Fragmenti: Konstatin Iliev

Konstantin Iliev


The publication of Bulgarian composer Konstantin Iliev’s 1968 work Fragmenti is Vox Bulgarica’s first foray into the unknown world of Bulgarian art music; it is also the first volume in a projected complete edition of the composer’s works. The appearance of this publication commemorates the 20th anniversary of the composer’s death and 40 years since its premiere.i This is a landmark composition written against the backdrop of the tumultuous international events of 1968. Distinct and unique, Fragmenti is one of the works that inaugurated Bulgaria as a participant in the international mainstream of contemporary music.


Bulgaria and Bulgarian Music in the 20th Century

As one of Europe’s oldest countries, Bulgaria experienced a glorious past as the heartland of ancient cultures: Thracian, Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Slavic, and Turkish. For centuries Bulgaria existed at the crossroads between Western Europe and the Orient, a position she maintains to the present day. The cultural zenith that Bulgaria attained in the distant past never vanished from the collective memory of its cultural leaders. Her past provided them with a rich heritage of artistic inspiration from the abundance of folk and sacred music customs on which they could draw in the creation of new art music traditions.

In the 1920s, through the collaborative efforts of Pancho Vladiguerov (1899- 1978), Marin Goleminov (1908-2000), Dimitar Nenov (1902-1953), Liubomir Pipkov (1904-1974), and Vesselin Stoianov (1902-1969), among others, a school of professional music was founded in Bulgaria; these composers are regarded today as Bulgaria’s “classics.” All received their training outside of Bulgaria and had been active in western European musical centers. Having absorbed the different current musical trends, they returned to their homeland to establish a national style that distinguished itself on the European stage.ii

The near-meteoric rise of a musical avant-garde began in earnest after 1946, spearheaded by the musical activities first of Konstantin Iliev (1924-1988), Lazar Nikolov (1922-2005), and Georgi Tutev (1924-1994); later in the 1950s they were joined by Vassil Kazandzhiev (bn. 1934) and Ivan Spassov (1934-1996). Konstantin Iliev was their undisputed leader.

Who Was Konstantin Iliev?

Briefly, he was a modernist musical giant, but owing to Bulgaria’s peculiar internal circumstances, about whom we still know very little. Personally gifted by God, well-rounded, with an exceptional character, not just as a future composer or great musician, but as a human being. Iliev was characterized by a series of contradictions: he was a man possessed with an ambitious vigor, and an intense self-criticism; one could recognize in him a strong and energetic spirit, and an extreme sensitivity. He could be outwardly rude and offensive, but at the same time sensitive and kind. Scrupulous, honest, and uncompromising throughout his entire creative life he won many friends, but made many enemies.

Konstantin IlievWhile Iliev was one of Eastern Europe’s preeminent conductors, he also stood at the forefront of Bulgaria’s musical avant-garde.iii

With his good friend and fellow composer, Lazar Nikolov, he was the first to introduce the innovative compositional techniques of the day to his country, thus laying the foundations for the subsequent generations of composers. The beginning of his professional career in Bulgaria, however, coincided with the advance of a totalitarian regime, when Communist Party control was extending over the artistic life of the entire country.iv As a result he often met with increasingly formidable opposition from a host of “Socialist Realist” detractors and his career and personal safety were at times at considerable risk. His physical and professional survival, however, was owed to an ironic dichotomy: on the one hand, he was a pariah, the perennial target of criticism and persecution as a “Formalist” composer; on the other, even his harshest critics had to acknowledge and praise his skill as a conductor; indeed, they depended on him to conduct their works.

