Still White Danube: the story of a great rebel song

Still White Danube - illustration to Vazov's poem, made by Nikola Mirchev

On 2 June, the day Bulgaria pays homage to poet and revolutionary Hristo Botev, to his rebels and to all heroes who died for the freedom and independence of Bulgaria, we will be telling you the story of a popular and very much loved song.

Still White Danube Undulates is the opening line of the poem written on 20 May 1876 by the Bulgaria's great national poet Ivan Vazov. In his own words at the first news about the crossing of the Danube by the Botev-led detachment near Kozloduy, he was inspired to write the poem. Vazov wrote the following in his memoirs: "We were all exhilarated: the details about the daring feat that felt like being taken straight from a legend, circulated word-of-mouth. Under the impression of this event I wrote Still White Danube Undulates and it very soon became popular and was adapted to become a song. In coffee-houses, streets and pubs where we met we were talking about that all the time: we opened and closed conversations with Botev.”

The original title of the poem is Radetzky after the name of the steamship on board which Hristo Botev and his detachment reached the Bulgarian shore. The song based on the poem is sung with a varying number of stanzas. The original had more than twenty stanzas.

The great Bulgarian poets Hristo Botev and Ivan Vazov were related in an interesting way. When Vazov was 15 he went to the town of Kalofer where he was hired to work as an assistant to famous teacher Botio Petkov, Hristo Botev's father. The old Petkov was often worried about his unruly son who was expelled from high school in Odessa. Later Ivan Vazov had the chance of meeting Hirsto Botev in person.

The first melody of Still White Danube was by an anonymous composer. Some sources claim that the music version that we know today is also anonymous. However the bio of Ivan Karadzhov reads that he wrote the music to the Vazov poem. A Bulgarian rebel and public figure Karadzhov was born in Southwestern Bulgaria that back at that time was part of the Ottoman Empire. He graduated from the Bulgarian male school in Thessaloniki and joined the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization fighting to liberate the Bulgarian ethnic lands in Macedonia from the Turks. Karadzhov later studied at the Imperial Vocal School in St. Petersburg and graduated from it in 1902. In 1909 as a teacher of music he wrote the melody to Vazov's lyrics. The melody was first played by his school's brass band. The rebellious song caused him trouble - he was punished by the Turkish authorities and moved to another school. By the end of his life in 1934 Ivan Karadzhov remained active in the IMRO party.

Today Still White Danube is invariably part of the repertoire of various choirs and brass bands. It is often performed on national days and during concert programs. This great patriotic song is one of the favorites of the Bulgarian National Radio children's vocal group Radio Children. They perform a version with an arrangement by Villy Kazasyan.

English Daniela Konstantinova

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