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Trifon Silyanovski - the erudite whom the communist regime could not break

Photo: Diana Tsankova

In those wretched times, when all people were supposed to be cut out of the Party mould, to stand out with one's own position was a sin, often punishable by physical destruction. Some of these people, however, survived - their bodies broken by the atrocities of the communist labour camps, but their souls intact. 

At the end of 2023, Trifon Silyanovski - composer, concert pianist, musicologist, philosopher, theologian - would have reached his centenary had he not long ago left for the heavenly abode far above our flawed world. This jubilee has been modestly celebrated by some musical communities. The Catholic Church, on the other hand, paid him due tribute on the Day of Remembrance and Honour for the Victims of the Communist Regime.

"Trifon Silyanovski was a man of great erudition, he was knowledgeable in many fields and had the ability to get to the bottom of whatever he was engaged in - says Prof. Natasha Yapova, author of the book "Trifon Silyanovski: Time and the Individual".  - He had a thorough knowledge of the great philosophical works of classical and modern German philosophy. He had a methodology for studying the history of music, the humanities - a concept that was lacking in his era, which was characterised by the dominance of a single, so-called historical method. At a time when personality was smothered, he was a towering personality, and that was the real reason for his imprisonment in Belene".
Natasha Yapova
He grew up in the exclusive atmosphere of a household that often hosted such esteemed figures as the famous writer Yordan Yovkov and the exquisite poet Nikolai Liliev, the diplomat and historian Simeon Radev and the literary scholar Professor Alexander Balabanov. Trifon shared his interests in Latin, music and jurisprudence with his father, the eminent jurist prof. Dimitar Silyanovski. After graduating from the Classical High School in Sofia, he went to Austria, where he studied art history and style studies at the University of Vienna, and at the same time studied at the Conservatory under the great pianist Wilhelm Kempff. Returning to his homeland, he majored in three disciplines - composition in the class of Pancho Vladigerov and piano in the class of Dimitar Nenov at the State Academy of Music (two of the greatest Bulgarian composers - ed.), as well as law at the University of Sofia.

In 1948 Trifon Silyanovsky won second prize at the All-Bulgarian Singers and Instrumentalists Competition, while the highest award went to Andrey Bukureshtliev. The winner went to France, where he graduated from the École normale de musique and established himself as a composer, while the runner-up ended up in Belene.

"It was 2 July 1949, the day of Georgi Dimitrov's death," the Belene Foundation wrote down Trifon Silyanovski's painful memory. We were rehearsing, the next day there was to be a concert at the conservatory and I was to play Beethoven's Fifth Concerto. A man came in, interrupted the rehearsal and said that Georgi Dimitrov had died and there would be no concert. We got off the stage and at the back there were portraits of Dimitrov, of Lenin, of Stalin. And I said in a smaller circle,  "Now that these two are dead, when will the third one go?" I meant Stalin. This was perhaps a welcome thing for the informers, because I had made similar statements before, expressing my resentment. On 6 July at 6.30 a militsioner (policeman in socialist Bulgaria) and two civilians came to my door. They searched the house and so on. And then: "Please come with us for further clarification..."
Trifon Silyanovski
The departure in a goods wagon, the nights in a dugout at minus 28 degrees, the digging of "burial chambers" for the dead, the beatings, the stays in solitary confinement, the 15-hour slave labour in the mud and mines, the hunger and the "feasting" on bugs as the greatest delicacy - all this marked the days and nights of this "enemy of the people" for three years in the concentration camps of Belene, Kutsiyan and Bogdanov Dol. And after his release, he faced a new test of his spirit - to resume performing and to recover his piano technique.

"It is really amazing," continues Prof. Natasha Yapova, "how he started practising and became so good that at one point his dearest childhood friend, the great conductor Dobrin Petkov, invited him to give concerts. Trifon Silyanovski performed a modest number of concerts, and only a few recordings of his playing have survived, all of them remarkable evidence of his exceptional musicality and sensitivity. After his time in the labour camp, he composed three liturgical works, Missa Ordinaria (1954), Te Deum (1956) and Stabat Mater (1963), in the great Western European religious tradition. Of course, he wrote them for his own satisfaction, because at the time it was unthinkable that such music could be performed".

The glamorous artistic appearances are a rare gift in the now dim days of the once promising young man in whose face the founder of musicology in Bulgaria, Prof Dr Stoyan Brashovanov - himself proclaimed a "bourgeois scientist" - saw his successor. In order to survive, Trifon Silyanovski had to play in pubs, give private lessons in classical languages and piano, and even work as a gravedigger - a profession he had learnt during his conviction on Persin Island.
The virtuoso violinist Joseph Radionov shares memories of his acquaintance with Trifon Silyanovsky.
A ray of hope in this meagre existence came from the respect of his fellow musicians. Before a concert, they would play their piano programme in front of Trifon Silyanovsky, asking him for tips and advice on the final touches in the understanding and interpretation of a given work. Another source of optimism was a secret meeting with Dmitri Shostakovich. In 1958 the great Russian composer was invited by the Union of Bulgarian Composers to visit the country. At the time, Trifon Silyanovski was persona non grata, but he continued to compose - his musical works carefully stored away in a drawer.

"In Ruse, Dobrin Petkov gave a brilliant performance of Shostakovich's Ninth Symphony. The Russian composer was extremely impressed - says prof. Natasha Yapova. "Shostakovich was delighted to meet the conductor, who in turn took advantage of the situation to tell him about "a very interesting composer who will never be officially introduced to you, but it is worth seeing his works". They met at the home of Trifon Silyanovsky, who showed Shostakovich his scores. Afterwards, Trifon wrote a letter to his friend, which Dobrin Petkov kept and was later published, thanking him "for the opportunity to share his musical ideas with such a great musician".

Perhaps because of the honour that such a great composer had paid him, in 1973 Trifon Silyanovsky, together with the current director of the Sofia Opera, Prof. Plamen Kartalov, was allowed to establish the Blagoevgrad Chamber Opera and later to teach at the Plovdiv Higher Music Pedagogical Institute (now the Academy of Music, Dance and Fine Arts). After the fall of the communist regime on 10 November 1989, he also worked with students at the National Academy of Music, thanks to Prof. Milena Mollova. Milena Mollova, who invited him to be an assistant in her class. Unofficially, he was also made an honorary professor, a title that does not exist in this country. Trifon Silyanovsky died in 2005 at the age of 82.

Trifon Silyanovsky composed three symphonies, three concertos for string orchestra, a concerto for piano and orchestra, Rilke-inspired songs for soprano and piano (left hand), sonatas for violin, viola, cello, religious works, as well as a large number of studies in philosophy, aesthetics, theology, art history and musical interpretation. "In contrast to most of his contemporaries, who chose to create propagandistic festive music with folk borrowings, he rather followed a line that continued the modernism of the first half of the 20th century," says Prof. Natasha Yapova. 

Trifon Silyanovsky also leaves us his example of a man who went through hell on earth, yet kept his dignity and by his deeds lit a path through the dark times in which he was destined to live.

Photos by Diana Tsankova, BNR Archive
Translated and posted by Elizabeth Radkova

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