Bulgarian Rhythms: Lyubomir Pipkov's Spring Caprices
Updated: May 28
In Bulgaria, the month of March is named after Baba Marta (Grandmother Marta), who ushers in the long-awaited spring. On the first of March, red-and-white woven bracelets called martenitsi are exchanged among friends and colleagues, and worn until the wearer sees a stork, another important local symbol of the arrival of spring and the rebirth it brings. I personally link the promise of spring to the possibility of peace in the world. It is a hope that seems harder to hold onto as another world leader, obsessed not by the power of love, but by the love of power (to paraphrase Jimi Hendrix), attacks rather than embraces his neighbor. This year, many Bulgarians are wearing special martenitsas with a different pairing of colors: blue and yellow, in solidarity with their neighbors in and from Ukraine.
Lyubomir Pipkov, one of Bulgaria’s esteemed second-generation composers, embarked on a project late in life that he called his Ludus ritmicus (Game of Rhythm), likely envisioning it as the rhythmic analogue to Hindemith’s Ludus tonalis. In several extended cycles of piano pieces, Pipkov explored rhythmic patterns inspired by Bulgarian folk music and notated using unusual meters, often involving prime numbers and alternating beats of 2 and 3.
For almost thirty years now, I have been obsessed with one of these Pipkov piano cycles, called Proletni priumitsi (translated variously as Whims of Spring, Spring Whimsies, or (my current favorite) Spring Caprices). Since creating a violin-and-cello version as a wedding present for John and Beth Fadial around 1993, I have arranged ten of these pieces for two cellos, six for violin and cello, five for cello and piano, and two for cello ensemble. Lately I have been experimenting with string orchestra arrangements of several of these.
What has always fascinated me about these pieces is that, while Pipkov uses what he calls “metrorhythms” as a point of departure, there is so much more than just rhythmic interest in this music. With a surprising economy of means, Spring Caprices reveals a whole world, embracing everything that happens “under the Bulgarian sky,” as Pipkov’s teacher Nadia Boulanger once remarked in reference to Pipkov’s early Piano Trio. There is a vocal quality to much of the cycle, making the Caprices particularly suited to the more sustained tone and expressive devices of string instruments.
My arrangement of Five Spring Caprices for cello and piano dates from around 2011. The first piece, Ruchenitsa (Handkerchief Dance), has the character of the Bulgarian folk dance of the same name. This kind of dance is always in a meter of 7, and in this one the 3 main beats are grouped 2 + 2 + 3. The second piece is a Pastorale in an unevenly divided meter of eight, grouped 3 + 2 + 3. The third piece, Probyagnali migove (Furtive Moments) is in a meter of 10 (3 + 3 + 2 + 2). The fourth piece, Vuzvrushtane (Return) is in a meter of 11 (2 + 2 + 2 + 2 + 3). The fifth piece, Ritmi (Rhythms) uses mixed meters, primarily alternations of measures of 5 (2 + 3) and unevenly divided 9 (2 + 2 + 2 + 3).