Music of the People
By Thomas May
Béla Bartók: Four Slovak Folk Songs | Veljo Tormis: Karelian Destiny
Johannes Brahms: Zigeunerlieder, Opus 103 |Francis Poulenc: Chansons Françaises
Aaron Copland: Old American Songs
“Myths,” as Joseph Campbell reminds us, “are public dreams.” Folk songs might also be said to be the musical equivalent of myths—tunes that come unbidden and seem a natural part of the cultural landscape rather than artful constructions. And as with myths, universal themes of love and loss recur in folk songs around the world, while their specific manifestations—traits of rhythm or melodic tics—have “a local habitation.”
Classical composers through the ages have tapped into the anonymous sources of folk music, sometimes even unconsciously. But as national awareness intensified in the Romantic era, folk music gained in stature. Composers began to change from an attitude of exploiting it as a resource to one of preservation. Our program includes examples both of creative reworkings of folk music and of efforts inspired by the disappearance of folk traditions—sadly, a phenomenon as widespread as the tragic die-out of languages and biological diversity.
Already as a young conservatory graduate, Béla Bartók began to fathom the enormous gaps in knowledge about Europe’s folk music. His creative identity as a composer helped fuel a lifelong obsession with filling out that knowledge, but Bartók also brought to it a highly trained analytical discipline. His field expeditions to the countryside to collect and catalogue authentic folk materials aspired to the systematic rigor of a botanist and helped lay the groundwork for the emerging science of ethnomusicology.
During trips to villages in northern Hungary, Bartók discovered fascinating examples of cultural cross-pollination and determined to embark on an ambitious comparative study of Hungarian, Slovak, and Romanian elements. He gathered several thousand folk songs from the Slovak idiom alone. In 1917 Bartók arranged the melodies of these Four Slovak Songs for mixed voices and piano. He selected them from his mass of material as the earliest specimens he could find showing distinctly Slovak traits (especially clear in the syncopated rhythm and modal harmony of No. 3). The moodily evocative story line of the first song, about an unhappy marriage, contrasts with the simple pleasures extolled in the other three.
A towering figure in contemporary choral music, Veljo Tormis mirrors Bartók’s patient dedication to preserving the artistic beauty and wisdom of folk song traditions—a task whose urgency has intensified with the rapid homogenization of global culture. “I turned to our natural heritage,” observes the Estonian composer, “in order to discover my mother tongue.” But he also came to know a magnificent variety of independent but related folk music idioms in the region around the Baltic Sea, extending up to Finland.
A series of expeditions starting in 1969 introduced Tormis to smaller, little-known pockets of language, folklore, and music among the Baltic Finns. The fact that they were rapidly disappearing spurred him to undertake an in-depth study of their traditions. Over a two-decade period, Tormis collected and consulted, arranging what he found into the expansive song cycle Forgotten Peoples, which represents several of these ethnic groups. Karelian Destiny forms its own cycle within the larger one and is his tribute to the largest minority among the Baltic Finns, whose culture is rooted in the area, often fought over, that straddles Finland and Russia and has left a deep impression on Finnish identity.
Tormis’s arrangements of five songs for a cappella mixed chorus are neither literal transcriptions nor romanticized reworkings. They inhabit a space made alluringly resonant by the context in which Tormis places them, representing one face of what he calls “a pre-Christian, shamanistic civilization” that is “very close to nature from the ecological point of view.” The tragic, fate-directed sense pervading these songs is also no accident. Tormis sees “no reason to disagree” with the implicit analogy many have noted between their progression and the parts of the Requiem Mass (beginning with the Lacrimosa-like “The Weeping Maiden,” pivoting around “As a Serf in Viru” as a vengeful Dies Irae, and ending with the sadly resigned irony of “A Lullaby”). Yet rather than “sing a final requiem” to these peoples, the composer suggests that “their way of thinking and their values might even give some support to insecure contemporary man in his everyday rat-race.”
The folk- and fairy-tale collecting of the Brothers Grimm represents the literary face of the 19th century’s cultural self-consciousness; it had a musical side as well in the growing preoccupation with folk songs. Brahms anticipated the more rigorous attitude of Bartók toward preserving this legacy in his multivolume collections of arrangements (published without opus number), but he incorporated “folk-like” elements more loosely in his own officially numbered compositions. Although the Zigeunerlieder, or “Gypsy Songs,” suggest some aspects of Hungarian folk music, their real signature is to emulate the simplicity and directness that set folk music apart from “composed” music.
