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The search for ‘folk music’ in art music

By Robert G. Rawson


Writing about the perceptions and contexts for music from the Haná region in Moravia in the most recent volume of Early Music got me thinking more broadly about the subject of ‘folk music’ or rustic music of various types, and the emphasis and value frequently placed upon it in the context of art music. In particular, I started to think again about Bedřich Smetana (1824–84). The very concept of ‘folk music’ owes its origins to late enlightenment thinkers, especially Johann Gottfried Herder’s use of ‘Volkslied’ in 1771. Even then, Herder accompanied his discussion with a grovelling apology to the reader for even having addressed the topic of peasant music at all. In recent years, Dave Harker and Matthew Gelbert, among others, have argued that the concept of ‘folk music’ is essentially a bourgeois one (an observation of peasant music made by the educated classes).

Whatever name we would like to give to peasant music (which frequently carries a similar social connotation as ‘folk music’), the recreational music-making of ordinary Europeans found its way, by one means or another, into much art music of the past 500 years or more. Why do musicians find so much value in peasant music? How and why did this happen? In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the art of performing included being able to create something new from older materials. Examples include Diego Ortiz’s Tratado de glosas (1565), the English school of playing ‘divisions’ upon popular airs or basses, the elaborated Lutheran hymn tunes in Bach’s chorale preludes, and the tradition of variation pieces. The reason for their popularity is pretty straightforward, given the appeal of combining both the familiar and the new; but where this becomes even more mysterious is the role of the (perceived) national origins of these melodies in both perpetuating and understanding the desire to find belonging (usually one’s own ‘people’) in the context of music.

The quest to identify ‘national’ traits in music has been little short of an obsession for historians of various sorts since the early nineteenth century, and in some ways before. Why is this so important? For many historians, finding local or national traditional music in the context of art music is similar to looking upon an ancient monument in a town or city square—it inscribes the past onto the present and ties those who identify the melody as ‘theirs’ to both a physical place and a continuing place in history. This is a very different phenomenon to the performance-based music I mentioned earlier, which were part of a musical narrative, rather than a regional or national one.

Historians tend to point to Smetana as the godfather of modern Czech music, but he represents a fundamental but overlooked transformation in how peasant music (or rather an evocation of peasant music) appears in art music. Typically seventeenth and eighteenth century rural musicians, steeped in Italian repertoire and genres, brought their experience to courts in provincial towns as well as major cities, including Prague, Vienna, Paris, London, and Dresden. Of course those rural musical experiences became part of their sound world, albeit unconsciously; that is, the sounds of village life were deliberately avoided by musicians who, in Geoff Chew’s words, sought to be ‘ersatz Italians’ at court. When the Moravian composer and musician Gottfried Finger (c.1655–1730) arrived in London in the 1680s he was amazed to find that ‘the Italian style is but lately naturaliz’d in England’—it had long been the mainstay of most musicians in central Europe. Musicians in the Czech lands also followed this rural-to-urban pattern. However, by the age of Smetana, the situation had reversed; now it was urban composers going to the countryside in search of authentic ‘Czechness’. Smetana, raised in a bourgeois environment, only learned Czech as an adult and had to turn to the countryside to imbue his music with ‘Czechness’.

Seventeenth and eighteenth-century evocations of peasant life followed two basic paths: to be evoked at court as an object of ridicule or humour (Biber’s Battalia is a good example of this, composed for Salzburg Carnival in 1673), or slightly more sympathetic readings by travelling priests, empathising with the sufferings of peasantry more generally. Smetana’s peasants in The Bartered Bride (Prodaná nevěsta), for example, never encounter their social betters (there are no Habsburg administrators or lords in the opera) or any signs of the toils of rural life, but live in a post-Enlightenment world of rural idyll, where they are to be admired for their rustic earnestness and simplicity. Even in eighteenth-century Czech theatrical works, which admitted the reality of Habsburg political rule, there was at least a nod to the difficulties of peasant life.

Nevertheless, Smetana is rather careful in how he integrates folk elements into the score of The Bartered Bride. They generally work along the ‘monument’ model I mentioned above: while folk dances are not part of the opera’s main musical vocabulary, they serve as a monument upon which the peasant characters see their history written (see the furiant dance in The Bartered Bride). The presence of folk elements in this context serves the characters in the opera as well as some of the audience, so that both characters and Czech audiences could identify and experience a sense of belonging. It is a clever device of the composer to portray several kinds of unity simultaneously, and it is critical to note that folk elements were incorporated into all ensemble pieces. Finally, it may seen curious that Smetana’s opera does not challenge the social or political situations of its central characters (a little surprising given Smetana’s political activism in the 1848 Prague uprising), but perhaps the composer aimed to redeem their circumstances through the beauty of a modern, cosmopolitan, and sophisticated musical language. Take, for instance, the moment when Jeník has just agreed to barter his future bride and confesses his unwavering love for her (sung here by the magnificent Slovak tenor Peter Dvorsky).

Even though the revolution of 1848 had failed to liberate the Czech lands from Austria, Smetana could offer a kind of remedy—a fairy-tale picture of idealised unity and freedom—on the stage of Prague’s Provisional Theatre. This interpretation also helps account for the total absence of the Austrian Empire in the story.

Dr Robert G. Rawson is Senior Lecturer and Director of Early Music Ensemble in the Department of Music and Performing Arts at Canterbury Christ Church University. He is the author of “Courtly contexts for Moravian Hanák music in the 17th and 18th centuries” in the latest issue of Early Music, which is available to read for free for a limited time.

Early Music is a stimulating and richly illustrated journal, and is unrivalled in its field. Founded in 1973, it remains the journal for anyone interested in early music and how it is being interpreted today. Contributions from scholars and performers on international standing explore every aspect of earlier musical repertoires, present vital new evidence for our understanding of the music of the past, and tackle controversial issues of performance practice.

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