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REVIVE: Yugoslavia Town : Music Revives Town in Yugoslavia

August 23, 1987|LEE ADAIR LAWRENCE | Lawrence is an American living in Yugoslavia

GROZNJAN, Yugoslavia — Music has been known to restore the weary, uplift the downtrodden and even cure the temporarily maladjusted. But revive a town? It seems that music can do that, too.

Were it not for music, time and neglect would have killed this medieval town in northwestern Yugoslavia. Instead, painters who discovered the charms of its winding streets and quiet courtyards established ateliers. A few years later, young musicians from all over the world revived the town's soul.

Thanks to their efforts, Groznjan's population is growing steadily as are the numbers of visitors who, every summer, discover its charms.

Surrounded by stone ramparts dating to the 15th and 16th centuries, Groznjan sits atop a hill in the center of Yugoslavia's Istrian Peninsula. Around it the lush countryside unfolds in a succession of green valleys and low hills. At irregular intervals, rocky patches rip through this thick blanket of vegetation.

Flora has competed with stone on this peninsula since the beginning of civilization, millenia before Groznjan made its appearance in historical records as a medieval, fortified settlement in 1103. Since then the town has changed hands several times: Charlemagne's vassals until the 14th Century, Venice, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Napoleonic France and Italy. At the end of World War II it became a part of Tito's Yugoslavia.

Cobblestone Streets

Groznjan's main gate bears the Venetian seal and a few of the houses along Groznjan's narrow, cobblestone streets survive from the 13th and 14th centuries. Mostly, however, Groznjan's architecture bridges the 15th and 18th centuries.

To the right of the main entrance stands a purely Renaissance loggia below what used to be the town granary. The baroque Church of Saints Mary, Vitus and Modestus presides over the town's main square. The artwork inside the church traces a similar progression, from Renaissance choir stalls to a late Baroque altar in marble.

"Groznjan shared the fate of many Istrian towns, which were abandoned after the Second World War," says Vladimir Ukraincik, director of the Institute for the Protection of Monuments in the Yugoslav Republic of Croatia. In the early 1950s many of Istria's Italian families chose to emigrate, their cultural and linguistic ties to Italy proving stronger than their attachment to the land.

More young people left for tourist centers along the Dalmatian coast or north to Austria and Germany, where their labor commanded higher prices. By the early '60s Groznjan counted only 10 older hangers-on, and about 80% of its buildings stood abandoned.

"It became a question of either surrendering this town to oblivion," Ukraincik says, "or doing something to reverse the trend."

An Artists' Town

Painters and sculptors took the initiative by having Groznjan officially recognized as an artists' town in 1965. In practical terms, this meant state funding for the restoration and conversion of old houses into studios and galleries. As a result, a handful of artists made Groznjan their summer workplace.

But more was needed to bring life back to the town's all too quiet streets. The International Federation of the Jeunesses Musicales happened to be looking for an "oasis of silence," as former member Carlos Rego put it.

"We wanted to create a sort of musical research center, a place where federation leaders of different countries could work together," recalled the former secretary general of the federation, Adelain Donet.

Through UNESCO, Yugoslavia offered Groznjan. "It was ideal: It had beauty, peace and a mix of cultures--Venetian, Italian, Austrian, Slavic." In June, 1969, at a meeting in Budapest, Groznjan became an official federation project.

The next summer young musicians and aficionados from all over the world lugged sleeping bags and instruments up the dirt road to Groznjan. In consultation with restoration experts they replaced caved-in roofs, cleaned out debris, replastered facades and ushered centuries-old houses into the 20th Century by installing electricity and plumbing.

At day's end, plumbers and plasterers unwrapped their musical instruments and gathered under the loggia's graceful arches or in the main square. From this romantic vantage point they filled the evening air with the sounds of chamber music, jam sessions, solos. A hearty handful would often greet the dawn with varied melodies.

Musicians Tarry

Now music echoes in Groznjan's winding street all summer long, day or night. Between the end of June and the beginning of September more than 700 young musicians tarry a while in Groznjan to take part in courses and workshops.

These are baroque music for cellists, classes in sitar for guitarists, master classes in organ, flute, harpsichord, violin, piano. Sounds as varied as jazz, electronic music and Istrian folk tunes spill through open windows into the stone-lined streets.

Alexandra Wagner, who took over the organization of the camp in 1986, has broadened the program.

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