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Mark Morris’s Guide to Twentieth Century Composers

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As a country the modern history of Bulgaria, for centuries dominated by the Turks, only dates from the end of the 19th century, and her classical musical history is even more recent: the country's first generation of emerging composers, some of whom studied in Paris in the 1920s and 1930s, reached their maturity under first a pro-Nazi regime and then communist control, in both cases isolating them from the developments in Western music. Most drew on the heritage of Bulgarian folk-music to forge an indigenous idiom. The principal composers of this generation were Pancho Vladigerov (1899-1978), the father-figure of modern Bulgarian music, Vesselin Stoyanov (1902-1969), whose output includes early examples of Bulgarian chamber-music as well as some colourful and zestful orchestral suites, Lyubomir Pipkov (1904-1974), Marin Goleminov (born 1908), and Parashkev Hadjiev (born 1912), whose work ranges from an early String Quartet No.1 that has strong affinities with the English pastoral composers to Paradoxes (1982), a trilogy of gently humorous short operas in an easy-going style based on the short stories of the American, O.Henry. Pipkov has been held in high esteem in Bulgaria (his String Quartet No.1, 1928, is said to be the first by a Bulgarian composer), and is perhaps best known elsewhere for his second opera Momchil. It is a large, formal epic historical opera in the tradition of Russian 19th-century models in both form and content, with grand, heroic arias touched with darker hues, stirring choruses, many with liturgical influence (much of the last scene is choral), passages integrating Bulgarian folk-idioms, and an orchestration of primary colours. While none of it is particularly remarkable, it has a ruggedness and a vitality that makes its popularity in Bulgaria, where the historical material would have a stronger resonance, understandable. The same cannot be said for such socialist realist banalities as the Oratorio on Our Time (1959) for reciter, bass, chorus, children's chorus and orchestra, to verses by Vladimir Bashev, summed up by a (Bulgarian) translation of an annotator: "With its large-scale effects and the vividness of the images, one can easily affirm, that the Bashev-Pipkov Oratorio resembles a striking colourful placard in front of which we stand aghast!".

Stalinist Socialist Realist principles (populist, simplistic music dominated by community historical and patriotic subjects) maintained its hold until the break-up of the Communist system, and its deadening effects are evident in the music of the composers born in the 1920s and 1930s, such as Ivan Marinov (born 1928), Jules Levy (born 1930) or the prolific Alexander Yossifov (born 1940). Alexander Tanev (born 1928) includes large-scale patriotic historical oratorios (such as The Bequest) among his works, as well as works with a showpiece dazzle and humour, such as the Concerto for Winds and Percussion (1972) or the Divertimento-Concertante (1976) for piano and orchestra, influenced by Stravinsky. Simeon Pironkov (born 1927) may prove to be one exception when more of his work is disseminated, for his Concerto Rustica for cello and orchestra is an arresting, powerful, orchestrally assured, and decidedly unpastoral work in six short linked movements, firmly in the European progressive mainstream and well worth the discovery. Similarly Dmitri Hristov (born 1933) has written an interesting, rather frenetic Cello Concerto, an Overture with Fanfares, powerful and strident in its massed sonorities, and an alluring set of Concert Miniatures for orchestra, all of which suggest familiarity with more recent Western trends. It is still difficult to hear the works of these composers, and the major changes in the social and political climate have been too recent to judge the potential compositional future of the country.

Bulgaria has a tradition of famed Bulgarian choirs, nurtured by the noble Bulgarian Orthodox musical heritage that is mostly outside the scope of this Guide. The folk-music is rich in colour and variety, its exotic touches reflecting the long domination by Turkish and oriental influences. Bulgarian opera singers have a considerable reputation in East Europe, but their generic style (a harder, more nasal sound) has not always been accepted in the West, though this is a matter of stylistic taste rather than inherent quality. But the country has had virtually no classical-music tradition on which to build a 20th-century indigenous repertoire. If the current classical music is chiefly of interest for the inclusion in its idiom of folk colour and especially rhythms (with widespread use of seven beats in the bar, and other irregular rhythms), it is unfortunate that those features were so watered down by rigid dogmatic requirements.