Konstantin Iliev was born on March 9, 1924 in Sofia, Bulgaria. In 1946, at age 22, he completed his formal education at the Music Academy. His teachers there had been those members of the establishment: Pancho Vladiguerov for composition and Marin Goleminov for conducting. Later that same year he left for Prague to continue his studies where one of his professors for composition was Alois Haba (1893-1973). From his correspondence with Lazar Nikolov we learn that he even attempted the quartertone composition championed by Haba.v

The time he spent in Prague left an indelible imprint on him and shaped his creative processes for an entire lifetime. The charged artistic atmosphere in the Czech capital deeply impressed him with its high intellectual level and the exceptional degree of musical professionalism in its concert life. Moreover, there was the opportunity to hear new music especially at the concerts of the “Prague Spring Festivals” at which the latest works of Stravinsky, Hindemith, Honegger, and others were performed.

In the search for his own musical voice Iliev turned his back on the late romantic traditions expounded by his teachers. Since its establishment in the 1920s-30s, the Bulgarian ‘national style’ was associated with the ubiquitous presence of folk music elements. At the time Iliev entered the musical arena in the late 1940s these ideas had already been in widespread use. They seemed stereotyped, clichd and hackneyed to the young headstrong composer, and elicited from him a strong anti-folk reaction and a rejection of the folk idiom. Instead he found inspiration in the Second Viennese School, Honegger, Hindemith and Stravinsky. Thus, he entered down thte path towards realizing his dream of writing music that was clear, simple, and without any folk references. He started experimenting with the then current western compositional techniques: atonality (“Concerto Grosso”, 1949), serialism, (Symphony No. 2, 1951, “Symphonic Variations”, 1953) and graphic notation.vi By embracing the ‘forbidden’ at the time, he became an icon of the longed- sought-after freedom for ensuing generations of Bulgarian composers. Those compositional experiments were harbingers of the musical changes to come.

On returning to Bulgaria, he channeled all his youthful energy, passion and zeal to transplant everything he had absorbed in Prague. He took up residence in the town of Ruse as music director of the orchestra and opera, and tirelessly promoted modern music, not only as a conductor but also as a lecturer.vii Younger musicians detected imminent change in the air that something new had entered the country; the older generation was perplexed and discomfited.viii Relations within the Union of Bulgarian Composers began to splinter, creating a situation that would be further exacerbated by the evolving political circumstances.

In February 1948, the infamous Zhdanov decree of the Communist Party was issued in the Soviet Union. This proclamation stifled artistic freedom, having as one of its aims to scrutinize the collective conscience of the entire nation, with the result that not only all modern Western art but also dissident members of the Eastern Bloc nations, including such famous names as Khachaturian, Prokofiev and Shostakovich, were labeled “Formalist.” In Bulgaria for all those bearing that epithet (as elsewhere in the Eastern Bloc) this was tantamount to being a “traitor”, “extremist”, “decadent”, etc. Party members, as the standard bearers of “Socialist Realism”, decided what new musical compositions would be deemed acceptable: younger composers like Iliev presented easy targets for censure. At issue was the contentious role of Bulgarian folk song.

The Folk Conundrum: Art Music With or Without?

Archival documents testify to the seemingly endless meetings and discussions about the need for folk song in any new composition to qualify it as a ‘people’s art.’ix The recycling of folk music was a potent weapon wielded by both the musical exponents of the country’s Communist Party as a support for their slogan “Art closer to the people,” as well as one used by the more conservative members of Bulgaria’s musical mainstream. Distilled to a simple formula, this read:

Modern = Western = Anti-national

Folksong = Bulgarian = National

During these times, Bulgaria’s musical community was drawn into webs of complex opposing relations with members pitted against one another; everyone, including some of the leaders of the musical establishment, fell victim to the intrigues. This discordant situation in Bulgaria’s musical society was exploited by Communist Party hardliners.x

1968: Fragmenti

Through the process of imposing the folk idiom on new compositions, the official propaganda machine railroaded everyone along a preordained path. For more than 20 years Iliev deliberately avoided this path and suffered the consequences for it. However, in 1968 he made an unexpected turn by writing Fragmenti, a work in which folkloric sounds are in abundance throughout the entire piece. Did he finally capitulate, compromising his own conscience? The premiere of Fragmenti, an unmitigated success, gives us some answers. In the words of the composer:

