Author: Thoma Nassi
For a long time I have wondered why some Albanian person more capable than I has not recorded for history those fateful events that took place in Albania following the end of World War I. I am now in the late evening of my life, and I realize that an adequate description of those historic happenings may be beyond my poor powers, yet someone must undertake this task before the passage of time completely dims the memory of the events that began in 1919 when the fate of Albania hung in the balance.
Following the close of World War I, Italy and Greece by a secret treaty decided to partition Albania by having Italy occupy its coastal ports and the northern part while Greece occupied the southern part, including Korça. This, in spite of President Woodrow Wilson’s declaration of a policy of self-determination for small nations. As a result of this anticipated event, Albanians in the United States staged a number of demonstrations against the two aggressor nations, Italy and Greece. Vatra was most active because, as an outgrowth of its demonstrations, a group of 120 Albanian-American fighter-volunteers was formed to go to Albania, and the Albanian band (also called “Vatra”) was invited to join them.
The Vatra band had been organized under my direction in September of 1917 in Worcester, Massachusetts. Its members were young Albanian men without previous musical experience, most of them being factory workers. However, they joined the band with a great desire to learn, and, within a year, they were able to participate in concerts and parades in Boston, Worcester, New Bedford, Camp Devens in Massachusetts and in Portland and Biddeford, in Maine, and in other cities and towns for the benefit of the American Red Cross, Liberty Bond drives, and other worthwhile organizations.
The only other Albanian band in the United States in those days was the Jamestown, New York band, conducted by one of my townspeople, Thomas Vishnia.
In the early Spring of 1920, the idea of a pilgrimage to Albania to help the national cause finally took concrete form, and the military volunteers, band, and several other important Albanians were ready for the voyage.
I had just been discharged from the United States Army where I had served as a
Bandmaster. Since I had married immediately upon leaving the service, I was, naturally, reluctant to leave my new bride but because the band couldn’t go without a director – and I was the only one available – I was finally persuaded to participate.
At this point, I will not describe the interesting voyage on the Italian ship for I will confine my remarks to the events in Albania. I will say, however, that as far as the Italians were concerned, we Albanians were considered “personna non grata” by them both in Italy and in Albania.
After a short stay in Brindisi on the Italian coast, we were finally allowed to embark for the Albanian port of Durres where the Albanian populace greeted us with great enthusiasm even though we were looked upon with suspician by the Italians who, at that time, occupied Durres, Tepelena, Sarande, Gjirokaster, and Vlora.
Departing Durres after a few days, we drove in dilapidated Italian Fiats to Tirana, the capital of Albania, where all the populace, provisional government, and clergy, greeted our arrival enthusiastically. At that time, a regency headed by Sotir Peci, was governing Albania. The Albanian government had realized the value of having the Vatra band tour the country to raise the morale of the Albanian people so it arranged to send the band to all the large cities.
We left Tirana and visited Shkodra, Elbasan, Delvina, and Sarande while making Gjirokaster our temporary headquarters even though the italians were in command there. As I said, we were warmly welcomed by the populace but the Italians viewed us with suspicion. We were preparing to go to Tepelena and Vlora which the Italians quickly forbade. Nonetheless, against Italian orders we made ready to depart along with the Albanian military volunteers. Headed by two Albanian generals who had formerly served in the Turkish Army, we set out to liberate Tepelena!
As we were preparing to enter Tepelena, Italian guns from the ancient fort of the town began to shoot at us, and this single action set off the epic war against the invader Italians as the entire populations of Gjirokaster, Tepelena, and Vlora and surrounding towns rose to fight against the Italians. Albanian volunteers from all over Albania began to arrive to join the ensuing battle.
In the meantime, the Greeks had taken their cue from the Italians and began to mobilize along the Greek-Albanian border. The Vatra band and the American volunteers received orders from the government to proceed to Permet, Erseke, and Korçe. Altho the first two cities greeted us with wild enthusiasm the greatest ovation awaited us as we marched into Korçe – the Vatra band playing triumphantly and proudly – surrounded on both sides by Albanians who showered us with flowers amid joyous cries and tears. The entire Korçe district was preparing to resist the Greeks who were mobilizing at Greek border towns near Bilisht. The president of our band, Kosta Pano, spent many sleepless nights conferring with the Albanian officers and defenders on the border in anticipation of an inevitable conflict.
