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  • Karel Starý: A Story about French horn, brass instruments, and dedication

    Kristina Dencheva
    21 March, 2024

    One of the most significant figures in the history of Bulgarian music once again leads us to the immense influence that Czech professional musicians have had on the establishment and development of our national brass instrument school: Karel Starý. His name is mentioned with respect and affection by his former colleagues and students, whom we present in our project, such as Dobrin Ivanov, Prof. Vladislav Grigorov, Vladimir Dzhambazov, and others. So, let's go back exactly 85 years...

    Karel Starý arrived in Bulgaria in 1939 at the invitation of Sasha Popov, the conductor of the Royal Symphony Orchestra. Karel Starý came to our country very young – only 25 years old, but already with a brilliant education and a rapidly developing career as a soloist and orchestral musician in Prague and Vienna. He was born in 1914 in Jedovice (near Brno, then Austria-Hungary) into a family where brass instruments were held in special esteem. His father, Karel Starý, a self-taught talented musician, played the baritone and led his own 12-piece brass band.

    Karel Starý Jr. began his musical endeavors at a very young age in his father's band. He studied at the Leoš Janáček Academy of Performing Arts in Brno, Czech Republic, in the class of a prominent Czech music history figure: Prof. Josef Kohout – a French horn player, pedagogue, and composer. After graduating in 1937, Karel Starý began his career as an orchestral musician in the Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra, where he held the position of first hornist, while also playing in symphony orchestras in Vienna and Bratislava. In 1939, Karel Starý arrived in Bulgaria at the invitation of Sasha Popov, the conductor of the Royal Military Symphony Orchestra – one of the brightest figures in Bulgarian music from the first half of the 20th century. A violinist and conductor, Sasha Popov was accepted into the Vienna Conservatory at just 13 years old. By 21, he was already teaching at the State Music Academy, and at 29, he abandoned his career as a violinist to focus entirely on conducting. The invitation that Sasha Popov extended to Karel Starý was to take on the position of first hornist and horn instructor – roles in which the Czech musician invested all his soul, immense talent, and knowledge.

    Dobrin Ivanov shared a story about his arrival in Bulgaria in an interview with Prof. Dr. Atanas Karafezliev: “The first to greet Karel Starý was Svetozar Kukudov, the secretary of the Royal Symphony Orchestra. When he went to pick him up from the hotel, Kukudov was surprised by his appearance – short stature, modest, almost unremarkable. His entire luggage consisted of two horn cases. In one, he carried the instrument, and in the other, sheet music and clothes, as much as could fit in such a case. It is said that Karel Starý played the piano quite well, often accompanying his students. An exceptionally down-to-earth and charming person. Bulgarian trombonists owe a lot to him. He had a huge influence on the Bulgarian brass instrument school, with trombones becoming prominent in this school.”

    Thus begins the story of Karel Starý in our country. He remained forever connected with Bulgarian music and brass instruments, developing an extremely successful career simultaneously as a soloist, chamber musician, orchestral player, and tutor. His achievements as a performer are impressive:
    🎶 Between 1939 and 1947, he was the soloist and leader of the horn section in the Royal Military Symphony Orchestra; from 1947 to 1958, he was the soloist and leader of the horn section of the Sofia Opera, and in 1958-1959, he was also a member of the Bulgarian Radio Symphony Orchestra.
    🎶 Karel Starý was the first concertizing horn player in Bulgaria, introducing the audience to symphonic and chamber pieces by Mozart, Beethoven, Schumann, Brahms, R. Strauss, Saint-Saëns, and Scriabin for this wonderful instrument. In his solo career, he paid special attention to promoting horn works by Bulgarian composers, with whom he collaborated in the creative process.
    🎶As a chamber musician, he performed the first live concert broadcasts on Radio Sofia and made the first solo studio recordings of horn works for the Bulgarian National Radio (BNR) archive. In 1947, together with his colleagues Ivan Bonchev (flute), Georgi Tsekov (oboe), Simeon Panchev (clarinet), and Vasil Pavlov (bassoon), he founded the first wind quintet in Bulgaria, whose popularity and diverse repertoire were amazing.

    Prof. Vladislav Grigorov shared a story about Karel Starý: “He was very friendly towards everyone and ready to help even a stranger. Devoted. That is the precise word. He was a radiant performer and interpreter, which was emphasized everywhere we went together – the interpretation.”  Dobrin Ivanov added that the horn player had an “exceptional, impactful sound.”

    Alongside his career as a performer, Karel Starý developed an equally successful teaching career. Since 1941, he had been an adjunct professor of horn at the National Music Academy and the Sofia Music School. From 1946, he was a regular professor of horn and trumpet at the Academy. In the 1950s, he was an adjunct professor of horn at the P.I. Tchaikovsky Moscow State Conservatory. In 1956, Karel Starý was appointed as an associate professor, and in 1958, he became a full-time professor at the National Music Academy in Sofia. His expertise was highly valued by the Bulgarian Ministry of Culture and in the juries of professional national and international competitions, festivals, and other events both in Bulgaria and the Czech Republic. In the 1950s, he wrote and supported the publication of the first educational materials for brass instruments (trombone, French horn, and tuba), initiated the organization of master classes, seminars, creative meetings, and other educational events.

    Karel Starý trained dozens of excellent horn players who became both performers and tutors. Together with Petar Karparov and Georgi Todorov, he laid the foundations of the brass instrument school in Bulgaria. His students spoke of him with great warmth and respect. Prof. Vladislav Grigorov shared: “... [he was] a completed musician with an academic education, he had studied articulation in styles in detail and when he worked with us on classical styles, it left such an impression that I can still sit down and write about classical styles and articulation in a concert in any musical era... It turned out that I studied with him for 12 years. Karel Starý remains something exceptional for me and many other people, as well as for everyone who studied under him…”

    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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    Atanas Karafezliev

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