When Fragmenti concluded I experienced one of the biggest thrills [of my career], the public was yelling bravo and applauding so much that I was recalled to the stage 7 or 8 times. The figures in the so-called VIP balcony, where Vladiguerov, Arseny Lechev, Venelin Krastev, and others were sitting, immediately vacated the premises. Only Kamen Popdimitrov, Marin Goleminov and Philip Koutev were on their feet and applauding.xi

What drove the critics from the hall? At this historic concert on November 13, 1968, Fragmenti presented them with a new challenge: even though this music had been composed using the language of the ‘forbidden West’ - it sounded purely ‘Bulgarian’! However, it was neither the ‘folk’ of the Party dogmatists nor of his teachers. The folk had been “liberated” from its existent stagnation and this way Iliev had dismantled the ideological formula long imposed by the Communist Party’s cultural organ.

The Critics’ Response: 1969 and 1971

The official response to Fragmenti’s premiere was typical. The critics comments were that this work “recalls Stravinsky of 50 years earlier,” that “he mechanically applies the techniques of his younger colleagues....”xii Two years later, in 1971, another critic writes: “This work has same worthy features… however it cannot be elevated to the zenith of ideologically correct artistic achievements of our Socialist epoch…”xiii

Konstantin IlievAny 20th century composition that hints at pagan ritualism or primitivism, in this case Fragmenti, pays lip service to Stravinsky, or the recasting of folk modality and rhythms to Bartok; Iliev’s approach to these ideas, however, was entirely different.xiv While it is true that some young composers (for example, Ivan Spassov), including Iliev himself in some of his choral works, were experimenting with a folk/modern idiom, Fragmenti is the first, abstract composition to utilize folk concepts and contemporary techniques in a large-scale musical form in Bulgaria. With it, Iliev achieved the sought-after goal to establish a new direction in the development of a national style, opening the floodgate for new experimentation with the folk idiom in contemporary Bulgarian art music.xv

The year 1968 was one of radical political changes and crises. For Bulgarian music, Professor Ivan Khlebarov described it as a time of summation and synthesis. “The first symptom of this synthesis was the appearance of a work in the conflagration of new repression – Konstantin Iliev’s Fragmenti. Its premiere in November 1968 showed that in spite of all obstacles, artistic tendencies managed to open new paths.”xvi In the words of the composer, “Philosophical-ethical problems, the dramatic tension at the time in which I was living, the richness of human relations, were the reasons that triggered my artistic sensibilities.”xvii

There were some contributing factors that inspired the composition of Fragmenti. In a 1983 audio interview conducted by the eminent musicologist Kipriana Belivanova Iliev makes reference to the 1964 Soviet film “Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors” by director Sergei Paradzhanov, which was screened in Bulgaria. The film had a tremendous impact on the entire artistic community.xix A second more personal element in Fragmenti’s composition was Iliev’s visits to the village of Chokmanovo, in southern Bulgaria’s Rhodope region, which had been his father’s ancestral home.xx On one of these visits he experienced an unforgettable aural sensation when he heard the acoustic effects produced by the bells (known as chans) of hundreds of livestock descending the mountains and gathering in the valleys. He recalled that the sounds seemed to fill and merge with the landscape, resonating long after the initial ringing had stopped. This revelation awakened in him a visceral response to indigenous Bulgarian traditions. Fragmenti, was written a short time later.xxi

Fragmenti is in four movements titled Improvisation I, Improvisation II, Interlude, leading to, Improvisation III. At its heart is the recreation of the authentic Bulgarian folk custom of festive contests with their bursts of instrumental virtuosic display. The composition employs free aleatoric techniques and a highly coloristic timbral palette through the employment of large blocks of instrumental sound. Reminiscent of untempered folk instrument ensembles, different orchestral groups simulate folk heterophony by juxtaposing antiphonal choirs of instruments playing simultaneously.

Speaking in the same interview with Kipriana Belivanova:

With Fragmenti I began two new experiments: first, I explored timbre as a musical idea, in which I used controlled aleatoric devices. Second, I connected Bulgarian intonations – which is not folklore, let’s call it quasifolklore – with these technical means.

