Two Fourths

„Bulgarian“ equals „odd“, doesn’t it?

Much has been written about the odd bars in Bulgarian folk music inside and outside the specialist literature, much more than about the even ones; see examples below. The focus on these measures is quite comprehensible, but misleading. It draws a picture of the rhythms in which the 2/4 and 4/4 measures are missing (1) and only the odds deserve interest. Even the Bulgarian ethnomusicologist Nikolaj Kaufman dedicates an extra chapter to odd bars in his book on Bulgarian folk music (2), but does not mention the 2/4 time with even one sentence. 

Hardly any ethnomusicological work can do without mentioning Béla Bartók’s term „Bulgarian rhythms“ for the odd measures (Timothy Rice, Anca Giurchescu, Nikolaj Kaufman, Vera Proca-Ciortea (3)). This leads to the fact that it is believed everywhere that odd measures are Bulgarian – or even worse: „the“ Bulgarian dances have odd rhythms. (Well, we know that we are claiming here that something is being claimed. But in the trend, this is not completely plucked out of the air.) However, both Giurchescu (4) and Hepp point out that „crooked“ bars can also be found in older layers of the music history of Western and Central Europe. Hepp cites, for example, an evidence from Neidhart von Reuental, a German poet in the first half of the 13th century: „Make us the crooked round, the one you should limb, it will please all of us!“ (5)

The 2/4 measure does not deserve the Cinderella fate in view of its manifold rhythmic manifestations; eighteen Bulgarian 2/4 dances alone are described in the book  „Die bulgarische Tanzfolklore“ (The Bulgarian Dance Folklore) (p. 75ff) – and these are just a few examples. For Romania, A. Giurchescu documents over a hundred „rhythmic formulas“ for the 2/4 measure , V. Proca-Ciortea 41 from a total of 57 (6).

Odd = „difficult“

In its Bulgaria article, German Wikipedia claims: „Ungerade Takte, wie zum Beispiel 5/8, 7/8 und 9/8, machen diese Musik schwierig zu spielen.” (Uneven bars, such as 5/8, 7/8 and 9/8, make this music difficult to play. – The English Wikipedia does not state anything of the kind.) With the ear to our folk dancer community, we could add: „and difficult to dance.“ If you have learned nothing but binary rhythms in your life so far, you may have a problem with 7/8 or 9/16. However, if you follow the Greek musicologist Thrasybulos Georgiades, odd rhythms easily result from the melody of the language (7). And if you observe bouncing children you can hardly escape the impression that the Pajduško rhythm (5/8: 2-3) is a completely natural way of moving.

No question – the odd bars and their many variants attract a lot of interest, both among ethnomusicologists and folk dancers. The odd measures may be interesting or even characteristic of Bulgarian dances (8) – R. Kacarova nevertheless states:

„The 2/4 beat is the most common in Bulgarian dance music.“ (9)

Let’s look for ourselves … Among the dance melodies that Krasimir Petrov has published in his work on the Bulgarian folk dances – here as an example volume 4: The Midwest („Šopluk“) – (10), we find 41 out of 73 (= 56%) in 2/4 time. Less than a half of them are shared by at least six different odd time signatures (5/8, 7/8, 9/16, 11/16, 13/16, 15/16). In Petrov’s four other volumes, the result is likely to be similar. We also find this statement confirmed in Martha Forsyth’s very interesting book about the Bulgarian singer Linka Gekova Gergova (born 1904) and her music (11). The majority of her notations are in 2/8 time. The fact that she writes in eighths should not bother us much, because 

„2/4“ or „4/8“ – or „2/8“?

– respectively: When are we talking about quarters, when about eighths (and accordingly of sixteenths)? 

A. Giurchescu commits to a certain tempo time. According to her, if the beats exceed 260 bpm (or M.M.), it is eighths, below 240 bpm it is quarters (12). The transition range between 240 and 260 bpm is very revealing here: Whether you write quarters or eighths (or sixteenths) is – within certain limits – obviously a question of individual decision or of convention. Therefore, in dance descriptions and notes, we often find in the same dances in some cases eighths (e.g. 7/8) and in some others sixteenths (7/16).

The Romanian musicologist Traian Mîrza pleads for the eighth note to be set as a basic unit of time (13), while Martha Forsyth notes everything in sixteenths (5/16, 7/16, 11/16, etc.), so that binary bars are always „2/8“ (= 4/16). 

Four quarters?

However, if Bulgarian 2/4 dances are described as „4/4“ in dance descriptions and workshops, this may in most cases be due to adaptation to customs in Western music. There, a large number of pieces are in 4/4, while Bulgaria writes almost exclusively in 2/4. Nevertheless, it could be worthwhile to listen very carefully: Is always the first of two (2/4) strokes emphasized here or is it the first of four (4/4)? Or have four eighths been represented as 4/4? So then: What about the tempo? 

Despite many answers, as so often, a number of questions must remain unanswered.

(1) E. g. in Hepp, Michael: Genese und Genealogie westeurasischer Kettentänze (genesis and genealogy of west eurasian chain dances). Münster 2015, p 362

(2) Kaufman, Nikolaj: Bulgarische Volksmusik. Varna 2005, p. 33

(3) Rice, Timothy: Music in Bulgaria. New York u. Oxford 2004, p. 80;
Giurchescu, Anca, Sunni Bloland: Romanian Traditional Dance, a contextual and structural approach. Bukarest 1992, p. 110;
Kaufman, Nikolaj: loc. cit.;
Proca-Ciortea, Vera: Der Rhythmus der rumänischen Volkstänze. Wien 1968, cited by Jacques Loneux: Rumänien – ein Land und seine Tänze, Stembert 1995, p. 51.

(4) Giurchescu loc. cit.

(5) Mach uns den krumben raigen, den, den man hinken soll, der gefelt uns allen wol! Hepp loc. cit. p. 253

(6) Giurchescu loc. cit. p. 99ff, Proca-Ciortea loc. cit. p. 59ff

(7) Georgiades, Thrasiboulos: Musik und Rhythmus bei den Griechen. Hamburg 1958, p. 54ff, cited by Hepp p. 372

(8) „However, the most characteristic rhythms of Bulgarian dance music are the Bulgarian rhythms”, Kacarova, Rajna u. Kiril Dženev: Bulgarian Folk Dances. Sofia 1958, p. 63

(9) Kacarova loc. cit. p. 62

(10) Petrov, Krasimir: Bâlgarski narodni tanci ot sredna zapadna Bâlgarija. Varna 2004.

(11) Forsyth, Martha: Slušaj, šterko, i dobre zapomni … Listen, Daughter, and Remember Well …, Sofia 1996

(12) „Therefore, when the tempo reaches over Mm. one eighth note = 260, the quick pulsation is comprised of two sixteenths, or one eight, and the slow of three sixteens, or one dotted eight. When the Mm. is under 240, the underlying beat is the eighth note.” Giurchecu p. 110.
The author writes here about the odd beat in 2-2-3; „the underlying beat” are the two pulsations of the short parts of the measure, at 240 bpm or less these are therefore two eighths. 

(13) Traian Mîrza (1972) cited by A. Giurchescu (1992), p. 95: „According to Mirza’s theory, the value of the eighth note should be considered the common underlying temporal unit, with the formula 8/8 the most constant and general rhythmic/metric framework. Formulas of 4/8, 6/8, and 12/8 also exist.”