Dario Marušić


Abstract: The successive colonisation of Istria with culturally differentiated populations, and peripheral position of the peninsula regarding both the Latin and Slav worlds, has conditioned interesting phenomena which defines the traditional life of the province. On the spiritual level it is primarily reflected in two cul­tural dimensions: the language and traditional music.

Key words: Croatian, Slovene, Italian, Istrian, Istrio-Romanian, Peroj-Monte­neg­rin, Alpine, Adriatic, Dinaric, transcultural, bimusicality, two-part polyph­ony, tonal music, mih, sopele, violin


Istria is the largest peninsula of the eastern coast of the Adriatic Sea, situated in its northeast. The northern border of Istria roughy follows the Trieste – Rijeka road. The greater part of Istria is situated in Croatia, the smaller in Slovenia, while the city of Muggia with the sur­rounding countryside is in Italy. The area is approximately 3556 square kilometers wide and has a current population of 348.773.

Three linguistic standards are present in Istria (Croatian, Slovene and Italian) but there are also three unstandardized languages (Istrian, Istrio-Roma­nian and Peroj-Montenegrin). In addition, eleven dialects are in every­day usage. Many Istrians are bi- or multi-lingual, some of them having two first languages.

In researching the Istrian musical heritage one constantly encountres double, triple or even multiple overlapping of cultural terms. From the eth­nolinguistic point, there is Croatian, Italian and Slovenian music, but we should not disregard Istrio-Romanian and Peroj-Montenegrin music, while ethnomusicologicaly, the most appropriate division seems to be the division in four performance styles for which we can only partly de­termine territorial boundaries. Some musical styles of certain traditions are part of the heritage of different ethnic groups, and we can similarly talk about bi- or multi-lingualism in music, because very often individu­als are heirs of a number of traditions.


1. Two-part polyphony in the so-called “Istrian Scale”

This style is today performed primarily by the Croatian population, but in the past it was also common in the Istrio-Romanian villages at the foot of Učka and in some Slovenian villages in the surroundings of Ko­per/Capodistria. In the mantignadas of Šišan/Sissano and singing alla bugarissa of Bale/Vale with Istrio-Venetian texts the same technique is used. Some tunes are presently performed as songs in Istrio-Venetian or played as dance tunes by the Croatian inhabitants of central and southern Istria.

Passages that comprise this two-part singing are in parallel non-tem­pered sixths with moments in octaves. Cadence is always in octaves. The leading voice is usually lower, but the upper, accompanying voice often moves an octave lower, a third below the leading voice so that ca­dence is in unison. In the first case the singing is called na tanko i debelo (on thin and thick, Music example 1) and corresponds to the music of the sopele[1]. The present tendency is to sing in thirds.



Music example 1




The term “Istrian scale” was coined by the composer Ivan Matetić Ronjgov (1880–1960) who was, when searching for the characteristics of Croatian Istrian music in order to use it in his compositions, the first to establish the four scales that as much as possible approached the tra­di­tional performance. In any case, traditional performing remains natu­ral­istic, while relative intonation vary considerably from ex­ample to exam­ple.


A, C: sopele owned by Martin Glavaš [A-unknown maker; B‑maker: Miro Blažina Pikutar (1905–1976) from Marčana].

B, F: sopele played by Glavaš brothers (maker: Martin Glavaš), Pula-Fondule.

D, E: sopele played by various players from Kršan (maker: Valter Primožić)

Accoustic measurements taken by Dario Marušić in the years 1999, 2001 and 2002.

Numbers and signs + and – designate deviations of the temperred intervals, higher e.g. lower.



2. Two-part polyphony from Ćićarija

Characteristic of this style is the singing known as bugarenje, wide-spread throughout the whole of Ćićarija, as among Croatian people, as well as the Istro-Romanians in Žejane (Music example 2). Prior to World War II this style was also present in the Slovenian village of Golac.


Music example 2



The style of bugarenje, which today has almost completely disap­peared, has never been systematically studied until now. It can only be ap­proximately summarized that the two voices are in interrelations of non-tempered narrow intervals, usually in seconds and diminished thirds with unison moments and a long unison final ending, where however one of the two voices lowers additionally for a second or diminished third. This characteristic is otherwise present especially in the Dinaric music (mainly that of the region of Banija and Western Bosnia), and it cannot be excluded that bugarenje is an older stage of two-part singing in the so-called “Istrian scale”.



