• Geoffrey Dean

Lazar Nikolov: Bulgarian Composer Centennial (1922-2022)

Updated: Sep 16

Read my earlier Lazar Nikolov post here

Listen to Nikolov's second cello sonata here


Yesterday, on the occasion of Lazar Nikolov's 100th birthday, his long-time musical associate Dragomir Yossifov observed that Nikolov's music continues to receive polished performances by leading Bulgarian musicians of the younger generation. This is a happy state of affairs. It is not by any means a "given" that any composer's music will outlive the composer. I suspect that Lazar himself, who had been accustomed to the near-impossibility of getting an unbiased hearing of his own compositions, would enjoy the irony that now, almost two decades after his death, young performers are voluntarily seeking his music out to perform.


I was once one of those young performers. In September 1991, then a new arrival in Bulgaria, I wanted to meet the most celebrated living Bulgarian composer. The next thing I knew I was drinking tea across the table from Lazar Nikolov and his wife Hanna at their Sofia apartment. I remember the excitement I felt as he played recordings of his music, laid out the scores of several of his cello works, and invited me to play them. I remember that same kind of excitement, a sense of profound momentousness and child-like giddiness all wrapped up in one, every time I performed or recorded one of his works. Its echo comes back to me now as I write this.


Lazar Nikolov didn't just share his own musical creativity with me. He opened up a whole new world of musical experiences to me, a world in which Bulgarian music and musicians were central and meaningful performance collaborations frequent. I might have remained an isolated American outsider in Bulgarian musical culture if Lazar hadn't taken me under his wing, just as he did with so many other young musicians. He believed in inclusion and he encouraged it, taking sincere joy from the successes of younger colleagues and building musical bridges at a time (in the early days of democracy in Eastern Europe) that other Bulgarian musicians were busy tearing them down as they fortified their own positions.


I found fertile unplowed ground for musical cultivation in the cello works of Lazar Nikolov. His music spoke, and still speaks, to me in its own way, as a unique illustration of the paradox that highly abstract art can also be highly expressive, both in conception and interpretation. His music challenged, and still challenges, me to seek the broadest, richest range of musical vocabulary and meaning in every new piece of music I study; in this is another paradox, because Nikolov's music is itself so seemingly self-contained as something apart from all else, and yet knowing that music is also knowing how to bring the music of other composers into more deeply satisfying existence. Nikolov's highly individual creativity has led me to universal truths about music.


Aaron Copland once wrote that the greatest music means something different to us each time we hear it. It inspires us to continue to search for its different or deeper meanings. It has layers, not all immediately visible. The vital sound action of such music is mirrored in our aliveness to it and its new implications as we listen. When I listen to my own past performances of Nikolov's cello works, such as the Concertino or the second cello sonata, I also hear the gap between what I was able to give to the interpretation and what more I needed to give. In that gap lives the humility of a performer's self-critique. The larger the gap, the greater the composer.


For me, Lazar Nikolov is one of the greatest.


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