Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Put the Needle on the Record (VII)

Various Artists: The Bells of the Alexander Nevski Memorial Church (Balkanton BXA 1642, undated: pictured below is the album cover after the hound muscled his way into the photograph)
I must admit from the outset that my knowledge of Bulgaria and all things Bulgarian is a little sketchy. Obviously, I know where it is and that its capital is Sofia, but if you were to leap out of a dark alleyway as I ambled vacantly around town and yell at me: “What is Bulgaria’s chief export? Who is its prime minister? What percentage of its population is non-Orthodox?” and so on, I would burst into tears and cry out, “I don’t know! Dear God above, why am I such a simpleton?” (See below for answers.) I could tell you what I do know, to show that I’m not wholly ignorant: Byzantine Emperor Basil II was notoriously horrible to the Bulgars who rose up against him in the tenth century, blinding nearly 10,000 of them in a particular nasty example of Imperial vindictiveness; the ship carrying Dracula to England came from Varna in Bulgaria; the Bulgarians were extremely uncooperative with the Nazis during the Holocaust (according to Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem); buying properties in Bulgaria has been a bit of a fad amongst the Irish in the last few years; and it’s notoriously corrupt. So I needed to do a bit of homework before writing about this LP, The Bells of the Alexander Nevski Memorial Church, of which one side is the eponymous composition celebrating said church and the occasion of its construction, which was to celebrate the liberation of Bulgaria from under Ottoman rule by the Russians in the late 19th Century (the other side is some fine Bulgarian religious choral music, the kind of thing that Eastern Europeans do so well).

Alexander Nevski Cathedral, Sofia (Photo (c) Neva Micheva)

Now, the primary reason that I am writing about this is not the composition itself, a lengthy poem or panegyric backed only by the bells of the cathedral, as it's all in Bulgarian (which is, as is evident from the above, a language I am entirely unfamiliar with (although I do know they use the Cyrillic alphabet, and may have been the first to do so) [A Doubtful Egg trots off to Wikipedia, the internet's premier source of unverified and questionable facts, and finds this is indeed the case: "Paul Cubberly posits that while Cyril may have codified and expanded Glagolitic, it was his students at the Preslav Literary School in the First Bulgarian Empire that developed Cyrillic from Greek in the 890s as a more suitable script for church books. Later the alphabet spread among other Slavic peoples...".] It has also proved impossible to find any information on the writer, Liza (or Lyza) Mateva, but it is, rather, the curious liner notes that I want to focus on. Penned by the Archimandrite Gorazd in Bulgarian and translated alongside in English by an unknown hand, they are quite clearly written at the time of the Iron Curtain and with the clear knowledge that a guy in a Moscow office will be scrutinising the text carefully for seditious insinuations. (For some reason, Blogger won't let me place the text in a separate box, so I've rendered it in a different font.)

Gratitude is an beautiful and exhorting manifestation of every mentally and harmoniously advanced individual. This virtue is repleting human hearts with bright feelings, imparting high value and dignity to every human being. Gratitude is drawing people together, reassuring them as to the possibilities of achieving general weal. It exercises a salutary effect upon the education of individuals and, if expressed as a virtue of a whole nation, it is bringing a great deal about the latter's intercourse with the community of nations, suggesting thereby its elevated national aspect and character. Any expression of the feeling of thankfulness and the very ability thereto ought, therefore, to be considered as a standard for the behaviour of every real human being.
The St Alexander Nevski Memorial Church, situated in the centre of Sofia, capital of Bulgaria, is an imposing witness of Bulgarian cultural life, a mastership of architecture, being as well a historic herald of an unfading and bright virtue, characterising the whole Bulgarian people and their fathomless gratitude towards their Russian brothers-liberators.
Famous chimes are resounding towards the celestial expanse from the exquisite belfry of this temple-monument of Bulgarian liberty, won in 1878. At that, every Bulgarian heart starts beating synchronously with them. The imperious sounding language of these enchanting chimes, descending from the azure vault of heaven, is commanding respect to every Bulgarian, as well as to foreign tourists, sojourning as guests. Characteristic historic recollections are evoked at every phase of the consequent chimes, narrating the dreadful tale of bygone times and events almost prodigiously survived by the Bulgarian nation during its five centuries tyrannical oppression on the part of a cruel conqueror, contributing thereby to make to everybody as clear as the bright day its deepest thankfulness and highest confidence in Russia, its liberator.
Bulgarian history is for over a 1000 years connected with this great country, having played an immense role with regard to the affranchisement and safeguard of the Bulgarian nation as a whole, and its spiritual and cultural rise and development. This bright national expression of gratitude has imparted charm to the architectonic forms of the St Alexander Nevski Memorial Church and to the marvellous sounding narration of its chimes, every blessed day heralding with silvertoned sounds the beginning of the divine service. The memorial church the largest in the Balkan Peninsula and sixth as to its size in the whole world, is an everlasting witness of the historic remembrance of the Bulgarian nation and its deepest gratitude towards fraternal Russia, as expressed in the appeal addressed to the Bulgarian people in connection with a nation-wide drive with a view to collecting funds for its erecting:
"The erection in Bulgaria of a temple, dedicated to St Alexander Nevski links the history of our liberated country with that of our liberators" (Official Gazette, 4th year, 1882, p. 481)
The charming tale with regard to these chimes by the priest Boris Stoyanov corresponds perfectly to its emotional literary version, composed by Lyza Mateva. She has been successful to combine organically the melodies of the temple's chimes with her own word painting, full of sense and saturated with quotations from works of classic and contemporaneous authors, imparting thereby a peculiar strength and solemnity to the temple's chimes, resounding as an unceasing glorification of the feats of heroism of our brothers-liberators.

I'm not sure, if you were to ask the average Bulgarian about the "unceasing glorification of the feats of heroism of [their] brothers-liberators" now, or just how "fraternal" Russia has been towards countries in the Balkans, what his/her response would be. (This isn't a rhetorical question, by the way; I genuinely don't know, but my suspicions are that it would not be entirely positive...) And the answers to the questions in the first paragraph (as I'm sure you're keen to know) are (according to Wikipedia & the BBC): Chemicals and plastics, food and drink, tobacco, machine-building equipment; Sergey Stanishev; roughly 18%.


jams o donnell said...

Thanks a post of Bulgaria got me thinking about Le Mystere des Voix Bulgare.

A Doubtful Egg said...

Le Mystere des Voix Bulgare? Ah, a new pleasure. I will investigate further... Thanks, Jams (and may the blessing of the Heavenly Tree Stump of Rathkeale be upon you!)