3. Descant two-part polyphony

This two-part singing is characterized by moments when the two voices have contrary motion (prevailing) interchanging with moments of drone singing. As all analysis of this style is recent, it can be as­sumed that further studying will lead to the establishment of substyles, since the general approach itself enables us to see some obvious differ­ences between different examples.

This style is present today among the Italians of Galižana/Gallesano (Music example 3)  and in Vodnjan/Dignano, to a lesser extent in Rovinj/ Rovigno, while it has almost completely disappeared from Bale/Valle.

Music example 3



4. Tonal music

Tonal music of Western origin was in the past connected to northern Istria, the coast and several bigger places in the hinterland. Today it is present on the whole peninsula, and has significantly influenced the older heritage of all ethnic communities. However, even among the pre­vailing tonal music we can still notice a few traces of modality (Music example 4).


Music example 4


The characteristics that are present in the Istrian music are in nature Al­pine characteristics (with a greater amount of tonal music and dance repertoire), Adriatic (descant two-part singing, part of dance reper­toire from Galižana/Gallesano and Vodnjan/Dignano) and Dinaric char­acter­istics (two-part singing from Ćićarija).

If we then stress the contrast of older and newer heritage, it could be said that it has much in common with the division of urban (or urban by origin) and rural music, as well with the division of scholarly and purely folk/traditional music.

Even if it is true that the peasant culture is much more conservative and does not accept thorough changes in a short period of time, at best case inclined to gradual transformations, with constant attempts to join new realities with old roots, it is also true that the city was al­ways an attractive spot and had an important cultural influence on the peas­ant community. In that sense the presence of musical forms of obviously scholarly (or half scholarly) origin, even in peasant surroundings proba­bly has to be explained. For example there are many Italian songs present today in Istria. The music of certain dances is also very similar to some art music tunes of the 17th century. However, the latter could well have been under the influence of folk/traditional music.

Considering the domination of the wind instruments in the southern Istria, it can be assumed that in the past this domination spread to the north as well. In these areas also, the greatest number of popular terms that denote playing is connected to wind logic. In the surroundings of Buzet, a common name for playing is sopet (literally: to blow), re­gard­less of whether the instrument is the clarinet, violin or two-stringed bass (bajs). In the surroundings of Buje, in part of the surroundings of Kopar, and on Ćićarija, the term piskat is used which, even though its literal meaning is to play a wind instrument, is also applied to the violin, cin­dra,[2] drum and guitar.

A detailed study of popular terms is sometimes essentail in order to recognize the instrument. Very often different instruments hide under one term, or vice versa, one instrument can be denoted with more terms. Pišćala can denote the clarinet, and the kazoo, and the flute; roženice could be the sopele (shawms), but also the chanter of two types of mih (bagpipe).

In time, different terms cross from one instrument to another, they merge, disappear and the new ones emerge. This happens not only ac­cording to geographical factores, but also within one and the same commu­nity. Even the same narrator may first denotes the instrument using one term, then claims that it is called differently.[3]

The possibility that the type of two-part singing that was preserved on Ćićarija (known as bugarenje) was the basis of two-part singing in the Istrian scale should not be ruled out. In different parts of Istria, we find traces that point to bugarenje as well in the performance style as well as in the terminology. Further confirmation of transformational course of bugarenje can be found in the cindra from Ćićarija. Because of the special ar­rangement of frets on the neck, that are placed far apart at the same dis­tance, intervals of one and the same tune, played on different parts of the neck, are different. It is obvious that, when played on the lower part of the neck, intervals are narrower than when played on its upper part. Also, two ways of playing, that is, in the lower and upper po­sition, are common. Playing in the lower position accompanies buga­renje in a nar­rower sense, while the upper accompanies the dances and kantanje[4]. In the style of kantanje, “musical translations” of originally tonal songs are also performed.

It cannot be precisely claimed if, and to what extent this bimusical­ity, noticed on Ćićarija, had a direct influence on the heritage of the rest of Istria; because of their custom of changing pastures, the Ćići were a mobile population, and Italian-speaking people of Bale/Vale sang alla bugarissa, in the evident connection with the singing of Ćići.

