Early Bulgarian String Quartets

"I gave it a Bulgarian injection": Two Bulgarian second-generation composers

talk about composing their string quartets

Lyubomir Pipkov (1904-1974) on the genesis of his String Quartet No.1 (1928)

Those were rainy days [in Paris], I was cold and sick... I don’t know whether it was December 1927 or January 1928... I felt quite torn apart, smashed, and in despair – I had many things on my mind back then. I received letters from home – my parents were worried about me. I wanted to write a letter to my father and I said to myself: “What should I write to him? To complain would only make him worry further! I would have to make up something…” At the same time I started to feel nostalgic. I wanted to say: “Enough of this suffering and this big lie! What is the point in studying; you see what it is like here – hardly making both ends meet, I am just suffering. To go back [to Bulgaria] and, as my bones hurt from the damp, to go and lie on the sand in Varna so that the sun shines on me. To enter the house where the people are so good – my mother and my father, to smell fresh bread and cheese. To get a good meal and the heck with it…”

      Engulfed in such feelings I said to myself: “There is not going to be counterpoint in [the quartet], nothing like that. Just these “eights” and “nines” [Bulgarian folk rhythms]… Neither can I reveal in there what seems to be the problem of the day… People are looking for a counterpoint even more complex than Bach’s counterpoint. I can’t match Bach’s counterpoint, let alone a more complex one… Just do what your heart tells you to!” So I decided to write this musical idea as a letter to my father [composer Panayot Pipkov]...like a musician to a musician. I started writing and I got carried away. Everything happened quite unintentionally, outside of any aesthetical considerations – I found a direction from purely human concerns. I was looking for an exit from these contradictions, which were incited by Nadia Boulanger’s questions/1/ and [Paul] Dukas’s trust in me, which I could still not justify even for myself. I believed that understanding is accompanied by such an in-depth knowledge of things, following concerts, possessing books, money, all that I couldn’t come by. What could I do but write a letter to my father? So I started composing this quartet...

      I was afraid to show it to Dukas [Pipkov's composition teacher at the Ecole Normale in Paris] – sometimes he loved being ironic. I had the feeling that if I showed it while I was still working on it, it would immediately become obvious how far I was from any kind of aesthetical views, if such are required. I felt as if I would come out as a person in whom something is beating, but it is so naive, simple and ordinary that maybe is not part of art at all. That’s what I thought. I wrote the first three movements of the quartet and decided to show it to him only when I had finished it: even if he said something ironic, I would not stop working because I would have written it already. Otherwise I would stop working – if he said even one discouraging word I would throw it away immediately, as I had done many times.

       So until the summer I never showed my quartet to Dukas... Then I left for Bulgaria for the break. We got together [in Sofia] with Sasho Popov, Kosta Kirov, Spas Stanulov, Kosta Kugiyski and we started to have rehearsals – that was June, July 1928. Sasha Popov wanted to do me a favor, we still kept in close contact because I used to accompany him, and he was still playing the violin, he hadn’t switched to conducting yet... At the first rehearsal, when they saw the music and began reading it they created such a chaos, such cacophony that I felt like taking the parts and putting them in the fire and saying “Sorry to bother you, gentlemen!” I turned pale, mumbled something and Sasho said: “Look, it is too early to talk. I don’t know what you have written, but the truth is that we didn’t play anything. This is the first truth, and what you have written we shall see later!” And they started writing in bowings note by note, and they didn’t know how to play 8/8, 9/8 – they didn’t have ready bowings for the unevenly subdivided measures. And they started “crawling” step-by-step and saying: “You’ll be quiet, you will not say a word, you will just go downstairs to get coffees and pretzels!” And I would go downstairs to buy coffees and pretzels and bring them upstairs…

       We did 24 rehearsals. [Then] I announced my concert in “Alliance Francais.”

      I showed the quartet to Dukas after I wrote the last [fourth] movement -- in Paris, encouraged by the success in Sofia. The concert at the Alliance passed at a very high level--everything was very well done...all the [critics] wrote marvelous things... After I heard the quartet I had a different self-confidence. I was also a little cocky -- I knew that whatever Dukas said, nobody could convince me that my quartet was all that bad. And when we started the semester, I wrote the last movement in about 15 days. Then I took it to the class and Dukas liked it exceedingly well. He said to me: "Have you seen the Madonna of Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel?" I wasn't sure I had so I went later and found a reproduction. "When it was done, Michelangelo was 24 years old," continued Dukas. "One day you will have the mastery, you will compose perhaps many good works, but such things [as the quartet] are written only when a person is at your age. You will always be able to look on this quartet with envy because of the freshness which we associate with this age." ...And when he said I had found my way ...when he gathered my bewildered colleagues...They all stared: What's going on with Lyubo?... I became a kind of persona grata--when Dukas spoke with me, when he criticized me, he talked as with an equal, as with a person whose opinion he respected.

