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St. Elijah Serbian Orthodox Church Choir, under the masterful direction of
Professor Boris Dobrovolsky
I found two old SRBOBRAN articles in my "kufer," one of them an obituary for Professor Boris Dobrovolsky who passed away on Sunday, June 22, 1969, and I thought to myself, it's best to share all this info here on the website, lest it be forever lost!
This tribute to Prof. "Dobby" is to make up for my wasting of his valuable time when I was@ 10 years old, taking private piano lessons from him and not respecting his position enough to study hard.
Of course my parents, Milan and Laura Karlo always raved about what a genius the man was, but at my age, I truly didn't realize what a great gift had been given to me!
But six years later, how proud I was to be a part of his Philip Visnich Choir of St. Sava Church in Pittsburgh, and I will NEVER forget being 16 years of age, my FIRST away-from-home choir trip, singing in Canada to a full-house high school auditorium, even the upper gallery level jampacked.
Our choir came proudly on stage but only uttered two words of our "Ratne Pesme" song arranged by Adam Popovich, before the Candian crowd went wild, standing on their feet by this time, clapping and singing along with the music before sitting down at the part where we whispered the words: "Kazi milo, kazi pravo, jel' li Cica Draza zdravo?" Then, just as we were taught by Dobby, we belted out the fourth verse: "Jeste, jeste, kazi svima, u srcu je svi Srbima!"
Again, the crowd was up and stomping their feet and hands in applause so great, I thought I'd have a heart attack from joy. Of course, Professor Dobrovolsky was a master at getting these kind of responses from his audiences......
An anonymously written article in the SRBOBRAN of Sept. 15, 1965 said that the history of the Serbian Singing Federation was yet unwritten, and lest Professor Dobrovolsky’s important contributions to Serbian music passed into oblivion, the former singers, students, associates, officers of the Serbian Singing Federation and countless friends wanted to pay a belated, but highly deserved tribute to “Dobby” for his outstanding contributions and achievements in the field of Serbian choral music, sacred and secular.
Professor Dobrovolsky came from a family with a military background, high in the ranks of Russian nobility. He was born in Petrograd, Imperial Russia in 1885 (his 1969 obituary says he was a native of Riga, Lavia), one of five children, with two brothers and two sisters. His early life was rich in cultural heritage of the city of Petrograd, where he received his Conservatory and Imperial Law School degrees. This was the epoch of great Russian novelists, poets and musicians, and this unsurpassed to this day culture molded his ambition and career. Boris Dobrovolsky later became the foremost interpreter of Serbian choral music, but first had to earn a law degree, at the insistence of his father. But his heart was dedicated to music. He earned the equivalent of a Master’s Degree in Liberal Arts at the Conservatory of Music in Petrograd, studying harmony under Rimski-Korsakov, balancing education in the humanities and fine art.
Finishing his formal education, “Dobby” became acquainted with Albert Koates, the leading conductor at the Imperial Opera in Petrograd, an excellent interpreter of Russian music, and also befriended Napravik, one of the best symphonic and operatic conductors Russia ever had. However, these numerous musical contacts were severed with the advent of WWI. Although drafted into the military service in 1914, the gathering storm of social unrest following the Great War drove Prof. Dobrovolsky from his homeland.
The year 1919 found him in Ljubljana and by 1921, he was Director of the Ljubljana Opera Chorus until being invited to Belgrade by Stasha Binicki, Composer and Director of the Belgrade National Opera, and Conductor of the well-known “Singing Society Stankovich,” who was a student of Stevan Mokranjac.
When he first arrived, not fully understanding the Serbian language, he recalled his first rehearsal thusly: “Carried away by the beauty of the harmony and rhythm of the composition, I stopped and abruptly turned to Mr. Binicki asking: “What is this divine music about and who wrote it?”
“It is about the life of common people and it is the work of Stevan Mokranjac, one of the greatest composers of choral music in the world,” answered Mr. Binicki.