Tonal instrumental music with its various char­acteristics united various ethnic characteristics of the folk heritage in a con­siderable part of Istria. The repertoire of dances in northern Istria is essen­tially the same among Croatian, Italian and Slovenian populations and differs only from place to place according to the frequency of certain tunes and inclination towards them in varying degrees.

Reasons for this drawing closer should be sought for in the external influences which affected different ethnic communities similarly, as well as in the mutual exchange of different cultures in contact.

The space between the sea to the west, the rivers Mirna in the south and the Dragonja in the north and mountain Ćićarija to the east repre­sents an antonomastically transcultural area. Inhabited in its northern part by Slovenians and on the south by Croatians and Italians, it is an extremely compact area from a strictly musical perspective. As older two-part singing styles have practically disappeared, this area is charac­terized today by tonal music, with the ensembles usually consisting of the violin and two stringed bass (bajs).

According to their tonal caracteristics, this tradition has often (not always for a reason) been separated from the rest of the Istrian heritage. Even if it is true that the non-Istrian origin of the instruments (Friuli, Slovenia, Austria, Bohemia),[5] as well as a large proportion of the rep­ertoire is quite evident, it is also true that neither the mechanisms of tran­sition from one possibly preceeding style to this one, nor the reasons for its clear separation from other regional traditions have been clarified.

We know for certain that in much of the area in question, the rule was bimusicality: tonal music – two-part singing in the so-called “Istrian scale“. Even today, older people still sing two-part tunes in the sur­roundings of Buzet, but at the same time instrumental music is exclu­sively tonal. For the same area we have anyway some testimonies that confirm that instruments of old-time tone rows were also used in the past.

Some writers and experts think it is certain that the violin and two-stringed bass arrived to the area with the musicians (so-called zigozaini) that came from Karnia or Friuli.[6] These musi­cians could have initially been wandering, but were subsequently invited to play at the weddings of richer families. They often only accompanied the wedding procession during different stages of the wedding celebration: from the bridegroom’s to the bride’s house, then from there to the church, and from the church to the bridegroom’s house. During the dance, old instruments were played. This stays in harmony with older customs, when the procession was accompanied by the sopele which would at the dance be replaced by the mih.[7] All this is expressed as the mod­ernization of traditional context.[8]

The increasingly frequent presence of new instruments introduced the new aesthetics, with the consequence that the music bands consisting of domestic musicians were formed. Since the new players were younger and therefore inclined to introducing novelties, old instruments were only retained by the older players. As they declined in use, accompanying customs were stopped. Reasons for the continuance of the old vocal tra­dition should however be looked for in an ethnolinguistic context. In­strumental music is certainly more prone to transition from one ethnic group to another than a song connected to the language is. Foreign musi­cians played mostly, and in the rare event of old song being performed, these may not have been real songs but mere paraphrases, preserved to­day among Croatian and Slovenian players, even though in sung Italian (or Venitian).

According to ethnochoreologist Ivan Ivančan (1927–2006), the intro­duction of new instruments was the main reason for the introduction of new dances and accordingly the disappearance of the dance balon from many areas, because it was „probably not possible to accompany it with the violins“.[9] We cannot completely agree with this assumption. The balon was still danced in the surroundings of Buzet precisely with the accompaniment of the violin and two strings bass. Ivančan’s as­sumption is due to insufficient data being available to him. As for the vio­lin and two strings bass he writes that „today except among the Italians in Vodnjan there does not exist similar instrumental ensemble in Istria“, even though at the time of his book’s publication, at least ten musicians were active in the surroundings of Buzet and Buje.

On the other hand in the southern Istria, the balon is played today on the chromatic accordion, while in the past it was also played on the har­monica. In both cases the music is tonal, thus the choice of an instrument is not an issue, but the ability of the players to deliver a product that is understandable and acceptable to the wide range of people, aesthetically and structurally, is.

The present-day custom of combining the sopele with the accordion is an­other example of this change. An old non-tempered instrument is joined with other one that is tempered, coming under its influence com­pletely. Even though players of the sopele (sopac) continues to play the old tune, he has to gently change in­tonation in order for the sound prod­uct to be acceptable, at least on the long tones. That is precisely why the repertoire is limited exclusively to the dances.



