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  • Czech Musicians and the Bulgarian National Brass School: The Beginning

    Kristina Dencheva
    22 February, 2024

    In Brass Stories project we travel back in time to explore a crucial aspect at the foundation of the Bulgarian brass instrument school, which adds a special charm to its beginning and development from the end of the 19th century to the establishment of the brass instrument school in Bulgaria (mid-20th century): the Czech military brass musicians who worked and composed in Bulgaria. Among them were Josef Chochola, František Švestka, Vaclav Pelíšek, Joseph Kalomati, and many others. So, let's go back 140 years...

    The history of professional Bulgarian music begins with the military brass bands and the remarkable Czech musicians who came to Bulgaria immediately after the Liberation in 1878, on the initiative of the temporary Russian administration. They made it their mission to create a professional musical community and education system in Bulgaria. Following high-level diplomatic negotiations and at the invitation of General Alexander Dondukov-Korsakov, the first professional military brass band was founded. The Czech musicians were alumni of the private Military Music Conservatory in Prague. On March 31, 1879, they arrived in Veliko Tarnovo as the band for the Ninth Tarnovo Infantry Regiment. The newly established Bulgarian state provided the funds to purchase new instruments for the musicians. The bandmaster of the orchestra was Josef Chochola, and their first performance took place on April 17, 1879, during the celebrations for the proclamation of Alexander I Battenberg as Prince of Bulgaria and the signing of the Tarnovo Constitution.

    Soon after Sofia was declared the capital, the band moved to the city to become part of the First Sofia Infantry Division. Until 1884, this was the only regular military band and the only professional orchestra in the country. Subsequently, the Czech musicians became bandmasters of newly formed orchestras attached to the infantry units of the Bulgarian army. They had a significant impact on the musical culture development and the training of Bulgarian professional musicians, who received higher education at the music academies in Prague and Vienna.

    Beyond the inspiring military marches associated with the exploits of the Bulgarian army in all wars from the Liberation to the end of World War I, in which brass bands with their Czech bandmasters always led the battles, the Bulgarian public still holds a special affection for brass bands (military, municipal, youth). The contribution of Czech musicians from the late 19th and the first half of the 20th century to this warm regard is indisputable. The military bands they led also had educational functions: They introduced the public to significant works of European classical music and Bulgarian folklore. Their concerts featured an exceptionally rich repertoire spanning a wide range of genres. Often, the pieces performed by the orchestras with folklore motifs, polkas, quadrilles, and waltzes were original compositions by the performers themselves, who sought to combine European musical and compositional techniques with local traditions. In this way, the bands shaped the musical tastes of audiences from various social groups across the country.

    Czech musicians worked in all aspects of professional musical culture and education in Bulgaria – they taught, conducted, composed, and performed together with their students in various choir and instrumental bands. One of the first music textbooks for primary and secondary schools was written by Joseph Kalomati (“Textbook on Singing with Theory and Practice for Use in Secondary and Primary Schools in Bulgaria. Part I”), and Josef Chochola made the first attempt to create a Bulgarian programmatic piece: “The Battle of Gurgulyat.”

    The next step in the development of orchestras in Bulgaria between the First and Second World Wars was the establishment of symphony orchestras. This history began in 1928 with the founding of the Academic Symphony Orchestra, at the heart of which was a small student orchestra at the National Music Academy. The initiative came from Sasha Popov, one of the most brilliant figures in Bulgarian music from the first half of the 20th century. A violinist and conductor, he enrolled the Vienna Conservatory at the age of just 13. By 21, he was teaching at the National Music Academy, and at 29, he gave up his career as a violinist to focus entirely on conducting. The establishment of the first symphony orchestra was supported by the composer and pedagogue Dimitar Hadzhigeorgiev, an alumnus of the Prague Conservatory. Sasha Popov's goal was to promote symphonic music among the broader public in Bulgaria. The orchestra's first concert was on March 4, 1929.

    Seven years later, in 1936, the Ministry of Defense tasked Sasha Popov with creating the Royal Military Symphony Orchestra. The orchestra included 80 musicians from the Academic Symphony Orchestra, the Guards Band, and other instrumentalists, most of whom had higher education from the conservatories in Prague and Vienna. Sasha Popov was the conductor. This was the first Bulgarian state musical institute – a part of the Guards Regiment – established solely to perform symphonic concerts. The first concert of the majestic orchestra, which gathered the greatest instrumentalists in Bulgaria at that time, took place on May 14, 1936.

    In 1939, the orchestra toured Italy, and in 1942, Romania. In 1939, by a twist of fate and at the invitation of Sasha Popov, another Czech musician arrived in Sofia to contribute to the development of the Bulgarian brass instrument school as a brilliant interpreter with innovative views and an inspiring teacher of the horn and chamber music: Karel Starý. His numerous students describe him as a radiant personality, filled with the highest professionalism and kindness. Dedicated, inspiring a love for classical music and the highest standards of its interpretation, for brass instruments, and especially for the horn, he remains forever connected with Bulgaria. The name of Karel Starý is mentioned with respect and affection by his colleagues and students, who we present in our project, such as Dobrin Ivanov, Prof. Vladislav Grigorov, Vladimir Dzhambazov, etc. More about the amazing live and career of Karel Starý read HERE.

    In the photo: The Royal Military Symphony Orchestra photographed in the Throne Room
    of the Royal Palace in Sofia circa 1930s.

    This article is available in Dutch

    The BRASS STORIES Project is supported by the
    National Culture Fund of the Republic of Bulgaria

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