The League of Nations, seeking to avoid bloodshed, sent a delegation to Korçe under the leadership of Finland’s Professor Sederholm, granting him the authority to settle the dispute between Albania, Italy, and Greece, over permanent border lines.
The Greeks claimed that Bilisht, Korçe, and Erseke were populated by Greeks
which was, of course, a preposterous assertion.
It must be noted that the League of Nations delegation was favorably impressed by both the Vatra band and the volunteers from America. The band began playing two open air concerts every week at Kopshti Themistokli Germenjit. Our programs were comprised of classical music – a typical one would consist of an overture, a symphonic movement, operatic selections (usually Wagner), a Strauss waltz, and then an arrangement of Albanian songs for community singing. The people of Korçe attended these concerts “en famille” by the thousands, dressed in their evening Dullamas. They genuinely enjoyed our music, and their applause was tumultuous! I could not help wondering how many bandmasters in America would dare perform such classical programs for an American audience who, probably, would have hissed, or, at worst, walked out. Yet, these so-called backward Albanian people enjoyed it – they would avidly devour the printed programs with their eyes to feast on the descriptions of the musical selections. Yes, our stay in Korçe was one of our most cherished memories. The love of the people for good music was phenomenal.
I remember our first Christmas in Albania and our abbreviated presentation of Handel’s Messiah. There was no sheet music to be obtained anywhere except for my personal score so I hastily translated the text into the Albanian language and assembled a chorus of sixty voices. The band would play the orchestral parts. This was the first performance of an oratorio in Albania. The chorus learned its parts in record time, and the audience in the Kopshtore e Mitropolise begged for every number to be repeated.
During this period, the League of Nations delegration was very much in evidence and attended our concerts faithfully – especially Professor Sederholm who was an ardent Wagner admirer. He and I became fast friends, and he would come to our house, enjoy the Albanian dishes, and indulge himself by reading some of the few books that I had brought from America.
During our meetings, I dared ask Professor Sederholm how the fate of Korçe was to be decided. He cautioned me to be discreet lest I injure the national cause but informed me that as far as he was concerned, a nation that could produce such groups as this Vatra band and who could love music as much as the people demonstrated by flocking to concerts, certainly deserved their freedom. He seemed to be inspired by his own role, and I am sure that his recommendations were critical in the decision to free Korçe.
It became evident that more musical organizations were necessary to satisfy the insatiable hunger of the Albanian people for music. In a few weeks, another band was organized, the “Banda e Korçes”, by young students, and in a short period of time, it began to give concerts. A number of Festivals of Music were organized since local talent was in abundance. The first abbreviated opera,
“Il Trovatore”, was performed. The state director, Vangjush Mio, was a celebrated Albanian artist. This thirst for new music by the Albanian people gave me the opportunity to compose many songs whose words were written by such prominent Albanians as Kristo Floqi, Remzi Ojteze, Ali Alilani, and others. It was remarkable how these new songs spread at lightning speed all over Albania through no apparent means of communication.
We had not been long in Korçe when in June, 1920, we received a frantic call from the Vlora fighting forces asking us to pay them a visit to help keep their morale high since, at that time, they had captured Tepelena and Drashovica – the latter only about 20 miles from Vlora – and were now fighting the Italians in the hills around Vlora. This epic battle had captured the attention of the entire world, and among the foreign correspondents who were covering the war, the outstanding one was Edsel Mowrer of the Chicago Daily News and Washington Post. It seemed that all correspondents were on the side of the gallant Albanians whose bravery was described in daily dispatches. It should be mentioned that the Albanian fighters had thrown their heavy woolen brunas (capes) over the barbed wire barricades and leaped over them to terrorize the Italians. Moreover, as fast as the Italians sent over their planes, the Albanians would shoot down many of them.
Our band was situated at Droshovica and supported by the American Red Cross under the direction of Charles Hollingshead who later organized Shkolla Teknike in Tirana. Once or twice each day we went to the front to play for the Albanian fighters. We also helped out at the Red Cross Hospital which was caring for both Albanian and Italian wounded.