The Istrian musical heritage is a compact structure of myths, illu­sions and reality. From the beginning – here we talk about only several centuries – the point of every reasoning changed from authentic research of an issue, to the exploitation of some more fa­vourable circumstances in order to change the direction of reality towards earlier established diver­sions.

Until re­cently, almost all the approaches to Istrian traditional music have avoided focussing on its diversity or the cultural exchanges have been a rule accepted as an anomaly. In understanding this diversity, dif­ferent standards have been used. The prevailing division among Italian scholars is to separate strictly Italian and strictly Slav music, in a type of contradictory in-group-to-out-group, that is ‘us’ and ‘other’, in this case the Slavs in general. Similarly, among the Croatian scholars the division to Istrian music (which implies Croatian music) and the music of the Italian ethnic community prevails. This division is also quite gener­alised and can lead to the belief  that the music of the Italian ethnic community is not Istrian.

One of the most important misconceptions conerning the dating and origin of the sopele shawms appeared. According to all known data, the number of current sopele players (sopci) is much greater than in the past, owing to the revival within the tradition itself. This revival flourished at the end of the fifties when folklore groups in numerous cultural and performing so­cieties were founded and especially at the end of the sixties when it was additionally encouraged by occasional festivals of Istrian traditional mu­sic. In the same period this music started to be broadcast on a large scale in the broadcast by Radio Pula. The programme Istarska narodna glazba by the musical editor Renato Pernić was particularly successful, and the rich re­cord/disc library of that radio station is directly to Pernić’s credit.

All that gave new value to the traditional music, adding it a purpose unknown in the past, that of performing for the audience. On the one hand it was, thus, impetus for young generations to adopt their heritage in order to present it at their performances, but also at the same time old conception of patron saint’s day with the dance in which all the partici­pators were actively involved, whether as players or dancers, collapsed.

All this revival was certainly supported by a national-political di­mension, which used to dogmatize certain historical events that were ad­vantageous for it. In the Istrian atmosphere of the sixties, the wish for cultural revival was more strongly expressed in the Croatian and Slove­nian ethnic community, which had certainly been more affected by the twenty-year-long fascist rule. Unfortunately, this revival could have been started by only one, recently-emerged Istrian cultural elite, but their own secondary status prevented it, and it was tied to “out of Is­tria” contribu­tions academically, unfavourable for a comprehension of the “multi-lay­ered” Istrian reality, which was departing from abstract national affilia­tions (Croatian or Slovenian, but often comprehended also as Yugoslav or even pan-Slav). Thus, in the obvious context of Istrian, which was a product of centuries-old interacting influences between different cul­tures, every sign that could point to a national presence in this area, as ancient and indigenous as possible, was clung to.

So the poetic metaphor of Mate Balota[10] about the sopele which “have been playing for thousands of years” thus became parascientific proof, a very elastic basic unit of measurement. With this measure it was easy to exalt the sopele into an instrument that had been played in Istria “from times out mind”.

Due to the lack of local ethnomusicologists, the Istrian musical heritage was mostly studied by journalists and music teachers, who have, by mixing substance and illusion, constantly been violating the poet’s words, connecting them to patriotic ideas and stressing the sopela’s pan-Yugoslav characteristics, even though already in the thirties one of the most prominent Croatian organologists Božidar Širola (1889–1956) reached an indisputable conclusion about the West European origin of Croatian sopele, clearly distinguishing them from Kosovo- and Macedo­nian „eastern“ zurle.[11]

The fact is that the Istrian shawm sopela antonomastically became a domestic instrument. Therefore it is understandable that the musicians, flat­tered by this, connected the instrument with primordial, even at the expense of the Istrian bagpipe mih, which unquestionably has older characteristics. But the mih was untill recently too ordinary and “com­monplace” an instru­ment, almost always made by the musicians them­selves, thus not virtuoso, and what is the most important, not sublime and festive.

Infact, the mih is the instrument that more than any other reflects the possible developmental route to present-day two-part music in the so-called “Istrian scale“. In comparison with similar instruments from Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, it has quite a special arrangement of holes, following the development of vocal music and maybe influencing it reversely structurally.