He goes on to describe the way he organized the modal material, which he derived from a limited number of pitches, claiming that the average folk song comprises no more than a few recurrent tones (he arbitrarily mentions 3, 7, 9, 10). Transpositions of these modes, whether used successively or in combination, give unlimited possibilities for thematic development, guaranteeing musical unity and structural integrity.xxii

Fragmenti is a large-scale symphonic canvas with a cyclic design. The recurring use of the same pitches (e.g., G, Ab, G, F) and their transpositions (e.g., Eb, C, D, C), with a range rarely exceeding a minor third, serves as a unifying musical device or thematic link within all four of its sections. While eschewing any kind of specific program, each section of Fragmenti nonetheless evokes specific moods: Improvisation I, with its sounds of nature, is heard as an invocation or summons; Improvisation II is pastoral with its extended passages of fragmented modality and more imitations of natural sounds. The third, the evocative Interlude, is a ritualistic incantation enhanced by the use of a bourdon or chant-like drone. Its static texture results from the condensing or reduction to a manipulation of three fundamental pitches, Eb, D, C, whose repeated statements are punctuated by percussive interjections of C#. While Improvisation III, with its celebratory or festive mood, serves as a finale to the cycle. At its climax, Iliev recreates the acoustical effect of the chans he heard in the Rhodopes in its final measures where they are heard as an explosive release of the cosmic energy that had been building up throughout the movement.

Following Iliev’s death in 1988, fellow composer and friend Georgi Tutev, published the following insights into Fragmenti:

In this composition Iliev achieved a clear system for the structural organization of the tonal material based on atonal principles. This system substitutes the functional connections between the different musical elements in the process of formal construction, and guarantees the unity of horizontal and vertical sonorities. This method of composition is based neither on the serial techniques of the New Viennese school or its developments after 1950, nor on Messiaen’s modes of limited transposition. If we can compare it to any known compositional techniques, more likely, it shares features with Hauer’s methods of structuring through tropes. These techniques crystallized in Iliev’s Fragmenti and formed a basis for his later works. Another important feature of this work is the way in which it transformed Bulgarian peasant folk. He abandoned the usual romantic-idyllic view of folksong prevalent in our music up to this time… xxiii

In sum, Fragmenti inhabits as musical beyond an ad hoc collage of modern compositional techniques that have been clinically applied. In Fragmenti, Iliev succeeds in recapturing the true Bulgaria. Folk modality and a pre-Christian pagan ritualism are couched in a contemporary musical idiom but set in their most authentic Bulgarian environment.xxiv This music is rooted in and emerges from the soil of a moist mother earth, and is a primal response to the Bulgarian landscape. Fragmenti is a living ritual, a manifestation of the composer’s reconnection with his culture’s pre-Christian origins.


Perhaps it is only a coincidence that such a culturally defining work as Fragmenti appears in 1968 at the time of such dark and nightmarish political events. Its premiere only three months after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia signaled the end of the ten-year ‘spring’ thaw enjoyed by artists across the Eastern Bloc. Twenty years after the Zhdanov purges, and after the young Iliev emerged on Bulgaria’s musical scene, he once again found himself taking the lead and at odds with the country’s proponents of Bulgarian music’s status quo.

Konstantin Iliev came of age along side his well-known European contemporaries, Boulez, Berio, Ligeti, Stockhausen, and Xenakis, with whom he shared a common artistic aesthetic, not to mention such senior statesmen as Lutoslawski, Messiaen and Shostakovich. Owing to the extenuating circumstances of time and place, he worked in their shadows, and his works have been left in obscurity until now. With the publication of Fragmenti, Vox Bulgarica fulfills its aim to make this work available to Western music circles, and allow contemporary Bulgarian music to assume its rightful place among the ranks of contemporary music and musicians.

iIt's premiere took place on November 13, 1968, in Sofia three months after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia.