Modern Bulgarian music is extremely difficult to encounter at the best of times. There are initial suggestions that some composers are aware of modern trends, and the mixture of these into the populist idiom is fascinating in itself. For example, Dimiter Sagayev (born 1915, also spelt Sagaev) is a composer of large-scale patriotic works in a populist style that nevertheless show at moments an expressive awareness of modern trends. His works include vocal symphonies (No.3 Khan Asparouh, No.6 September) that are essentially neo-Romantic Socialist Realism cantatas, with rudimentary symphonic development. The rare modernist moments, exemplified by the Symphony No.6 (September, 1982) (strong orchestral dissonances, cluster effects, atonal sections, percussive effects influenced by late Shostakovich) are used primarily for colour, and sit in a rather uneasy mosaic with his quite imposing style, exotic folk and oriental influences, simple and fetching tunes, and general unchallenging neo-Romantic feel and harmonic language. On the available evidence one can only regret that his talent wasn't put to better use. It may be that more inventive and profound music is being written, but it has not yet travelled. The composers included below, chosen out of a large number considered, are mostly those whom the Bulgarians have consider the most significant, and therefore the most likely to be currently heard.







born September 28th 1908 at Kjunstendil
died February 2nd 2000 in Portugal


Although there is an increase of complexity between the earlier and later works of Marin Goleminov, one of the leading Bulgarian composers of his generation, his idiom is conservative, rooted in Romanticism. The ballet Nestinarka (The Fire Dance, 1940) was a major landmark in Bulgarian ballet, with the strong influence of folk idioms and colour, but its unadventurous cast is only of interest on those occasions when the broad swathes of orchestration take on the piquancy of the colours of Bulgarian folk-music. The chief interest of such works as the String Quartet No.3 (Old Bulgarian, 1944) is also in the folk influence in the rhythms and melodic material.


More effective than any of these works is the opera Zografat Zahariy (1972), a work considered important in the modern history of Bulgarian music. Its story is dramatically and visually promising, loosely based on the life of the 19th-century Bulgarian icon painter of the title, and his love for his brother's wife, and concerned with the place of the artist and the clash of new artistic ideas and received tradition. The idiom is less obviously conservative, with the occasional passage or theme of more acerbic harmonies, used for colour or psychological effect. With its free-flowing vocal lines following speech patterns, contrasted with sparingly used church chant, the psychological drama is musically effective, concentrating on the personal rather than any historical pageant. What prevents it from being a better opera is the orchestration, so often the bane of cultures under former Soviet cultural sway: the reliance on bare string textures, so predictably giving way to woodwind or brass, adds little to the overall cast, and it is not difficult to imagine how much more effective this opera would be with more imaginative orchestral colours. Nonetheless, those exploring lesser-known 20th-century operas might consider adding this to their list.

The gradual interweaving of more contemporary effects, notably more acerbic harmonies, angular melodic lines, and more adventurous non-folk rhythmic effects, as well as the integration of older musical inspiration, are evident in such works as the appealing if unremarkable Concerto for String Orchestra (1980), whose opening and close use a Gregorian chant, or the Symphony No.1 (1963), based on Bulgarian children's songs.

Goleminov studied with d'Indy in Paris, and himself taught at the Sofia Conservatory. His music will be chiefly of interest to those studying East European idioms and the historical context of communist aesthetics.


works include:

- 4 symphonies (No.3 For Peace in the World, No.4 Shopophonia)

- cello concerto; concerto for string quartet and string orchestra; concerto for string orchestra; violin concerto; Prelude, Aria and Toccata for piano and orch.

- Symphonic Variations on a Theme of Dobrai Hristov for orch.; Five Sketches for string orch.