On the other hand, it should be noticed that educated Italian cir­cles, overwhelmed by their “twenty century-old” culture, until recently very stubbornly persisted in not dealing with the realities that were far from high culture and that did not clearly declare a national spirit. Various ancient musical forms had to be very far and foreign to them if, until the sixties, there were no testimonies of music of some places with Italian-speaking population like Galižana/Gallesano. Moreover, the first person to deal with Bale/Vale and Šišan/Sissano was the Italian ethnomusicolo­gist Roberto Starec[12] in the eighties. The music repertoires of these places proved to be the most interesting, as much because of the age of the material and diversity of styles as because of the transcultural dimen­sion of a strong mutual exchange.



The present state of Istrian music is quite complex with its positive and negative connotations. Artistic music-making that was gaining a foothold in the special structure of the so-called “Istrian scale“, the way it was established by Ivan Matetić Ronjgov, is often of outstanding artis­tic value. Despite of its connection to ultimate archaic forms, it can be considered modern with its exit from the blind sidetrack of tonality. It was composed and is composed a lot, but that music genre too often stays elitistic, in art-for-art’s sake terms, and closed within its own “aca­demism”. Thus, valuable art works still even today remain essentially unknown to the wider circle of Istrians, but especially to Europe and be­yond.

During the seventies, an annual festival Melodije Istre i Kvarnera was started, first with the aim of popularizing the local folk­lore/traditional mu­sical heritage. However, since the festival dealt exclu­sively with the popular (entertainment) music, it managed to establish one new, purely hedonis­tic aesthetics. If at first the new compositions were at least partly com­posed on the basis of structures characteristic for the folklore musical heri­tage, they gradually transformed into light popular music in the real sense of the word, that inclines to, pleasant to the ear with “catchy” re­frains. Organizers of the festival themselves, in adddition to saying that “it’s a festival based on ethnic music of the area in which it is taking place, the music whose basis is the so-called ‘Istrian scale’, one of the possibly most interesting music phenomenon in the world” “proudly” emphasize that “the songs only touch the elements of these so characteris­tic tunes in a smooth and pleasing way”, and that “the songs emit the warmth and cheerfulness of this climate, and each year almost all the songs be­come hits that you can hear on every corner, radio or house.” During the nineties, a favourable climate for the search for tradition (or at least something that could have epithet traditional applied to it) because of exclusively commercial insistance on ethno-elements, led to the trivializa­tion of the heritage. Reference to the regional dimen­sion (with rare ex­ceptions) survived only in stereotyped text patterns more suitable for tourist postcards that exalt ‘typical’ Istrian elements (the skiffs, kažuni (circular stone houses), walls and wine). The tradi­tional musical heritage increasingly becomes mere material for the per­formance at folklore festivals. Its self-proclaimed saviours have been trying to limit tradition and transform it into a row of kitsch exhibits, unaware that what is performed on the stages of these folklore festivals are conserved extracts of “autochtonous” folklore. This phenomenon has in the past years become especially acute as well as a consequence of the growth of tourism, since these folklore festivals have become part of the tourist offer to the maximum degree. Tourist workers them­selves, with exceptions, have proved to be quite ignorant of Istrian culture, and despite cooperation offered from experts they insist on implementation of their own “strate­gies”.

It should be emphasized that there is also an attempt to make the traditional musical heritage more attractive for new generations, so its presence is acknowledged in schools, but unfortunately, music teachers often come from other areas of Croatia (or Slovenia) or are badly in­formed about its living music forms. Only recently has folklore music been presented to pupils in several schools, but it is common that  perma­nent interest only arises among pupils who come from families where the heritage is alive.



Дарио Марушић


Непрекидна колонизација Истре културно различитом популацијом, као и периферни положај полуострва у односу на латински и словенски свет, условили су занимљиве појаве које су дефинисале традиционални жи­вот покрајине.

Са етномузиколошког становишта, чини се да је најадекватнија по­де­ла истарске традиционалне музике на четири извођачка стила, за које мо­жемо само делимично да одредимо територијалне границе. Неки музичке стилови одређених традиција део су наслеђа различитих етничких група. Сходно томе, можемо говорити о би- или мултилингвализму у музици, јер су појединци веома често следбеници више традиција.

