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Velislav Zaimov and the Bulgarian Organ Music

  • Sabin Levi

Bulgaria has strong Eastern Christian Orthodox traditions – the country converted in 865. Hence, since antiquity, Bulgarian churches have not allowed use of any musical instruments at the liturgy. Some organs existed in Catholic churches in the 18th and 19th centuries, but they all but disappeared by the mid-20th century, with one exception. The organ at the Catholic church of St. Paul in the city of Rousse, built by Voit, still survives.

A number of organs were destroyed at the end of WWII, when the US and Great Britain bombed Bulgarian cities. Nowadays, practically all instruments date from the 70s and 80s of the 20th century. One small study organ was built in 2010, in the Bulgarian Musical Academy. Presently, the total number of instruments in the country is about 12. Some of them are installed in concert halls, like the ones in Sofia, Varna, Dobritch, Blagoevgrad, etc.

Organ is taught in the Sofia and Plovdiv Music Academies. International recitalists often visit the concert instruments in Sofia and Varna. In 2009, the Bulgarian Union of Composers started publishing the series “Organ Music by Bulgarian Composers;” presently there are 12 volumes in print.

In these series are represented 26 Bulgarian authors, starting from the 50s of the 20th century until the present. Having the possibility to analyze and compare this works, the series’ music editor, who is also the humble writer of these lines, could share some information about these various music pieces.

Music is represented in different ensembles – solo organ, of course, but also organ and voice, organ and other solo instrument (in Neva Krysteva’s Sonata da Chiesa there is a different type of flute for each movement – a “normal” flute, a piccolo, and an alto flute). There is a piece for organ and tape, by Simo Lazarov, sonatas for organ and violin, and organ and cello by Velislav Zaimov. The later composer is the most prolific composer for organ in Bulgaria.

There is a wide array of genres and forms: organ preludes, religious processional music, sonatas and Romantic monothematic poems, fugues, etc. There are frequent examples of stylization, mostly derived from the German Baroque. Such example of stylization is Stefan Ikonomov’s “Prelude, Choral and Fugue.” Although relatively unknown and rarely performed, this piece is amazing, it has the tonal and harmonic signature of its author, along with impressive artistic emulation of a quasi-romantic choral prelude and fugue on a chromatic subject.

Velislav Zaimov (1951) is one of the most prolific composers in Bulgaria’s history. He has written 14 symphonies, a requiem, five symphonic fantasies, 12 concertos, large body of music for string and wind orchestra, pieces for practically every instrument and a small mountain of chamber music. His organ œvre includes a concerto for organ and orchestra, two solo sonatas, a Fantasy, two chamber sonatas (for organ and violin and organ and cello), a number of choral preludes and a choral fantasy. Almost all of these works are dedicated to Bulgarian organist Stefan Dalchev, a friend of Zaimov, he could be called his Ricardo Viňes. Additionally, he has used organ in his Symphony #4 and Symphonic Fantasy #2.

Zaimov was educated in the Sofia Music Academy and has taught in it since 1989. He has taught different music subjects, as well as composition, also in Sofia Music School, Plovdiv Music Academy and elsewhere.

According to his own words (a part of this article is based on my interview with him), Zaimov considers his style mainly influenced by Honegger, Hindemith and Shostakovich. The later seems to have influenced him particularly in the rhythmical regard. While Zaimov’s music could not be called tonal in the traditional sense, it is also not atonal, its development is based on chromatic “intonation nuclei” that undergo different transitions; his vertical and horizontal thinking are both based on rather strict rules defined by the author over his 40+ year composition activity. According to the composer, there must not be any contradiction between horizontal and vertical. The system of these rules brings on as a result characteristic structures, that are unmistakably Zaimov’s; they cannot be confused with anybody else’s. His style is rather easy to identify, both as sound and score.

While some people seem to find his music sounding too “sad”, the composer himself comments that these reactions are somewhat accidental and subjective. He perceives his own music in a rather abstract way, characterizing it as “construction in time, consisting of a ‘climb’, ‘plateau’ and ‘descent’.” He believes that his music can bring on different associations, depending on the listener.

An interesting trend, developed by Zaimov, is his treatment of choral prelude composition. Since his melodic-harmonic language constraints make it problematic to use preexisting choral melodies, he composes his own, based on the original text. His melodies adhere to his own rules, hence they sound very “Zaimovian.” Once composed, they undergo “standard” choral prelude-writing techniques, preserving their characteristics in vertical and horizontal. The same is correct for his choral fantasy.

Zaimov claims that writing for organ has its own specifics – according to the composer the organ does not tolerate “trivial music, based on cheap effects.” It is not suitable for music with light, entertaining nature. Organ’s sound seems rather “objective” and “far from human motions” to him, and when writing for organ one has to keep in mind organ’s unique features, character and possibilities.

Zaimov’s music for organ is available from the Union of Bulgarian Composers.


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