(from Conversations at Pancharevo, recorded by Ivan Hlebarov, pp. 51-8. Sofia: Heini, 2004.

This excerpt translated from Bulgarian by Iliyana Vishanova.)

/1/ Elsewhere Pipkov relates that after he performed one of his piano compositions on concert of Paul Dukas's composition class, Nadia Boulanger congratulated Pipkov afterwards and asked him: "Does all of this happen under your sky?" And Pipkov thought: "Ah, there, you see? This is a complicated question... Under our sky... So they expect from me after all some specific sky, not theirs." Pipkov continues: "And then the question grew more imperative: a search for individuality, more exactly a longing for individuality..." [Conversations at Pancharevo, pp. 47-8]

Marin Goleminov (1908-2000) on his String Quartets Nos. 1 and 2 and the formation of the Avramov Quartet (1935)

       I intend [1935] to give a concert of my chamber compositions, [including] the string quartet in a minor, which I like the best. In Paris I played it on a concert with great success. The cello professor at the Schola Cantorum, M. Bergeron, who played the cello part (I played the viola part), expressed her opinion of my quartet with the following flattering words: "The third movement - Scherzo, could have been signed by the hand of some great master." I had even composed it in a mere 2 or 3 days, in a single breath. Others liked best the second movement, a theme and variations on a folk melody, very rich in melodic terms. I worked most on the first movement of the quartet./1/ It's with great difficulty that I sit down to compose, but once I finally get started, I get extraordinarily deeply involved and forget everything else, living only for the ideas of my composition and their life. Even at night the course of the art work is being prepared in my consciousness...

       This summer (1936) I completed two movements of my new string quartet [No. 2] in C Major. I had thought that after my first quartet, which I like very much, I would struggle in writing another which would be the act of immediate creative inspiration and not give the impression of something articifically created. But reality proved my reservations wrong. I worked on the quartet away from the piano. My thoughts and feelings simply structured themselves in tones. My working conditions were ideal. I was based at a villa in the heart of Rila mountain, three kilometers below Rila Monastery. I didn't have any other obligations and my spirit was not encumbered by the conditions of time and space. And the sacredness of Rila reminded me of the inexhaustibility of a spirit, which can transform itself into various forms. I now understood the thought of a philosopher who said that creative work is impossible without religion. Every work of art has its prototype in the mystic, where objects have no clear outline. Here the imperfections of the form disappear in the twilight of one existence or another. Now I've determined to finish the final movement of this quartet of mine at all costs, even though I barely have free time for creative work. We formed a string quartet: Vladimir Avramov (first violin), myself (second violin), Stefan Sugarev (viola), and Georgi Konstantinov (cello). Our group is good and most importantly, we have prospects to develop a good activity. And the four of us are good friends, something very important in collaborative work. We have gone before the public several times and have already shed our fear. For this year (1935-6) we have a series of radio concerts.

(from Marin Goleminov, Dnevnitsi. Sofia: Soros Center for the Arts, 1996, pp. 56-8.

This excerpt translated from Bulgarian by Iliyana Vishanova.)

/1/ Of the quartet's finale, Roumyana Apostolova relates that "after [Goleminov] returned to Bulgaria, he again revised the fourth movement: 'I put a Bulgarian injection into it,' says he." (Apostolova, Goleminov. Sofia: Muzika, 1996, p. 109)

Roumyana Apostolova, Dimo Dimov on Goleminov's String Quartets Nos. 3 and 4

The third string quartet – “Old-Bulgarian” – is a piece that in its completeness is not inferior to “Nestinarka” and Variations on a theme by Dobri Hristov. Goleminov starts this quartet in 1943 but the troubled times of World War II are the reason for the temporary abandonment of the piece until 1945, when he begins to work on it again. The time he has had for contemplation, as well as the sad events from this period, leave their mark on the “Old-Bulgarian” quartet – one of his most dramatic works. In this period and long after that he has not written any symphonies. But judging by the dimension of the ideas, the richness of the figures, and the substance of the musical dramaturgy, the “Old-Bulgarian” quartet is not less substantial than a symphony. The name of the quartet comes from an Old-Bulgarian tune, which Goleminov incorporates into all of the movements of the cycle (except the second). This solemn tune from time immemorial is the original motto of the piece. This gives all four movements of the narrative ballade a feeling similar to the one that the melody of the “Rila Bells” adds to “Nestinarka.” Speaking of this cherished Bulgarian figure, interwoven into the melody of the “Rila Bells,” Goleminov adds: “My “Old-Bulgarian” quartet is also linked to this chain.”

