Folk and classic?

How folklore as local musical heritage contributed to create the collective European heritage known as “classical music”.

By Jan Kuhr


When you read literary works of the last hundred years about history of western classical music you can’t help but notice the constant, changing references to folk music. What had seemed natural to the generation of Ambros a hundred years ago became problematic to the generation of Riemann and later received with scepticism and suspicion by young French scholars, and then again, from the studies of Wiora to the volumes of the New Oxford History of Music, it has been proclaimed and confirmed by the documents of recent history that knowledge concerning the great periods of the history of music cannot be complete without being acquainted with the folk music sources on which they fed. The problems presented by the relations of folk music and art music are so various and intricate that even a simple survey will show an impossible understanding of results.

The fundamental differences between folk music and art music are an old subject in European musicology, however, almost until recent times it paid much more careful attention to the differences between the two to the features and fundamental elements which meet or even converge. The development of bourgeois civilisation also contributed to the ever wider separation of the villages from the towns, of the life of the people from that of the so called educated classes, so that in time the distance that was between them appeared to be virtually impossible to overcome.

Folk music, when it was studied with serious attention, was prone to present a phenomenon outside of time, outside of history, or rather an increasingly isolated, withering state as the forgotten, neglected legacy of long past centuries, a sunken relic which, its development having been arrested, and was doomed to inevitable extinction.

What, in fact, were the obvious differences between folk music and art music? They were separated by differences of purpose, function and social role. Obviously, only the tunes favoured by any for a long time in numerous places may be denoted as folk music, tunes born in a community, spread in a community, and appealed to a community. Art music on the other hand, derives from an individual, has been invented by a composer, may for a long time be known only to a narrow circle, apparently remaining, „the cause of a few” is marked by typicalness; it flourishes in similar forms, in groups, unattached to any individual artistic achievement; moreover, it is known in multitudes of variations in time and space alike, its true life being manifested by these variations. Folk music is preserved by oral tradition and not in writing-being averse to all fixation. A type and variations, with a tendency to permanent anonymousness and constant change: these have been quoted as the decisive factors which set off so sharply the contrast of artist, professional, individual composition, when compared to folk music, a popular product as regards origin, spread, existence, and fading away.

In the light of recent research, these contradictions have, however mostly proved to be superficial and exaggerated. Increasing numbers have discovered that folk music and art music are in many respects connected and related with each other. They are related, because the elements accumulated in one are constantly under way to reach the other. ! Hungarian folk music, in the Eastern Part of Central-Europe, old Central-Asian patterns, Gregorian types, early-mediaeval hymn tunes, metric forms of the late Renaissance, Viennese Baroque and Rococo, italicising romantic melody turns have all survived up to our present day. Zoltan Kodaly gave an excellent summary of these relationships in his study entitled „Folk music and Art Music”(1941). „In folk music” he says „strictly speaking a new transcription, a variation is produced by the lips of the singer on every occasion. This operative power of unconditional ownership has been emphasised many times as anessential trait of the folk song. It used to exist also in higher art” (Here Kodaly calls attention to shakespeare, Bach, Handel and the great classic of Hungarian poetry, Janos Arany.)

Apparently, the mode of production is entirely different between Folk and Classical music, but is there? The slow variation of the existing material gradually leads to a new work through the links of tiny changes, this goes for any type of music including that of Folk. But looking closer at the history of music: does composition of so much individual character, showing no likeness to anything in existence, spring from the heads of composers?The early works of even the great masters are also mere imitations, often scarcely differing from the compositions of their predecessors. Their originality, their individual tones develop only step by step. The influence of others can be discovered and seen in their most original works. No one could have guessed the composer of Tristan from Wagner’s first operas. He was doubtful about himself at the age of thirty, because he found so much imitation, so many foreign influences in his own works. This was natural. The artist does not live in a vacuum, but in the company of other people; he feels and thinks like millions of other people; only he can express himself in a better way. A new type of song is developed from existing forms by slow variation, always growing more different, but hardly at a slower pace than that in art music. There, too, the appearance of a new style has been found to act like a revelation. In truth there is no essential difference between the two. There differences have been caused by historical, national and social stratifications. Folk music and Art music do not follow paths so wide apart, they follow a similar line. At the development of great, classical periods, folk music or popular music is thus always found to be present as stimulation and a model in endeavours towards simplicity.