- 7 string quartets (No.3 Old Bulgaria)

- songs; oratorio The Titan

- ballets Kaloyan's Daughter and Nestinaka (The Fire Dancer)

- operas Ivailo and Zografat Zahariy


recommended works:

opera Zografat Zahariy (1972)



born March 13th 1899 at Zurich

died September 8th 1978 at Sofia


It is a measure of the esteem in which Pancho Vladigerov is held in Bulgaria that his complete works have been recorded in a special Bulgarian issue, yet his name is now completely unknown outside Bulgaria. He is considered the father of modern Bulgarian music, helping to forge an indigenous compositional tradition, and integrating specifically Bulgarian folk idioms to create a national classical music identity.

The youthful and energetic Piano Concerto No.1 op.6 (1918) is an assured work for a 19 year-old, in the style of Rachmaninov, with touches of Liszt, the occasional clumsy transition passage not detracting from an appealing if derivative work that was the first Bulgarian instrumental concerto, and includes moments inspired by folk-music. But of much more interest is the Violin Concerto No.1 op.11 (1921), premiered by Gustav Havemann, Fritz Reiner and the Berlin Philharmonic. It also is the first Bulgarian work of its kind, and if the shadow of Strauss lingers behind the work, much more prominent is that of Szymanowski, with a similar palette of sensuous, heady orchestration and long, lyrical, ecstatically singing solo lines. Lovers of violin concertos, or those interested in the period where Impressionistic techniques merged with the heritage of late-Romanticism, might well investigate this often beautiful and beguiling work. Vardar op.16 (1922) for violin and piano (versions for orchestra, 1928, and violin and orchestra, 1951) is a Bulgarian rhapsody that established itself as a quintessential Bulgarian nationalist piece, equivalent to (if not as brilliant as) Enescu's Rumanian Rhapsodies. There is a zest, a raw enthusiasm, to these early works that, in spite of their derivative origins, gives them an individuality and an appeal, equally applicable to the early Impressionistic works, the orchestral triptych Three Impressions op.9 (1920, drawn from a piano set) and Six Exotic Preludes op.17 for piano (1924, orchestrated 1955).

The works that followed failed to fulfil the promise of these youthful works, lapsing into a Romanticism in which gesture has more sway than content. The Piano Concerto No.2 op.22 (1930) is better constructed than its predecessor, but lacks its zest; the Piano Concerto No.3, a brilliant virtuoso work, is heavily influenced by Rachmaninov's third concerto, and suffers in the comparison. The Symphony No.1 is large, tuneful, and bombastic. There are, however, a number of works of specifically Bulgarian content, drawing on folk-music, such as the colourful Seven Bulgarian Symphonic Dances op.23, with obvious significance in Bulgaria, as well as two entertaining and exotic sets of Rumanian dances inspired in part by his friend Enescu. The chief work of this period is the opera Tsar Kaloyan op.30 (1936), a large-scale epic historical work, whose story concerns the repulse of the forces of the Emperor Baldwin (and his capture) by the Bulgarian Tsar of the title in the early 13th century, together with an invented love-plot reminiscent of Verdi's Aida. With its Romantic inflation, weak touches of Strauss, as well as considerable additions of local folk origin, its concentration on surface colour rather than the psychological possibilities makes it of little interest to anyone for whom the historical context has no relevance (the history itself is highly romanticised, as the historical Tsar Kalojan Asen, the first Bulgarian crowned by the Pope, was noted for his extreme cruelty). More interesting, with their touches of Impressionism and folk dance, are the two suites drawn from the ballet The Legend of the Lake op.40 (ballet 1946, unperformed until 1962, suites 1947 and 1953), which tells the archetypal story of the deliberate flooding by the soldier Vlad of the town containing his lover and the enemy who had just captured it, and the subsequent appearance of his lover from the resulting lake as a water-nymph. The works following communist control continue a similar idiom, with more rhythmic spice in the Piano Concerto No.4 op.48 (1953), and a Violin Concerto No.2 op.61 (1968) that is jauntier but less effective than its predecessor in spite of the seamless song-like flow of the solo writing.