The Albanians had captured some 400 Italian prisoners and quartered them at the nearby town of Vaiza. They notified the commanding general of the Italian army, General Piacentini, that since they were unable to feed and clothe the prisoners, could he make some arrangements to provide for them. Receiving an affirmative response, it was arranged that the American Red Cross would drive to Vlora with trucks to transport supplies to the Italian prisoners. I made several trips to Vlora with Mr. Hollingshead and noted the complete demoralization of the Italian army on the one hand, and the luxury in which General Piacentini was living in one of the palaces on the other hand. The General invited us to dine with him, and we did so in all luxury. Naturally,
I was disguised as one of the American Red Cross personnel. Had the General known that I was an Albanian “spy”, my fate would have been doubtful!
During this time, one of the Albanian chieftains – his name, I think, was Bajram Curri – wrote an inspired little poem that impressed me so much I set it to music. Its title was “Vlora, Vlora, bjeri me te lumte dora.” The song became an instant success and in just a few days spread all over Albania. According to Dorothy Thompson in one of her radio broadcasts, “The Albanians were singing ‘Vlora, Vlora’ while they were attacking the Italians.” This song has since become an Albanian classic and is sung to this day. The thing that most surprised and puzzled me was how the songs that I wrote were able to spread throughout the entire country almost overnight and were sung and performed by native orchestras without printed copies. Whenever we visited a city or town, the populace would always greet us by singing these songs!
A few incidents while we were with the Red Cross at Drashovica are worth mentioning for they speak of the character of the Llabs, as those Albanians were called in that part of Albania: One day, as Mr. Hollingshead and I were exploring the ruins of the beautiful theatre that the Italians had built in Drashovica, we saw an Albanian emerge from the ruins with four pieces of lumber on his shoulder. Mr. Hollingshead confronted him by asking if he knew that his act of stealing was a crime, subject to jail or worse. The Albanian informed us that everybody in his town had brought home some kind of “plaçke” or “war spoils” so he was in disgrace for not bringing any home hence his mission that day was to bring back some “plaçke” come what may!
The Red Cross tried to buy some fresh corn from the nearby farms but nobody would sell any because the farmers were away fighting at the front. As a result, Mr. Hollingshead and his nurses would forage in the fields, even stealing corn, with the remark, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.”
Finally, the Italian forces, confronted by the bravery of the Albanians and by world opinion, decided to evacuate Vlora and all of the other parts of Albania that they had occupied with the exception of the island of Sazan located at the mouth of Vlora Bay. The day arrived when all the Albanians who had fought entered Vlora with the band at the head singing, “Vlora, Vlora, bjeri me te lumte dora!” They were greeted as liberators with frenzied enthusiasm by the populace.
After a few days of festivities and rest at Vlora, we were recalled to Korçe.
I carried with me some stringed instruments that I had rescued from the
Dashovica theatre. Being an Albanian, I went for some “plaçke” too! Among these were two excellent string basses which later became the nucleus of a fine orchestra in Korçe. Our classical concerts continued and many music festivals and balls were given. The social life of Korçe flourished with all of the first families participating – replenished by other familes who came from Romania, Egypt, and the United States, now that Albania was free.
However at this time, all was not well in the capital city of Tirana where a revolution was brewing. Albania’s progressive elements wanted a purely democratic government. After a few skirmishes around the capital, the progressive forces took command and established a government with Bishop – now Archbishop – Fan S. Noli as Prime Minister. Bishop Noli dreamed of making a Switzerland out of Albania. He enlisted me to help him make plans for bringing from Italy a group of First Chair musicians who would teach at a Conservatory of Music while also becoming the nucleus of the first Albanian Symphony Orchestra. As a diversion, I taught Bishop Noli how to play the French horn during his brief stay in the capital!
Unfortunately, Bishop Noli’s government did not last long. A reactionary army headed by the ambitious Ahmet Zogu was able to defeat the government forces and occupy the capital. Bishop Noli managed to escape to Italy, a very discouraged man. When I met him later, he would say to me, “Tashi per mua me mbeti vetem mjekra (all I have left is my beard”).
