WHOSE SONG IS IT ANYWAY?

by Anthony Georgieff; photography by BTA

The "Quiet White Danube" may not be politically correct for an American President

george w bush visits sofia.jpg

On his visit to Sofia, US President George W. Bush was given the red-carpet treatment accompanied by the fanfare of perhaps the most famous and revered Bulgarian military march. But did anyone tell "Bush 43" that the tune he apparently enjoyed was neither Bulgarian, nor particularly politically correct?

Read on. In the second half of the 19th Century Bulgaria was still a part of the Ottoman Empire. Hristo Botev and his followers' 1876 military campaign to free the fatherland was later immortalised by Ivan Vazov, the patriarch of Bulgarian literature, in the poem "Quiet White Danube". If this had happened a century later, Hollywood, or maybe even the Boyana Film Studios, would have made a movie. But at the end of the 19th Century the ancestors of modern-day Bulgarians were content just to assign a tune to the text.

The outcome was emotionally contagious, becoming, in show business parlance, an "instant hit". To this very day, the "Quiet White Danube" is immediately recognisable to all Bulgarians, irrespective of their age, education, or place of residence. Bulgarian pupils study it in primary school and soldiers sing it as a warm-up in the barracks.

It's also an official Bulgarian army march played by brass bands at parades and festivities. It's also the song of fans of Levski football club, as well as of the New Times political movement. The "Quiet White Danube" is to Bulgarians what "Auld Lang Syne" is to the English, and "God Bless America" is to the Americans. In fact, the "Quiet White Danube" is Bulgaria's "Marseillaise".

Most Bulgarians know the first few lines by heart, although the majority get stuck at the second stanza and do not even suspect that the whole thing has 22. But few people realise that the tune of this military-sounding anthem, which has stirred up the patriotic fervour of generations of Bulgarians, is, in fact, a... lullaby, sung by Germans and Russians to their children every night.

According to one theory, the adoption of foreign cultural themes, including music, was a way of integrating with Europe. Until liberation from Turkish rule, Bulgarian folk songs were mainly of the horo type.

Then the town song came into fashion, but its aesthetics had little in common with the local folk traditions. The only way to make the melody of the so-called hero songs rhythmically effective was through unabashed plagiarism.

The "Quiet White Danube" is not the only such borrowing. The tune of the military march "The Wind's Roaring, the Balkan's Moaning", was based on a church chant, and "The Battle Terrible Has Stopped, the Heroes' Blood Is Flowing" is known in Russia as a folk song: "In the Field a Birch Tree Stood".

Bulgarians may be justified in asking whether it is really appropriate for Russians and Germans to put their babies to sleep to the sound of army marches. But the opposite is also true: the Russians and the Germans may wonder whether it is really suitable for the Bulgarian Army to go into battle with a lullaby. President Bush should have known!

Quiet White Danube
Lyrics by Ivan Vazov (1850-1921)

Quiet white Danube's waving,
Boisterous and bold,
The Radetzky's proudly sailing
On its waves of gold.

In Germany the "Quiet White Danube", known as Bajuschki Baju, is a traditional lullaby

Schlaf mein Kindlein,
Halt ein Schlafchen,
Bajuschki baju;
Silbermond und Wolkenschafchen
Seh'n von oben zu.
Sleep, my baby, sleep,
Sandman's on his way,
Na na na na na,
The silver moon and fleecy cloud
Are watching from above.

Football Fans

Blue, the stands are waving,
Boisterous and bold,
Levski are beating the Chorba,
Now as before.

A Cossack lullaby

Sleep, my child, my love,
Na na na na na,
Silently the moon above
Is peeping in your pram.
I'll tell you a story and
Sing you a chant,
You sleep with your eyes closed,
Na na na na na.


We particularly like the second stanza of Lermontov's poem, which in 1840 was hardly as politically incorrect as it is at the beginning of the 21st Century.

Down the gorge the Terek's flowing,
Swashing turbid waves,
An evil Chechen's there crawling,
Dagger in his hand.
But your dad's a tempered soldier,
Battle-tried and bold,
So sleep calm, my little one,
Na na na na na.

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