iiPancho Vladiguerov studied in Berlin and worked at the Max Rheinhardt Theater (1920-1932). He was awarded the Mendelssohn Prize on two occasions for his Piano Concerto No. 1 and his Ten Impressions for Piano, Op. 9. Vladiguerov is considered the ‘Patriarch’ of Bulgarian music and the founder of Bulgaria’s national music school. Vesselin Stoianov studied piano and composition in Vienna. Marin Goleminov and Liubomir Pipkov received their training at the Schola Cantorum and the Ecole Normale de Musique, respectively, in Paris as students Paul Dukas. Their activities in Parisian musical life of 1920s brought them into contact with Ravel, Stravinsky, Nadia Boulanger and members of Les Six. Pianist, composer, and architect Dimitar Nenov was schooled in Germany where he studied with pianist Egon Petri.

iiiKonstantin Iliev was chief conductor of the Sofia Philharmonic discontinuously over a thirty-year period. He toured all over the Europe and the United States with this orchestra. In addition, he was frequently invited to appear as guest conductor of some of the world’s leading orchestras in Europe and North America.

ivAs a country in the Eastern Bloc, Bulgaria existed between two socio-political extremes. On the one hand, we have, in the words of Eric Salzman, “the bloodless Polish “revolution” of 1956 and the remarkable declaration by the Polish intelligentsia, of cultural independence from the prevailing policies of artistic intellectual direction in Eastern Europe.” Twentieth-Century Music: An Introduction, (New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1974), 178. On the other hand, neither Iliev nor Nikolov were forced underground like their Soviet counterparts. Even though Bulgaria exercised cultural policies similar to those in the USSR and they constantly ran the risk of persecution and harassment, no such underground existed and both men remained integral members of Bulgaria’s musical establishment.

vIn a letter dated February 18, 1947 from Prague: “I wrote three pieces for solo violin in the quarter-tone system, and I am laughing at myself for these compositions, even though Haba was delighted by them.” Konstantin Iliev, Lazar Nikolov Pisma [Konstantin Iliev, Lazar Nikolov Letters], (Plovdiv, 2005), 10.

viFor an in-depth analysis of Iliev’s row techniques in his Symphony No.2, see Ivan Khlebarov, “Mladite Godini na Konstantin Iliev i Lazar Nikolov,” [“The Early Years of Konstantin Iliev and Lazar Nikolov” in Novata balgarska muzikalna kultura. [The New Bulgarian Musical Culture], Vol. II (1944-89, publication forthcoming). A special thanks to Professor Khlebarov for the advance copy of his work.

viiDuring the ten-year period following his return from Prague, Iliev also lived in the Black Sea town of Varna, far from the capital, Sofia, and therefore beyond the easy grasp of those who enforced the Party dictates. This gave him a little more independence and freedom, as well as opportunities to program new music.

viiiKhlebarov recalls his student days and the excitement created by the first performance of Iliev’s Symphony No. 1. See “1968” in Muzikalni Khorizonti [Musical Horizons] No. 6/7 (1994), 26.

ixIn an amusing exchange between composers Alexander Raichev and Svetoslav Obretenov, the former asks: “Why do we always have to equate ‘national’ with the peasant? How about those of us who live in the city, aren’t we Bulgarians?” Obretenov: Your father was going with poturi [full-bottomed, tight legged pants, a Bulgarian peasant uniform]. Raichev: Yes, but I don’t wear them and I am not inclined to put them on, because I don’t like them!” (From an unpublished archival stenogram, dated November 28-29, 1954).

xIn a letter to Lazar Nikolov at Christmas in 1950, Iliev writes, “Keep in mind that he [Pipkov] has been singled out by Venelin Krastev as the first and biggest sacrifice. We are only the appetizers.” Konstantin Iliev, Lazar Nikolov Pisma, 60. The correspondence is full of similar references to the situation.