From 1920-1932 Vladigerov worked as the orchestra director of Max Reinhardt's famous Deutsches Theater in Berlin, and produced incidental music for ten productions, ranging from Ibsen to Shaw. Judging from the suites he made of some of the music (including some songs), they are not of intrinsic interest, but are historically, showing that the Deutsches Theater used music that was a precursor of the Hollywood Romantic film music idiom. Vladigerov's mother was Russian (and related to the Russian poet Boris Pasternak), studied medicine in Paris, and went to practice in Bulgaria; his twin brother was the violinist Lyuben Vladigerov, and his son, Alexander, is a noted Bulgarian conductor. Vladigerov taught at the Bulgarian State Conservatory, and many of the next generation of Bulgarian composers were among his pupils.


works include:

- 2 symphonies (No.2 May for string orch.)

- 5 piano concertos; 2 violin concertos; Concert Fantasy and Elegiac Romance for cello and orch. (also for cello and piano)

- Concert Overture, Dramatic Poem, Four Rumanian Symphonic Dances, Jewish Poem, Lyulin Impressions, Ninth of September, Nocturne of the Desert, Seven Bulgarian Symphonic Dances, Three Impressions, Traumspiel, Two Rumanian Symphonic Sketches, Vardar and other works for orch.

- violin sonata; Four Pieces, Classical and Romantic and other works for violin and piano; piano trio; string quartet; Prelude, Nostalgia and Dance for string quartet

- Sonatina Concertante for piano; Aquarelles, Bulgarian Suite, Episodes, Four Frescoes, Four Pieces, Five Pieces, Five Poetic Pictures, Five Silhouettes, Novelettes, Prelude Autumn Elegy and Humoresque, Pictures, Shoumen Miniatures, Six Exotic Preludes, Ten Impressions, Three Bagatelles, Three Short Pieces, Variations on a Bulgarian Theme and other works for piano

- 20 solo songs with piano; songs for chorus

- ballet Legend of the Lake

- opera Tsar Kaloyan

- incidental music


recommended works:

Violin Concerto No.1 op.11 (1921)

Four Rumanian Symphonic Dances op.38 (1942) orchestra


YOSSIFOV Alexander

born 12 August 1940 at Sofia


Yossifov has been highly regarded in Bulgaria, and has written in most genres in a conservative Romantic style that incorporates a watered-down folk idiom. His cantatas, however well-crafted, exemplify a grandiose Socialist Realism of banal tunes, bright orchestral colours, and a harmonic language rooted in Romanticism, as does the appalling To the Heroes of Stalingrad for orchestra. Bulgarian folk-styles emerge in the overblown and rigid Symphony No.5 (Proto-Bulgarians), especially in the rhythms and colour, which are strongly reminiscent in melodic line and general feel of Khatchaturian at his worst. In spite of the imaginative percussion opening, and the occasional interest of the Bulgarian folk music (especially in the last movement), the paucity of musical imagination hardly earns it the name of a symphony - it is more akin to a film score with local colour. His works for children have included piano teaching pieces, the trite Youth Overture, and the attractive children's suite The Bells are Singing (1979) for bells, triangle, gong, small drum, cymbals, and glockenspiel, in which the balance between unusual sounds and simplicity of playing is nicely judged. The banality of the opera Khan Kroum Youvigi (Khan Kroum the Supreme, 1980), an historical drama set in A.D. 811 but whose musical language is a cross between that of 1880 and a 1940s film score for a romantic B-movie, is beyond description. He has written many songs in a popular style. From 1969 Yossifov was director of the state recording company Balkanton. He is therefore one of the Bulgarian composers that readers may come across.


works include:

- 5 symphonies; sinfonietta

- 2 piano concertos; concerto for two pianos; 2 concertos for orch.; violin concerto

- To the Heroes of Stalingrad for orch.; 3 children's suites including The Bells are Singing for percussion and Flutter, Red Pioneer Ties

- piano music, including piano music for children

- song cycles and songs; 7 cantatas including The Eternal October, The Ninth of May and Sing, Balkan Mountains; 4 oratorios including The Long White Road; Requiem 1923

- three ballets

- children's opera The Miraculous Adventures of the Little Monkey Toshko of Africa; operas Back to the Beginning, Khan Kroum Youovigi (Khan Kroum the Supreme), The Golden Spear and Holidaying in Arco Iris; musical Sailor's Glory





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