       He writes his next quartet 22 years later, during 1967. The “Microquartet” is so different a piece from the “Old-Bulgarian” quartet, it is as if someone else wrote it. We could ask ourselves the question: why doesn’t he continue to develop in his quartet music the things that are at the basis of the “Old-Bulgarian” quartet? Maybe because [the "Old-Bulgarian" quartet] is such a complete piece that he exhausts all his “resources.” Let us not forget something else: the musical gestures that go along with him in the years around “Nestinarka,” later give way to others, or rather change their pattern, sharpen their features and become more dynamic. After “Microquartet” Goleminov writes not only different quartets, but also different music.

       “Microquartet” is a piece written for the Dimov Quartet. Each of its movements is dedicated to one of the four performers: the first movment to the first violinist, the second to the violist, the third to the violoncellist, and the fourth to the second violinist. He takes into consideration the performing temperament of each of them, as well as the performance style of the ensemble. The “Microquartet” is a masterful piece, intended for professional performers. If in the “Old-Bulgarian” quartet, regardless of its dramatic nature, Goleminov achieves classical balance and harmony of feelings, in “Microquartet” the emotional variety prevails, built in the incisiveness of the melodic line and in the panting pulsation of the of the tempo-rhythm. The only thing that these two quartets have in common is that they both have names. While the name of the “Old-Bulgarian” comes from the main motif, with the “Microquartet” the composer just gives a name to the piece's brief durations (only 8 minutes). That is a reason for him to joke: “when the miniskirts were modern I wrote the “Miniquartet” in order to be in accordance with the fashion of that time.” Not only is the quartet itself short, but its building material as well. We are struck by this “miniaturity” of the motifs, which adds extreme rapidity to the expression. The musical phrases develop quickly. The scherzo is swift, masterly, studded with pizzicatos. The element of the grotesque is mild – even the most aggressive expression of Goleminov and the moments filled with the greatest tension have finesse and delicacy.

        In the final movement everything turns like an accelerated frame. With the speed of light different figures change – some scherzando, some ecstatic, some lyric. The tension of the polyphonic lines is accompanied by the distinctness of the rhythm. This movement, as well as the whole quartet, foreshadows the sparkling “Shopophonia” [Goleminov's Symphony No. 4 for string orchestra].

       “The “Microquartet” is with no doubt a professionally written piece,” says Dimo Dimov. “Goleminov knows perfectly the capabilities of the string quartet, the positions of the voices, the timbres. He knows what he can require from each instrument. He has gained this knowledge because he himself has played in a string quartet. Most composers write pianistically, and after that they find it hard to find the exact expression in the string ones. We performed for the first time not only the quartet, but also the Concerto for string quartet and string orchestra during 1964. Later he wrote for us his eighth quartet. That is a piece of [the composer's] maturity, containing a lot of contemplation and huge knowledge about the string quartet. Has Goleminov changed greatly his style? I do not think that he has changed in terms of the phrase – in his brevity, clear and exact, direct gesture. It seems to me that recently his attention to the melody is a lot greater. His dramaturgy gets more vivid, the composition is clearer, unnecessary elements are hard to find. While we were working on his eighth quartet I tried to remove a measure and a half from the beginning of the repetitions but later it turned out we should preserve it because the musical logic required it.”

       Goleminov has dedicated to the Dimov Quartet not only two of his eight quartets, but also the following words: “The quartet literature is one of the “eight-thousands” (the highest peaks) in the musical art. It is hard to climb up there, and even harder to stay up there. Its basics are in the depths of the human spirit – where the philosophical insights reign, where the emotional and the rational are interwoven into a wonderful entity. The transformation of this original sound substance into an artistic product, which is going to reach the listener, requires the performers to be erudite, to be highly professional and have true creative vision.”

        Once in a conversation he used that same term for the chamber music – “eight-thousand.” The point was that the chamber music is harder for the audience to perceive and that not only the genre, but also the audience is “chamber.” Then he said: “When an excursion to Black Peak [on Vitosha mountain just south of Sofia] is organized, many people enroll. But how many will go to Everest? We in the chamber music are in the group for Everest.”

(from Roumyana Apostolova, Goleminov. Sofia: Muzika, 1996, pp. 111-113.

This excerpt translated from Bulgarian by Iliyana Vishanova.)