xiSlovo i Delo, 303. Popdimitrov was Iliev’s childhood violin teacher, a longtime family friend and supporter. xiiLiubomir Kavaldzhiev, “SDF prez Noemvri,” [“The Sofia Philharmonic in November”] Balgarska Muzika, No. 1 (1969), 63-64.

xiiiStoyan Stoyanov, “Niakoi tendentsii v sovremennata balgarska muzika,” [“Some Tendencies in Contemporary Bulgarian Music”] Balgarska Muzika, No. 6 (1971), 19-24.

xivCompositions dealing with archaic Bulgarian rituals certainly have an older precedent in Bulgaria. Two specific examples written in 1940 are Marin Goleminov’s ballet score Nestinarka and Philip Kutev’s symphonic poem German.

xvSee Elizaveta Valchinova-Chendova, “Patiat kam folklora – Vazmozhen pat na tarsene na tvorcheska identichnost,” [“The Path to Folklore – A Possible Path in the Search for Artistic Identity”] in Natsionata idea v evropeiskoto muzi kalno tvorchestvo prez XX vek, [The National Idea in European Art in the 20th Century] (Sofia, 2004), 20-21. Fragmenti set a precedent for new compositions in the neo-folk idiom, as found in the composer’s Bukoliki [Bucolics] (1977), and especially Ivan Spassov’s Sabor-nadsvirvane za 22 dukhovi instrumenti (1969) [The Playing Contest for 22 Wind Instruments], Kazandzhiev’s Kartini ot Balgaria (1970) [Pictures from Bulgaria] and Zhivite Ikoni [Living Icons], and the more recent works of Roussi Tarmakov, Bozhidar Spassov and Georghi Arnaoudov of the 1980s and 90s.

xviI. Khlebarov, Nai-Novata Balgarska Muzikalna Kultura. Mitove i Realnost, 1944-1989, (Sofia: Artkoop, 1997), 114.

xviiSlovo i Delo, 301. xviiiSergei Paradzhanov (1924-1990) achieved international acclaim with this Ukrainian-language film, receiving more than 28 international awards, including in the Guinness World Book of Records, and accolades from such directors as Fellini, Kurosawa, and others. Professor Belivanova passed away in 2001.

xixThe reaction that contemporary Bulgarian poet Kiril Kadiiski recalls in his memoirs applies directly to the genesis of Fragmenti. The film that changed my conception of poetry and modern art on the whole was Paradzhanov’s “The Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors…” during the screening I bade farewell to everything I had written up to this point… From this film I learned that even during these times of stagnation, and within the framework of what was allowed, it was still possible to unfold scenes in the spirit of absolute freedom. You just have to carry the spirit within you. Svetlozar Zhekov, Kiril Kadiiski, Literaturna anketa, 2003. xxThe etymology of the village name is indicative: “Chok” – “Iman” in Turkish translates as “people with strong faith.”

xxiA random and spontaneous feeling as a musical stimulus unlocks an objective historical-stylistic pattern and has an actual fundamental importance for the existence of an alternative cultural space in Bulgaria.

xxiiHe qualifies that this idea is not his but comes from Messiaen’s work with modes. Iliev’s treatment is far freer. xxiiiGeorgi Tutev, “Zhivot – Predizvikatelstvo,” [“Life – Provocation”] In Memoriam, Muzikalni Khorizonti, No. 5, (1988), 41-43. In the audio interview, Iliev also mentions the influence of Hauer’s ideas in his compositional process. xxivIn an early letter to Lazar Nikolov dated June 25, 1950, while in Ruse, Iliev writes of his impressions of a performance of Stravinsky’s Svadebka [The Wedding], he had heard for the first time in a radio broadcast: This is music that immediately grabs you from the first bar, which stops your breath… your personal life stops. You become one of the participants. You scream with delight, intoxicated from the wine, the Russian dances and the youthful songs… Stravinsky’s music, however, is more Russian than any opera of Glinka or Tchaikovsky, or any song of Mussorgsky, moreover, there is not a single bar of folk… It is possible that Iliev kept these ideas within him subconsciously

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