In fact, the Zigeunerlieder tunes are not transcriptions but Brahms’s own, written in an imitative folk vein. He was intrigued by a collection of Hungarian folk songs that a Viennese merchant friend had published (with German translations of the texts). However, Brahms decided to discard the original tunes printed with the poems and instead composed his own settings for eleven of the songs, arranging their texts as suited him. The brief, uncomplicated poems reflect the evergreen topics of pop songs: love, betrayal, nostalgia. There are hints—but only that—of an overarching, song cycle narrative. The composer disarmingly labeled the Zigeunerlieder “cheerful and high-spirited nonsense.”
Brahms first wrote the set for solo vocal quartet and piano accompaniment (the Zigeunerlieder were premiered in private salon concerts in Vienna in 1888), but this version for full mixed chorus presents a popular alternative. The songs draw on the traditional Hungarian folk dance rhythms made popular by roving Roma bands (whose intoxicating music helped lure army recruits) and are all (except for Nos. 7, 8, and 10) in fast tempos.
Although only the first two songs are in melancholy minor modes, Brahms uses harmonic coloring and melodic stress to paint a vivid emotional montage of love’s passions, barbs, and charms, intensified by the natural settings. The deceptively tricky piano accompaniments are a tour de force. Brahms manipulates the instrument to imitate another sound typical of the Roma bands, the cimbalom (a kind of hammered dulcimer)—particularly in Song 10, the most intricate of the set.
The tweakings of actual original folk tunes characterizing Francis Poulenc’s Chansons Françaises are as subtle as those nuances of a brushstroke that can nevertheless be used to identify an artist’s signature. Poulenc likened himself to the double-headed Janus on account of his notoriously contradictory—or, to see it in a different light, comprehensive—personality. He rose to fame as an insouciant bon vivant in the sparkle of 1920s Paris, wagging on about his confessed taste for “adorable bad music.” One peer described him as a musical “hooligan.” But a powerful conversion experience in 1936 led Poulenc back to the Catholic faith of his heritage, resulting in one of the most glorious outpourings of sacred choral music of the past century.
Poulenc, however, hardly forswore his elegant, dapper charm. France’s liberation from the Nazis—the composer had spent the dark war years in Paris—inspired the desire to celebrate with this collection of buoyant folk songs, which Poulenc arranged for a cappella chorus in 1945 and 1946. The eight Chansons Françaises are also arranged to complement each other in mood and style and, in the process, bring out both the frivolous and meditative sides of Poulenc’s disposition.
The resourceful sauciness of the pretty “Margoton” and the defiance of the bride (“Pilons l’orge”) are set against the lusty men in “Clic, clac, dansez sabots,” in which a simple repetitive figure gives a pretty clear image of their one-track minds. A hint of medieval nostalgia meanwhile occasionally graces the songs’ robustly secular scenarios (the opening of No. 7, for example). But the set’s center of gravity is the austerely beautiful “C’est la petite fill’ du prince.” Here Poulenc’s uncomplicated devices of countermelody and choral dialogue between the men and women enhance the sweet melancholy associated with falling in love by folk song of whatever national flavor.
“Give me a book of tunes,” Aaron Copland once said, “and I’ll immediately know what tune attracts me and what one doesn’t.” As with so many folk-song compilations, the deceptively simple Old American Songs, which Copland published in two sets of five each, disguise the painstaking effort involved in gathering, choosing, and artfully arranging the wealth of possibilities that were available to him. One of Copland’s easily overlooked achievements here is to convey what biographer Howard Pollack calls “a diversified portrait of America itself, held together by the unity of Copland’s style.”
The songs in fact range far beyond what is normally thought of as actual folk tunes (of which “I Bought Me a Cat,” a popular encore number, is a delightful example from the subgenre of children’s songs). His selections center around the antebellum and Civil War era, when American identity was being tested and reforged. “The Boatmen’s Dance” and “Ching-a-Ring Chaw” actually come from minstrel shows (Copland changed the dialect of the original texts and even completely rewrote “Ching-a-Ring Chaw” –save for its chorus—since, as he explained, “I did not want to take any chance of it being construed as racist”). “Long Time Ago” comes from a once-popular love ballad; “At the River” and “Zion’s Walls” are examples of American religious song, the former from an 1865 gospel hymn tune (which was sung at the composer’s memorial concert) and the latter a tent-revival spiritual that Copland also used in his opera The Tender Land.
Copland composed the first set of Old American Songs in 1950 and, encouraged by its success, the second in 1952, setting them for solo voice and piano. Irving Fine later made choral arrangements (with both piano and orchestral accompaniment). Copland cleverly uses the piano to evoke atmospheres specific to the widely varying songs, with strumming banjo for the minstrel songs and nobly spaced chords for “At the River”—all reinforcing this rich mix of vernaculars that also inspired Copland in the creation of his “American sound.”
Thomas May is the author of Decoding Wagner and editor of The John Adams Reader. He writes frequently about music and theater.