. 



My upbringing in socialist Yugoslavia was a strict one, but this was the norm. It was expected that you try to be the best in everything you are doing - sports, music, studies, behaviour, how you talked to your elders, and how you presented yourself. I had to have perfect attire for school with my red ribbon as one of Tito’s pioneers. On my wall I had ski medals and piano competition diplomas. It’s important to point out, the way socialism was often painted in the West, was not the socialism I experienced as a child. We traveled freely and it was expected of us to speak a couple foreign languages, we thrived on all information, from the West or the East, and felt disconnected from both in a liberated way. 

I was five years old when it was decided I should learn piano as my brother and sister were already playing cello and violin. Entering a music school involved a tough exam; singing, dancing on given rhythms, tapping them, plus general motor skills tests. But once you passed it the music school was free and I had two practical piano lessons a week from the age of six. And from an early age we had regular exams, public concerts and competitions.

Often I hear it suggested this is too much pressure on a child, but I disagree. I believe talent in music, as in sports, has to be nurtured from an early age in a structured way. I am blessed to have had fantastic teachers on a wide range of music aspects. I was not trained as a circus pianist, but was prepared for life in music; even my earliest education involved choir singing, theory, counterpoint, chamber music, playing with orchestra, sight reading and music history. We had normal school as well; there was no special treatment just because you happened to play piano quite well. All free of charge, but with silent expectations to always be the best version of yourself.


I believe talent in music has to be nurtured from an early age, in a structured way


Luckily my talent was recognised, and a teacher urged me strongly to come and study with him at the University of Music in Belgrade. I was still only 13, and so this necessitated the teacher making the government change the law on enrolment age. But they were successful and so I enrolled, studying music and additional compulsory causes including sociology and psychology.

However, this necessitated spending one summer in school with teachers and officials giving me exams for the seven years of elementary and high school I was jumping. It seems I was what would be later coined a ‘nerd’. I would read books of any subject, but especially German literature, for hours on end, and I was practicing and learning all day. I did also have my social life, but we thrived on passion for music and a desire to elevate ourselves. I remember taking a six hour train to Zagreb to hear Sviatoslav Richter with my colleagues, and so I was amazed when my students in Germany would tell me they didn’t go to concerts that were 10 minutes from their home.



My childhood ended when I was 17. I had just received my bachelor’s degree – the youngest ever student of my university to do so – and planned to study something other than music, however politics put a stop to that. My parents were worried about shifting forces in Yugoslavia following Tito’s death and decided I should go on studying piano in the United States. Whilst I was taking the entrance exam at Philadelphia’s Curtis institute the first government demonstrations were taking place at home, and I could see tanks rolling into Belgrade streets on the television.

I studied at Curtis for three years, but my heart wasn’t in it. I felt to be studying piano when my country was under sanctions from the Western world was somewhat futile. I went to Germany as I wanted to learn the German language with the hope of having a student scholarship, but this was annulled because of the same sanctions. I was one of the prized students in Cologne, yet I was not allowed to work, my scholarship was annulled and I could not travel freely to take part in competitions without a visa.

When bombs fell on my hometown Belgrade in the late 1990s I felt I couldn’t call myself Yugoslav. I did not feel welcome in my home country as my father is Serbian, and my mother Croatian, and yet I did not feel welcome in the West either. Maybe it was this which gave me the strength to dive in a completely different musical direction, contemporary, new music. I felt the contact of the arts of our time was the only possible saviour for understanding this life I was given.


When bombs fell on my hometown Belgrade in the late 1990s I felt I couldn’t call myself Yugoslav

Mature years

My self-esteem was low, but my hunger for learning and understanding was as high as ever. However, the decision to open up a new galaxy of art for my ears was in complete contrast to what was happening in my life. I was still not allowed to work, but I had to exist. I was allowed to stay in Germany, but with limitations of time and style of life. I was working hard but didn’t perform concerts for almost a decade. I was allowed to travel, but with limitations and costly visas. I had to keep changing my passport, and with it my identity. I was not Yugoslav anymore, I was suddenly Serbian, which irritated me deeply as it erased my mother’s identity. I was fluctuating between conversations in which I would be told you cannot understand because you’re a Serbian, or you cannot understand this because your mother is Croatian. It got to a point that I started saying I am European, but that also felt too small.


Golden years

After about 15 years living in Germany I was allowed to apply for German citizenship, for which I had to prove I had enough work to stay, regardless of the fact that until then I wasn’t permitted to work. Miraculously I was successful, and for the first time in years I felt free; free to work, free to move, free to vote, free to belong or not. I could take on concert engagements, I could decide to live in Paris for a year then to move to Berlin, without any fear of documents. This feeling of freedom translated in my utmost want to find freedom of choice in my repertoire as a pianist. There is such a lack of freedom of thought among us musicians, and often because of fear of the public, fear of lack of success, fear of not being immediately understood, fear of not belonging, we discard the music of our time as too complex.



The future

To me it sounds weird when someone says you’re German. I’m not irritated, it just sounds untrue. I live in Germany, I love the country, I vote and I commit my human existence to ensuring the country exists in its best version for all. But I am also from a country that disappeared. I am from a country that I am not allowed to give the name with which I grew up. Politics should not define us, government forces should not tell us who we are, where we belong or not, what we should define ourselves as. We are not permanent, we are residents only for a certain time on this earth, so perhaps we should take responsibility for this, and instead of identifying the smallest in us, instead embrace the idea of belonging everywhere.

In writing this I felt the need to start a lot of sentences with ‘I’. We are at a time where countries, and people, are redefining who they are, and sadly this is mostly about redefining borders. However, life has shown me that the richness of human experience comes from crossing borders and looking to the inner-self for identity, rather than framing our nationality.

It will be interesting to see how my son Arthur, who is now four, will go through the process of identifying himself. I sincerely hope he will never be pressured to have the need to say he is of a certain nationality, but rather a human being with a sense of responsibility for all, and for art, especially art of our time.



Tamara Stefanovich joins Pierre Laurent Aimard to perform Stockhausen’s Mantra at Southbank Centre’s Queen Elizabeth Hall on Sunday 2 June

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