Program Notes by Richard H. Trame, S.J., Ph.D.
This evening's concert billed as a "Folk Jubilee" requires for its enjoyment and appreciation some understanding from the listener not so much of detailed analysis of each selection but rather some comprehension of the folk idiom, its characteristic variations among national genres represented.
Folk music welled up among peoples as a natural musical evolution without benefit of scientific training, a product of the common man commemorating in songs the whole rhythm of life on land and sea, its joys and sorrows, its social festivals, its agricultural and religious celebrations, its times of mourning. Every facet of human life finds reflection in songs of war, patriotism and peace, love and labor, lullabies, dance and dirge, and even such pedestrian occurrences as the hawking of street wares like tobacco.
Since the beginning of the Twentieth Century, especially, various national composers like Vaughan Williams, Kodály, Bartók, and Copland to mention some of the more noteworthy, have utilized modern recording techniques to capture and preserve their country's heritage in its native and primitive form. Indeed the treasures of a nation's folk song had previously exercised considerable influence on the composition of refined art music as a melodic and rhythmic source. German and Austrian folk melody found highly sophisticated expression in the music of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms. Haydn and Beethoven even benefited financially when they contracted with English publishers to arrange, for example, Scottish songs. Many are aware of the rhythmic influence the Irish jig exerted on the composition of the fourth movement of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony. The Hungarian Rhapsodies elaborated by Brahms, Liszt, and Enesco similarly reflect that people's vital folk idiom.
Generally speaking, as the Oxford History of Music asserts, folk music originated with the voice and not the instrument. Its rhythmic elaboration depended on the flow of the words, the bearers of the message. The song thus consists of melody without harmonic addition. Nevertheless the inherent beauty and emotional impact of this primitive melodic inventiveness invited further development compatible with more cultivated and sophisticated tastes or national custom. The Welsh love of choral music led naturally to a strong choral emphasis in various festival competitions for which they are still famed. Modern choral arrangements, moreover, often constituted the only viable means by which a folk song prior to electronic means of amplification could be adequately communicated to a large audience or congregation.
However, even though the folk idiom customarily originated in the voice, as early as the Twelfth Century, troubadour, trouvere and jongleur songs, the foundation of French folk music, found elaboration through instrumental accompaniment reinforcing its characteristic rhythmic precision and drive and fostering the subsequent marriage of dance and voice with harmonic support.
A successful modern presentation, therefore, or folk music in choral rendition or with instrumental accompaniment requires that the straightforward simplicity of the song not be obscured through over arrangements resulting in settings so complex that the melody and words become murky. The criteria for judgment permits a person to receive the message loud and clear, with simplicity rather than by a polyphonic complexity characteristic of a Renaissance motet. The choral and instrumental web should provide that tonal and coloristic variety consistent with the message of the words.
This evening's concert presents a microcosm of folk music from many lands in Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Americas. The martial spirit of Harlech's Celtic men repelling the Saxon invader contrasts with the repose which peace and security bring to a protected loved one in All Through the Night. "Two Spanish Scenes" present the Valencian night watchman's cries on his rounds. This Canto is followed by the Alabado inviting families to morning prayer summoned by the church bell. The poignant lament of the mountain lass as her lover goes off to civil war finds expression in the beautiful He's Gone Away.
Although all immigrants to America have contributed to our fond of folk music, two streams have been most influential and have mutually interacted with and contributed to each other’s development. Dominant among these national contributions has been the English language-based music of the British Isles particularly up through the mid-Nineteenth Century. Thenceforth the music of Britain in turn came under strong American influence. A familiar and mutually interacting genre, for example, is the Sea Shanty. A developed type unique to American working and frontier conditions is the familiar "Western" whose variety is illustrated in the familiar medley on the program.
The second powerful contributory stream influencing American folk music is the Afro-American. Through their learning of the English language shaped as it became by the linguistic peculiarities of their native African dialects, the Blacks came into contact with British American music. They retained much of that native musical heritage, but they transmuted what they learned whether through hymn or song and willed us their profoundly felt and magnificent fond of Spirituals and secular songs. As the Afro-American tradition emerged it interacted for example with the British form from the north in the mountains of the South among Whites to create the White Spiritual. The Spiritual continues to exercise an enduring influence on the vitality of American music as so many of our recognized composers utilized its treasurers for the enrichment of their art music.
The bulk of this evening's presentations fall clearly within the British-American and the Afro-American traditions of folk music, amply illustrating the inheritance. We are likewise afforded the opportunity of hearing these songs and those of other national traditions· in masterly choral and instrumental arrangements by experts such as Wagner, Terri, Shaw, Farrow, Johnson, Hairston, and others. These are sung by the Master Chorale and Jubilee Singers with the requisite authentic inflection and sensitive nuance characteristic of their established reputations.