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Pancho Vladigerov’s mother, Eliza, a doctor and relative of Boris Pasternak, came to Bulgaria from the Ukrainian city of Odessa, marrying Haralan Vladigerov, a lawyer who had himself studied abroad before settling in the eastern Bulgarian university town of Shumen. Eliza’s father Leon Pasternak had left Odessa too, settling in Zürich. Haralan Vladigerov died in 1908, and in 1910 his family moved to Sofia, the Bulgarian capital. Eliza’s quest for suitable musical training for her twin sons, Pancho and Lyuben, took her thence to Vienna, Kiev, Paris and, in June 1912, Berlin. Lyuben was to become a virtuoso violinist. Pancho showed a precocious talent for the piano and for composition. He studied first at the Akademische Hochschule für Musik, and from 1915 at the Akademie der Künste, where he entered the composition class of Friedrich Gernsheim, transferring to Georg Schumann upon Gernsheim’s death in 1916. He graduated in 1921, having been influenced also by the Russian pianist and conductor Leonid Kreutzer, a former pupil of Glazunov at the St Petersburg Conservatory. By this time he had already composed the 10 Impressions, Op 9 (Nos 1, 8 and 9 exist also in orchestrated form).
During the 1920s Vladigerov achieved considerable artistic reputation in Western Europe, not least through his confusingly titled Vardar: Bulgarian Rhapsody, written originally for violin and piano (for his brother and himself to perform), and later orchestrated. Vladigerov acceded to a request from his compatriot Grigor Vassilev to name the work after a river in Macedonia, in solidarity with Bulgarians under oppression there for attempting to maintain their own cultural heritage in the face of unrest arising from the Balkan Wars of 1912-13. Subsequently, Vladigerov was surprised to discover that the seminal theme which he believed to be a Macedonian folk song was actually the work of Dobri Hristov, who had been his first composition teacher in Sofia prior to the family’s travels around Europe.
Hristov remains central to musicological scholarship surrounding Bulgarian folk-music traditions. His influence on Vladigerov at an early stage in the latter’s development may well have been one reason why Vladigerov prospered following his permanent return to Bulgaria in 1932. Another was presumably that he was at heart a generous-spirited romantic, articulating subjective, abstract poetic moods and, in his more exotic evocations of Hispanic or Arab musical traditions, a picturesque escapism rather than any form of socio-political critique. In contrast, his appropriations of folk song notwithstanding, the hapless Nenov’s more astringent idiom makes it possible to envisage his being upbraided like Prokofiev for ‘anti-democratic formalism’ by a doctrinaire regime looking for an incriminating peg on which to hang the cloak of a prior disapproval.
There is a curiously providential element to Vladigerov’s use of the Vardar theme—and to his unawareness of its provenance—which, combined with his known hesitation over returning to Bulgaria, makes it tempting to imagine his subsequent success there as subject to a proprietorial ruling class anxious to bolster nationalism through any means at its disposal. In such a scenario, personal calamity might be only one false move away, and Vladigerov was by no means exempt from ideological criticism. The sensitivities in play are evident in the fact that ‘Vardar’ was later airbrushed out of cultural history and the work thus became officially just Bulgarian Rhapsody. Yet—to adapt Tennyson—Vladigerov was ‘a part of all that he had met’; the Western-trained artist who came home in 1932 had acquired the technique and vocabulary to subsume the rhythms and modes of his indigenous folk tradition into a personal, pan-European voice. The cosmopolitan dimension of his musical voice remains evident in such pieces as his third piano concerto (1937), the best-known of his five, which proclaims its enthusiasm for, inter alia, the piano-solo toccata finale from Ravel’s Le tombeau de Couperin. Vladigerov is never a mere ‘cultural tourist’ in the sense urbanely espoused by, for example, Moszkowski in his ‘more-Spanish-than-the-Spanish’ salon frivolities. Rather, he offers an intriguing parallel to a very different Polish composer, Szymanowski, whose encounter with North African Islamic art in the years immediately before the First World War occasioned a fundamental re-appraisal of his entire musical language. In the case of Vladigerov, actually born in Zürich and exposed from earliest years to the duality of his heritage, the mix and the dichotomy must have been present from the first; yet the comparison is in some ways instructive. Both he and Szymanowski created piano textures which appear terrifying in their density on the printed page, and whose required weightless transparency relies completely upon extreme subtleties of timbre and nuance in the performer’s voicing, line and pedal control. Szymanowski was a sensitive pianist but not a virtuoso like Vladigerov; yet both conceive textures intricate enough to require three staves instead of two for most of the time. Moreover, both embrace a tangential relationship to tonality, appropriating elements known to both Debussy and Ravel. What the trained musician may think of as functionally a ‘dominant seventh’ chord—or ninth, or eleventh—here has no logical resolution into an orthodox harmonic conclusion, but may shift semitonally up or down, like some metaphorical ‘sound mobile’ catching and refracting light from different angles, with no traditional ‘cadence’ on the horizon.
Upon his return home to Sofia, Pancho Vladigerov was appointed Professor of Piano, Chamber Music and Composition at the State Academy of Music which nowadays bears his name. It was Vladigerov’s mission to bring Bulgarian music to the widest possible international attention. In 1938 he became a member of the Permanent Council for International Co-operation between Composers, under the chairmanship of Richard Strauss. Until 1942 he was the only representative of Bulgaria to sit on this committee. He duly received all of his country’s available state honours in recognition of his pivotal role in the development of Bulgarian culture. Upon his death, the house which had been his home became a Bulgarian Cultural Institute and the official Pancho Vladigerov Museum.
from notes by Francis Pott © 2021