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Music and property   Post comment Printer friendly versionMore notes

Music and property
The processes by which Bulgarian folk music became national property
Bulgaria, state, Communism, music, traditional knowledge
Wednesday, March 03, 2004 20:24 GMT


(These brief notes are based on Timothy Rice's overview of Bulgarian music, May It Fill Your Soul (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994).)


When Bulgaria became a Communist state in 1944, all property became "of the people". This did not simply mean, however, that land and factories were taken from private owners and made the property of the state. It also meant that many goods that had never previously been considered "property" were now made so. These are some notes on how this happened in the case of music, and what it entailed.


From 1396, present-day Bulgaria was part of the Ottoman Empire. At the Treaty of Berlin in 1878, under pressure from the western European powers, Istanbul in 1878 made Bulgaria an "autonomous principality" and the country chose for itself a prince, the German aristocrat Alexander von Battenberg. His successor took advantage of Ottoman crises to declare full independence in 1908. Bulgaria's own crises of ethnic violence, labour unrest and military vulnerability led to an increasingly authoritarian, Fascist-friendly, monarchy in the 1920s and 30s. In 1941 Tsar Boris signed the Tripartite Pact and allowed Germany to use Bulgarian territory for their planned invasion of Greece. In 1944, with the Red Army at its borders, Bulgaria surrendered to Russia. The monarchy was abolished and a Communist state established under Russian control.

Like all the Balkan states carved out of the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires, Bulgarian C19 and C20 nationalism faced a problem of definition: What was Bulgaria? Despite the fact that the territory had been ruled by Istanbul for five centuries, Bulgarian nationalism sought to erase the "Oriental" from its culture, and focussed both on its own medieval, Orthodox past and on the western European Enlightenment for its cultural identity. Turks were killed in large numbers in 1878 and after, and Bulgarian intellectuals rued the fact that Turkish rule had excluded them from the Renaissance.

As far as music was concerned, the growing urban bourgeoisie adopted the institutions and styles of Paris and Moscow, with operas, ballets and orchestral concerts. Music in the villages, however, was thought to have been largely unaffected by Ottoman rule and to represent the pure Bulgarian tradition. Until 1944 it continued much as before, and was also idealised in symphonic and operatic compositions by Bulgarian composers.


Folk music was closely integrated with agricultural life. Bulgarian villages were organised around a number of smallholdings surrounded by common land for grazing. Bulgarian peasants identified their livelihood with the land and very few became professional musicians. In this they were self-consciously different from the gypsies who travelled from village to village giving performances. Enthusiastic musicians exchanged melodies while working, and practised them in groups during spare time. Music was extremely important to village life and those who became talented and/or managed to commit large repertoires to memory were popular members of the community. Individual invention - new songs, new variations, etc - was added to a store of commonly-held music which was not written down. Women, especially, spent a lot of time teaching each other songs.

There was a complete gender division in musical performance: men played, women sang. Everyone in the village danced.

Bulgarian folk music was played by small bands who would either accompany sung ballads or play dance music. The rhythms of this music could be extremely complex, and recordings from the period show dazzling virtuosity on the part of soloists, who would decorate melodies with elaborate ornamentation.


The new Communist state reformed music in a single-minded and epic way. Music was to serve a modernising, nationalistic purpose. The essence of Bulgarian folk music would be taken and used by modern composers to produce a new music that would both educate the peasant, and, since it would be made for the concert hall rather than the village square, close the gap between peasants and the bourgeoisie. The new music would characterise the new, beautiful nation: sophisticated rather than visceral, and purged of all Turkish excess. Along with a number of other rural practices, traditional folk music, as it stood, was stamped out as a sign of old, dark times.

The new music was often considerably different from folk music. It was written by Paris- and Moscow-trained composers on the basis of folk music and was supposed to be a step in the civilising process on the way to everyone listening to Bach and Beethoven. It was written down, and was formally more complex than traditional music whilst being less complex in terms of ornamentation and improvisation. It did not invite the participation of audiences as singers or dancers, since they were now expected to be passive "concertgoers". The new music gave rise to new technologies of musical instruments, since suddenly folk instruments that had been made in villages by craftsmen were being produced and modernised by urban manufacturers used to making clarinets or cellos.

This new music would be produced by professional composers for the state and performed by professional performers. Both groups of people now made their living as musicians and were paid wages for compositions and performances. Music was completely professionalised, partly as a natural result of the collectivisation of rural land and the consequent destruction of village ways of life, and partly as a deliberate and monumental project. Educated urban musicians were sent out across the country to hold auditions for village performers. The best were brought to Sofia where they joined the new Bulgarian-style orchestras who performed in concert halls and on Radio Sofia (in cultural terms at least, the intellectuals of the Bulgarian Communist state saw the project of becoming modern as one of becoming-bourgeois). They were trained to read music and to standardise their regional techniques.


The ownership of music now changed in curious ways. All Bulgarian music became the property of the state. This meant that it was suddenly considered to be "property" when it had not been before. Most importantly, it became assigned to a particular composer who would be paid for his work and credited in concert brochures etc. This led to many disputes; for many compositions were simply arrangements by urban composers of traditional songs that many rural people knew, and there was resentment at composers who cashed in on this knowledge at the expense of everyone else. Sometimes composers credited the "informants" who supplied them with melodies and songs; more often they anonymised the tradition by referring to "folk texts" or "folk tunes". About one woman whose large repertoire of songs made her particularly attractive to composers at this time, Timothy Rice writes:

"Todora was ... hurt by the ethical issue of credit for performance, part of a problem caused by the collision of village and literate traditions. In Gergebunar, songs were not private property; everyone knew them ... since they were performed and potentially learned at public events like village dances. In any case, since no money was involved, the issue of ownership was moot. Songs were freely and gladly passed between family and friends, who were proud to acknowledge the sources of their songs: my mother, my aunt, my girlfriend from Drachevo. In the new postwar society, however, copyright - or "author's rights" ("aftorsko pravo") as it is called in Bulgaria - reared its ugly head because the radio and Balkonton were willing to pay fees to the performers, conductors, or arrangers involved in the recordings. Todora and others, who served as the "izvor" or "source", were lost in the shuffle, reduced to invisibility by the intellectuals self-serving understanding of folklore as anonymous art. Conveniently, the performer and arranger claimed "author's rights" for songs learned not from anonymous tradition but from living singers and musicians."

(ibid, 213)