When the Guards Band comes marching in

While the annual military parade for May 6, the Day of Valour and of the Bulgarian Armed Forces, may occasionally be cancelled for some reason, as is the case in 2024, one fixture will be there, just as it is at practically all other military ceremonies and state functions: the Guards Representative Brass Band.

The band traces its beginnings to Bulgaria’s first professional military brass band, composed of 21 Czech musicians hired by the provisional Russian administration immediately after the country’s liberation from Ottoman rule. The Czechs arrived in the old Bulgarian capital Tarnovo on March 31, 1879.

They first played in public on April 17 at the festivities for the signing of the Tarnovo Constitution and the election of Alexander Battenberg as the first Prince of Bulgaria. As another first, the band marched in formation in Tarnovo on April 26. The first bandmaster was Josef Chochola.

That band was initially attached to the 6th Tarnovo Infantry Regiment. It was moved to Sofia on May 19, 1879 as part
of the 1st Sofia Infantry Battalion. By a princely decree, effective January 1, 1893, the band was incorporated into His Royal Highness’s Life Guards Squadron as a Life Guards Band of 65-70 musicians – arguably Bulgaria’s best orchestra at that time.

After the Communist takeover in September 1944, the size of the band was reduced and the musicians were stationed in Breznik (Southwestern Bulgaria). By government decision of February 1, 1951, the orchestra was revived as a Central Brass Band of the Bulgarian People’s Army under the Ministry of National Defence. A Council of Ministers decree dated May 14, 2001 made it part of the National Guards Unit as a Guards Representative Brass Band.

Among its members and leaders, the band lists some of Bulgaria’s most prominent composers and conductors: Josef Chochola, Alois Macak, Maestro Georgi Atanasov (the first Bulgarian to be appointed bandmaster, in 1914), Philip Koutev, Emanuil Manolov, Atanas Ivanov, Diko Iliev, Nikola Tsonev, Zheko Dimov, Nikola Kazasov, Tsveta
n Tsvetkov, Stoyan Stoyanov, Nikolay Bratanov and Diyan Dihanov. The present Chief Conductor of the Bulgarian Armed Forces and Bandmaster of the Guards Representative Brass Band is Lieutenant Colonel Radi Radev (since 2008).

Across-the-Spectrum Repertoire

The Guards Band is a unique first-class ensemble of accomplished professional musicians. Its vast repertoire ranges from military marches to Bulgarian folk music, classics, pop and jazz. ‘In practice, we are the trend setters for all orchestras in Bulgaria. Once we play a piece, our colleagues come to like it and start to perform it themselves.

For example, we were the first in Bulgaria to play orchestrated versions of songs of Whitney Houston, ABBA, Scorpions,’ Colonel Diyan Dihanov (Ret.), the band’s then longest serving chief conductor (16 years), told www.dnesbg.com in 2013. ‘The Guards Band is emblematic for the Bulgarian State, for the Armed Forces and for Bulgarian musical culture. It combines the country’s military and musical traditions. This uni
t is indispensable for any ceremonial and protocol event or ritual,’ Colonel Dihanov commented.

Indeed, the brass band participates in welcoming ceremonies for visiting heads of State and government delegations, the presentation of foreign ambassadors’ credentials, wreath-laying by local and foreign dignitaries, flag raisings, commemorations, state receptions, state funerals, etc.

Memorable International Tours

Along with its ceremonial functions, the Guards Representative Brass Band is active in concert at home and abroad. It has on its record memorable appearances at international military brass band festivals: Music Parade and Berlin Tattoo in Germany, France, Hungary, Israel and Russia. The Band has staged concert tours in Italy, Hungary, France, Israel, Romania and Turkey. In 2010 the military musicians were special guests of the Bulgarian Jewish community in Israel.

It is the first brass band in Bulgaria that recorded its music digitally on CD.

Brigadier General Boyan Stavrev, who commanded the Nati
onal Guards Unit from 2008 to 2016, said in a National Radio interview: ‘While I was commander in the course of eight and a half years, every year the Guards Representative Brass Band took part in music parades in Germany, in Turkey, in Belgium, in the Netherlands. Wherever our band appeared, it received the most applause.’

For his part, Lieutenant Colonel Radi Radev told armymedia.bg: ‘I will never forget our first time in Germany at the Music Parade, in an auditorium seating 9,000. The audience cheered the other bands that had been there on numerous occasions. After our performance, the people first fell silent, then stood up and started stamping their feet as an expression of their greatest respect for the artists. Since 2008, we have invariably ranked first or second there. Our band is very popular at that festival.’

The Guards Band holds numerous State honours and awards from international music competitions. The Union of Bulgarian Musicians and Dancers conferred on it its 2016 Crystal Lyre Prize in th
e Brass Bands category. Jury chair Rositsa Boyadzhieva noted the Guards’ ‘incredibly beautiful sound making, exceptionally mellow playing, a refinement that is difficult to achieve in a brass band, which is a real exploit, considering that brilliant concertizing comes on top of their ceremonial and marching engagements.’

By protocol and military regulations, the massed bands headed by the Guards Band bring up the rear of military parades and march-pasts. But then, this band is in the forefront of the hearts and minds of their huge local and foreign fandom.

Source: Ghana News Agency