“As I further became acquainted with Morkanjac’s Rukovets, I realized that no truer words were spoken,” continued Dobby.
“That was the first encounter of Prof. Dobrovolsky with the works of Mokranjac, whose music he later interpreted in America with rare virtuosity and elan,” wrote the anonymous writer of the 1965 Srbobran article.
With Binicki, his 1969 obituary says, Dobrovolsky studied all of Mokranjac’s compositions and especially the interpretations which Mokranjac intended and requested.
Professor Dobrovolsky said that he knew of no other composer who could better use the potentialities of the human voice to produce the most perfect sound. “I was very proud to have been able to introduce Mokranjac’s compositions to the American youth for the first time.”
And thus, this is how the American youth became acquainted with Serbian folklore!
While in Belgrade, Professor Dobrovolsky was in the company of such eminent Serbian composers and conductros as Kosta Manojlovich and Petar Krstich. He became friends with Milenko Zivkovic, a promising young musician, and Stevan Hristich, an eminent composer. Dobby knew them all! Personally!
While in Belgrade, Dobby also conducted the Symphony Orchestra “LYRA” with “Stankovich” and they made extensive tours throughout Yugoslavia. There was much Serbian-French cooperation then, and Dobby directed the Stankovich Choir in Nice, Lyons, Grenoble and Paris. In Belgrade, he was honored with a permanent membership in the choir society “Karageorge.”
Wherever he went, he earned for the Serbian comosers their well-deserved recognition and acclaim. In addition to Karageorge, Dobby led the “Zeleznicar” and had successes in Rumania and Bulgaria. He was the one who made the European community aware that the Serbs had arrived with their contributions to Europe’s musical and cultural heritage.
Dobby renewed his friendship with Basso Fedor Chaliapin, unsurpassed in the dramatic execution of op-vocal teacher while being the conductor of the “Russian Opera in Paris” (Opera Privee de Paris). Dobby operated his private studios teaching voice and piano, and with “Opera Privee” he traveled widely on tours through the Latin American areas of Paraquay, Uruguay, Argentina, Chile, Peru, Cuba and Mexico.
Back in France, he was honored with membership in the choral society “Orpheon of Grenoble” and “Harmonie of Lyon,” and traveled widely through the Benelux countries as conductor.
In 1932 he was back in Belgrade, but by 1936, he arrived in the United States anticipating a furthering of his own musical career. It wasn’t long before he met Ziloti, a professor at Julliard, a great pianist, a conductor, and the last pupil of Franz Liszt. He also met Ziloti’s cousin Rachmaninov, who was on a concert tour through Europe and the United States. At this time, the Consul-General of Yugoslavia, Mr. Stojanovich, persuaded Professor Boris Dobrovolsky to stay in this country as the interpreter of Serbian classical music.
We were taught by the BEST!
Dobby accepted a position as Director of the St. Nicholas Choir of Wilmerding, PA (now Monroeville), and also opened a studio in the colorful Nixon Building which was then the hub of the city’s musical activity. He also trained and developed such outstanding choirs as “Phillip Visnich” of Pittsburgh, “St. Nikola” of Johnstown, “St. Elijah” of Aliquippa and Midland’s “Laza Kostich.”
Aliquippa alone, had 300 singers under the direction of Dobby over a span of twenty-five years. And there are several still alive today who remember when in 1948, the Metropolitan Soprano, Danica Illich, sang selections of Serbian composers with the St. Elijah Choir of Aliquippa.
One of the most memorable achievements was the performance of the combined St. Elijah and Phillip Visnich Choirs, under the common name of “Stevan Mokranjac” sang at Carnegie Music Hall in Pittsburgh in 1952. The program consisted of several musical compositions including “Kozar,” which really impressed the Pittsburgh music critics in attendance who were lavish in their praise. Dobby said that without a doubt this was the most excellent choral work ever written.
Dobby also directed the Preseren Slovenian Singing Society and Javor Choral Society of Pittsburgh.