1. Двогласје у такозваној „истарској лествици“;

2. двогласје Ћићарије;

3. дискантно двогласје Галижане и Водњана;

4. тонална музика.

Заиста, одлике које су присутне у истарској музици јесу карак­те­ри­сти­ке алпске (веће присуство тоналне музике и особеног играчког репер­то­ара), јадранске (дискантно двогласно певање и део играчког репертоара из Галежана/Gallesano и Водњана/Dignano) и динарске културе (двогласје Ћићарије). Не би требало искључити могућност да је тип двогласног пе­вања који је сачуван у Ћићарији (познат као бугарење) био основа за дво­гласје у тзв. „истарској лествици“. С друге стране, тонална инстру­мен­тал­на музика била је та која је својим другачијим карактеристикама ујединила различите етничке карактеристике фолклорног наслеђа у знатном делу Истре. Разлоге за ово приближавање требало би тражити у спољашњем утицају који је на исти начин погодио различите етничке заједнице, као и у узајамној размени различитих култура у контакту.

У скоро свим приступима истарској традиционалној музици, све до недавно, било је избегавано усредсређивање на њен диверзитет; с друге стране, културне размене биле су по правилу прихватане као аномалија. Нажалост, због недостатка етномузиколога са овог терена, истарско му­зичко наслеђе углавном су проучавали новинари и наставници музике, или је пак оно на научном пољу било везано за „ванистарске“ сараднике који нису били склони томе да разумеју дату вишеслојну истарску реалност, уда­љену од апстрактних националних одредница (хрватских или сло­ве­начких, а поред тога често и југословенских или чак свесловенских).

Врста folk revival-a процветала је нарочито крајем шездесетих година, охрабрена повременим фестивалима истарске традиционалне музике. У истом периоду, ова музика је постала све присутнија и на бројним про­гра­мима Радио Пуле. Недавно су извођачи-практичари у неколико школа пред­ставили ученицима традиционалну музику; међутим, запажа се да стални интерес за њу показују само ученици који потичу из породица где је наслеђе ионако још увек живо.


(Са енглеског превела Јелена Јовановић)

UDC 781.7(=131=16):316.347](497.5 Istra)


[1]     The Istrian shawms, to be distinguished from the sopile from the island of Krk. The sopele are built in two shapes: bigger and smaller (vela i mala). Beside the common name sopele they are also named roženice, tororo, tuturače, piferi.

[2]     The Istrian tamburiza, a fretted long neck lute. Having the cindra the frets at the same distance one to another, on the instrument is optained a particular non-tempered tone row.

[3]     Ivan Ivančan, Istarska svirala – šurla, Rad VII kongresa SUFJ, Ohrid 1960, pp. 253–260.

[4]     From the italian cantare=to sing. In our case the kantanje defines a simplified version of the bugarenje close to the two-part polyphony in the so-called “Istrian Scale”, but maintaining the carracteristic bugarenje cadence.

[5]     J. Lisakowsky, Basy kaliskie, basy normalne, smiczki, skrzypce, bebny, Pies’ni kaliskie, Krakow 1971, pp. 357–365.

[6]     D. A. Facchinetti, Dagli Slavi istriani (IV-Formalita usate nella celebrazione della nozze), in: L’Istria, II, 1847, pp. 22–23; G. Vidossi, Saggie scritti minori di folklore, Torino 1960; R. Staree, Strumenti e sonatori in Istria, Udine 1990.

[7]     The Istrian bagpipe with polyphonic double pipe chanters and no drones.

[8]     D. Marušić, Viulin in bajs – dve glasbili severne Istre, Annales, 2/92, Koper 1992.

[9]     Ivan Ivančan, Istarski narodni plesovi, Institut za narodnu umjetnost, Zagreb 1963.

[10]    Mate Balota (real name Mijo Mirković 1898–1963), economist and writer, a member of JAZU (Yugoslav Academy of Arts and Sciences). He had an intense activity in journalism and literature, but it was his writings about the common people that made him very popular. In his poem Roženice he writes: “The great sopelas have played a thousand years. / Through them speak forebears from ancient times”.

[11]    B. Širola, Sopile i zurle, Narodna starina, 30, Zagreb 1937.

[12]    Roberto Starec, Italian ethnomusicologist, docent of History of Folk Traditions at Trieste University.