An Albanian government now with Ahmed Zogu as Prime Minister was formed, and I was requested to come to the capital with the Vatra band. Naturally, we were sorry to leave Korçe and its talented, music-loving people but we were soon established at the capital with its diplomatic representatives and high social life. My own life at the capital was full of delights and frustrations – mostly, the latter. For example, I would visit the different Albanian government ministers with a list of things I wanted done for the cause of music, and I was very anxious to get them. But the ministers had different ideas, and I would be chided that the Americans were a “hurried” people.
It didn’t take long for Zogu to organize his government and pacify the country. Indeed, it is conceded that Albania became the most tranquil, peace-loving country in the Balkans at that time. One could travel across the country for the very first time without danger, and crime was non-existent.
At first, Zogu acted wisely and tried hard to interest all progressive and cultured Albanians to come back and take part in the government. I was sent to Italy twice as Zogu’s unofficial representative to induce Sotir Peci, Bishop Noli, and Faik Konitza who were all exiles at that time in Italy to return to Albania to assume top government positions but they refused. Incidently, I spent some of the most wonderful times with Bishop Noli and Faik Konitza in Rome attending concerts and other cultural events.
Ahmet Zogu had an insatiable hunger for cultural knowledge and music. Every Friday afternoon when all the government offices were closed, he would send a gendarme to my home to bring me to the palace. There, Zogu’s major domo, Hassan, would bring us coffee, and we would talk of music, especially Wagner, for whom Zogu had great affection. We would also plan the musical activities for the week. During these meetings, I remember an event that impressed me greatly and which shows how well Zogu understood his subjects. Hassan came to announce that a delegation of bajraktars, or leaders, had arrived from the district of Mati to request an audience. Zogu was dressed in a plain, comfortable business suit. Reluctantly, he asked me to wait while he went to dress himself in a spendidly-decorated general’s uniform complete with medals and gold tassels. He then walked into an adjoining room where the chieftains were waiting and proceeded to his throne. He was certainly a tall
and splendid human speciman. As soon as the chieftains saw him, they fell on their knees as if in presence of a king. Zogu then asked them to rise and state their grievances which turned out to be only some petty dissatisfactions with local authorities. He admonished them to obey the law and bow to the authorities. He then asked Hassan to order a banquet to “wine-and-dine” them. Then, he made a very dignified exit with the chieftains again bowing. He changed back immediately to his confortable business suit, and we continued our previous discussion as if nothing had happened. Unfortunately, Zogu gradually began to visualize himself as a king and became extravagant and overambitious resulting in the disasterous aftermath that we all know.
At the capital, we continued with our concerts and other musical activities. Through the Ministry of Education, I was able to organize the teaching of music throughout the country, especially in the schools. Some of the musicians which I developed and brought from Shkodra and Korçe were young men such as Kristaq Kono, Juri Trebicka, Luigi Filai, Kristaq Antoniu, and others who are, today, the leaders of music of Albania. May I say here that they are truly wonderful leaders who have developed Albania musically to an astonishing degree.
Several of my own songs were written during this time. After a trip to isolated mountainous towns, I made a collection of musical themes which I still hope to develop. One very favorite of the Albanians, my “Kenga e Mullirit”, was printed for the first time in Vlora. “Kenga e Bariut” and “Kater Valle” also became Albanian classics.
In 1926, I decided to return to my adopted country, America. The chief reason for my return was the discouragement I felt when I saw that Zogu, the brilliant young man who had done so well at the democratic helm of the government, finally became, at first, an extravagant president of the Republic, and, then, later, developed designs of becoming king. A second reason lay in the fact that my three children were growing up and needed the kind of education that could not be obtained in Albania. However, I felt as if I had sown the seeds of good music throughout the land. The Vatra band was now well-established, and several other musical organizations were also flourishing.
With a heavy heart, I bade farewell to my many friends and band members and to Zogu (who was reluctant to let me go). I knew full well that my duty was still to Albania but I anticipated dire consequences for my family if I remained. Black clouds were already gathering – Mussolini had begun his ambitious program of conquest, and Albania was one of the first to be ruthlessly attacked and conquered by him.