Professor Dobrovolsky was married to the former Stella Wallace (Vuletich), also an alumna of the St. Elijah choir, and was its soloist on many occasions. Their son Michael was a graduate of Missouri University, where as a Phi Beta Kappa, he was awarded a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship, wherein he chose Harvard University for his post-graduate work.
The SRBOBRAN article goes on to say that he conducted piano and voice lessons for numerous students unabated with enthusiasm and vigor in his studio in Dormont, a suburb of Pittsburgh, and I, ashamedly, was one of them, never taking my lessons as conscientiously as I should have, being only ten years old at the time.
However, we are ALL eternally grateful to Professor Boris Dobrovolsky for bringing the best of Serbian music to the American people, and especially, the Serbs of America!
At the excellently attended banquet held in his honor in Aliquippa, many tributes were paid to him, one announcing this life membership in the Serbian Singing Federation of America. The testimonial ended with a mass choral group composed of singers of all different choirs and of many different years, but all students of Professor Dobby singing many selections, which he had taught, and which only he could interpret.
And as I finish this piece, I fondly remember him chastising us---“no books, no music. You know it, now sing it.” And of how in the middle of our song, he walked off and stood in the wings, showing off his/our talents, and then coming back on stage for thunderous acclaim and then another encore! “Bravo! Bravo, Professor Dobrovolsky!”
Professor "Dobby" died at age 84. The SRBOBRAN editor (Bobby Stone?) said:
"No one packed so much life and accomplishment in so many years--- it was a rich and full life. Although he acquired many tributes and honorary degrees before coming to this country, he did not sit upon his laurels, but instead proceed triumphantly on.
"He was one of the best choral directors of music on this continent, his work always notable and remarkable.
Direction of the SSS St. Elijah Girls with Metropolitan Opera Singer, Danica Ilich, at the 1948 Pittsburgh SSF FEstival, singing "Buji Baji."
Direction of the SSS St. ELijah Choir with Mokranjac's 5th Rukovet.
Direction of the SSS Phillip Visnich Choir of Mokranjac's 6th Rukovet, "Hajduk Veljko" in Gary Indiana, with Nick Stone as soloist.
Direction of the Stevan Mokranjac Choir (Combined St. Elijah and Phillip Visnich Choirs) in Chicago, IL for the SND and King Peter II, singing "Primorski Na Pjevi."
Direction of his own composition of "Vjeruju" with his wife Stella, as soloist.
Direction of the SSS Holy Trinity Choir of Pittsburgh of Mokranjac's 11th Rukovet.
Direction of Mokranjac's 2nd Rukovet with Tosho Erdel as soloist.
His rousing and exciting interpretation of Adam Popovich's "Ratne Pesme" in Niagara Falls, Canada, for Serbian Day.
His unparalled style of folidng his hands in the middle of a choir song, remaining motionless, except for his eyes, with which he continued to direct, to the thrill of the audience.
His unexpected departure from the state in the middle of a song to permit his well-trained choir to complete the song without him, but as he taught so well, to the extreme pleasure of the audience.
His unusual but interesting translation and explanation of songs, before singing.
His uncanny ability to ward off "choir jitters before a concert.
His own compositions of "Oce Nas," "Svjai Boze," "Zdravo," "Veruju," Serbian Christmas carols and more.
His most intimate understanding and interpretation of Mokranjac music, his forte.
His broad ability to be personalbe with amateur and professional.
To those of us who have known him--whether as a director, composer, arranger, teacher or friend, he was one of the GREATEST friends we have ever known.
We shall remember him for his many accomplishments in a full life, but most important, we shall remember him for his indispensible contribution to Serbian choral music on this continent."
May the good Lord have mercy upon his soul."
If you click on the lower right end of the image below, you will see the Professor Boris Dobrovolsky supported my father in his efforts to establish the American Serb Life magazine. In 1948, when money was very valuable then, he donated $25, almost an unheard of sum! Thank You, Professor Dobrovolsky. Memory Eternal, Vejcnaja Pamjat.
And please forgive me for not practicing that piano more!