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GP652 - NENOV, D.: Piano Music (Valkov)
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Dimitar Nenov (1901–1953)
Piano Music


Dimitar Nenov was undoubtedly one of the leading figures in Bulgarian classical music from the first half of the twentieth century. A brilliant pianist, composer, and architect, he was a crucial figure for the generation of composers that came after him. It was this group of composers that formed the Bulgarian avant-garde of the 1950s and 1960s.

Born in Razgrad in 1901, Nenov took piano lessons as a child, and in adolescence studied with Andrey Stoyanov. In 1920 he went to Dresden and enrolled simultaneously at the Technische Hochschule in architecture, and at the Dresden Conservatoire in piano, theory, and composition. Upon graduation from the Hochschule in 1927, Nenov returned to Bulgaria, and in the next several years worked as an architect in various capacities. In the early 1930s he began to concentrate his creative efforts exclusively on music, and in 1931 he went to study for six months with Egon Petri in Zakopane, Poland. During the next year he was awarded a diploma in music from Bologna, and between 1933 and 1943 he directed a private conservatoire in Sofia. In 1943, already a well-established pianist, pedagogue, and composer, he assumed a full-time professorship in piano at the State Academy of Music in Sofia.

Dimitar Nenov expressed a vivid interest in composition quite early in his life, and by the age of 25 he had already written one symphony, two piano sonatas (one unfortunately lost), a sonata for violin and piano, and several smaller compositions, some for solo piano and some for orchestra. It is important to note that the nascent classical style of the first generation of Bulgarian composers was folklore-based, combining native melodic material with Western European nineteenth-century tonal practices. In contrast, Nenov, as a member of the second generation, wrote his early works in an unusually ‘international’ style which is quite dissonant even to twenty-first-century listeners. The musical environment of Dresden in the 1920s probably influenced these works, but they also exhibit a definite personal style and sound that Nenov was to develop and crystallize throughout the rest of his life.

In the 1930s a certain international orientation continued together with considerable development of Nenov’s pianistic style, underlined by the grandeur, virtuosity, and abandonment characteristic of a highly romantic expression. This was the time of the Two Etudes (1931/32), the Variations in F sharp major (1931), the relentless Toccata (1939), and the majestic Piano Concerto (1936). During that decade the idea of national musical and artistic identity became an increasingly relevant topic, and Dimitar Nenov was one of the most enthusiastic advocates of the search for an authentic Bulgarian musical style. This search for an individual, exclusively Bulgarian aesthetic in music naturally led to a thorough, deeper examination of folklore, the intrinsic possibilities it possessed, and a desire to relate all of this to the Western classical tradition. Nenov understood quite well that a folk-song, or a melody derived from the folklore, could not work authentically in combination with Western European tonal harmony. He believed that harmony, unique to every individual piece, should be derived from the melodic content. As a result of that approach, Nenov’s music frequently diverges from and returns to functional tonality, employing modes characteristic of Bulgarian folk tradition, and makes frequent use of octatonic scales. At the beginning of the 1940s Nenov took a definite change of direction in regard to both pianistic and compositional style. In contrast with his earlier works, his new aesthetic was characterized by clarity, simplicity, and an almost deliberate lack of virtuosity for its own sake.

Theme and Variations in F sharp major, written in 1931, represents a pinnacle in Nenov’s music for the piano. This set of eighteen variations exhibits clearly his aesthetic and philosophical ideas at the time. A simple theme, taken from the slow movement of one of his early piano sonatas, undergoes exquisite, imaginative metamorphoses through the employment of a vast number of pianistic techniques.

In spite of a strong underlying structure, Nenov’s love for the rhapsodic immediately comes through. The piece is roughly divided into four extended sections, each set in a different key. The first one, in F sharp major/minor, ends in D major (Variation 6), and prepares the beginning of the second section, which is set in C sharp minor (Variations 7–9). The third section goes back to F sharp major/minor, and thus closes the circle (Variations 10–15). This harmonic progression is present in the theme itself, and here it becomes obvious that Nenov loosely used the harmonic structure of the opening as the governing idea of the entire composition. Variations 16 to 18, which make up the last section, serve as a coda. After a grand return of the theme, the piece dissipates into blissful tranquillity.

Fairy Tale and Dance of 1947 was the last piece Nenov wrote for the piano. Composed just six years before his death, this is the most distilled example of his art. Miniatures, written two years earlier, present a similar style. Only about nine minutes in length, this set of five pieces evokes images of village festivals, nostalgic songs, and serene landscapes. It is one of the most exquisitely crafted examples of this genre.

Dance, from 1941, is a somewhat transitional piece in terms of style. Although it is a virtuoso piece, its scope is smaller than the works from the 1930s. The bravura figurations that occupy the main body of the piece, remind one of the typical way of playing the gadulka, a traditional Bulgarian string instrument. The Two Etudes and the Toccata belong to the same period of Nenov’s artistic life. The First Etude was written in 1931 in Zakopane, and is the first instance where he built an entire composition based on the three transpositions of the octatonic scale. Using one transposition for each respective section, thus creating a distinct sound in each of them, Nenov managed to articulate the form while keeping the texture uniform throughout. The Second Etude deals with this problem of organization differently. The piece begins rather vaguely in harmony, and one realizes only half way through that it is centered around C sharp major. This Etude is a unique example of the pianistic daring and imagination that Nenov possessed. The piece is set in double chromatic fourths in the right hand all the way through, and I believe that Nenov must have used Scriabin’s Etude Op 42, No 3 as a model which he expanded and elaborated. One is reminded of Brahms, who famously reworked Chopin’s Etude in F minor, Op 25, No 2, in double sixths. In the case of Nenov, however, the original only lurks in the background as a shadow.

The Toccata, completed in 1939, took seven years to write and is one of the most powerful compositions Nenov ever conceived. It is set in a sonata, or a sonata-rondo form, with an additional theme serving as material for the development section. At the end of the piece Nenov wrote: “The idea from 1932 (and the beginning too) (December 17, 1932), the beginning of the second theme February 24, 1935; the major work by the end of August and September 1939, completed on October 14, 1939, some small corrections, changes and additions by the end of 1939 and the beginning of 1940, all worked out in 21 sessions of 1 to 1½ hours”.

Cinema Suite is a set of six pieces that date back to 1924 and 1925. This is his earliest published composition. It is well known that Nenov, during his school years in Dresden, used to play in cinemas as an accompanist. We do not know, however, whether this music was ever used for a film. Here the sound is completely different, austere, dissonant, even aggressive, and we see Dimitar Nenov as a young composer full of overwhelming enthusiasm and passion. Although these pieces were composed in two short creative spurts in the summers of 1924 and 1925, they have a lot in common in terms of harmonic and melodic organization, and hold as a cycle very well together. Characteristic is the use of long-sustained chords, bell-like sonorities, and development based on the principles of variation and improvisation. The last piece, a vertiginous tour de force, ends abruptly in mid-sentence. Probably abandoned by the composer, this youthful composition breaks off just when it is not possible to go on any further.

Viktor Valkov

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