Never the Same Twice: European Folk Music and the Act of Musicking

by Peter Tracy

An illustration of a langspil from 1811.

The workers in the field sing and shout together, a song about a great grey falcon: “zapevala soko tica siva!”[1] Their scythes sweep through the stalks of grain in time, their feet step to a solid rhythm. Although three generations are present at the taking in of this year’s harvest, no one remembers where this old, familiar song came from, and nobody really cares to ask. The oldest among the people in this small Serbian village can’t remember learning the song at all.

In his book Musicking: The Means of Performing and Listening, Christopher Small makes the claim that “there is no such thing as music”, that “music is not a thing at all but an activity, something that people do.”[2] “Thing” is the key word here: music certainly exists, but only in those moments when we play it, hear it, and experience it, only in those places and gatherings in which we agree that music can and should take place. Music, even written music, isn’t an object, it is a process, one that never looks the exact same way twice and one that is dependent on the context in which it is performed. The songs sung by a group of people working are defined by the work and its rhythms: whether many of those who sing harvest and threshing songs would recognize their songs as such on a recording or as a written score is certainly up for debate. After all, in the words of one nineteenth century gatherer of folk music, written music left unplayed is like “dried flowers in a collection”[3]: pretty, but dead and inert. All of us who participate in the act of musicking contribute to bringing music back to life, again and again.

This week the playlist is loosely based on the indefinable category that is European folk music. Here you’ll find both familiar and unfamiliar sounds from across Europe, including every instrument and tradition mentioned in the accompanying article: Nordic drone zithers, Sami yoik chants, the fujara, and much more. Early Music Seattle: European Folk Music

Some might see this lack of a fixed text, this music from and through the act of making it, as emblematic of something we call “folk music”. As familiar as this term is, who these folk are and what exactly their music entails can be rather difficult to pin down. In our search, we might turn for help to an official Folk Music organization, the International Folk Music Council, whose 1954 definition of folk music positions it as “the product of a musical tradition that has been evolved through the process of oral transmission” and claims that “it is the re-fashioning and re-creation of the music by the community that gives it its folk character.” That the IFMC later rebranded itself as the International Council for Traditional Music might give us a clue as to just how hotly debated their definition of folk music was, with its references to “a community uninfluenced by popular and art music” and the rather hard barriers which it builds between genres.[4]

Depiction of a Serb singing and playing a single-stringed instrument known as the gusle.

In an attempt at a more nuanced definition of the term, Grove Music Online’s entry on folk music takes a more critical view that reflects the severity of this dilemma:

“This concept has been defined and developed in multiple ways by collectors, scholars and practitioners, within different geographical locations and in different historical periods. Widely used in Europe and the Americas, it has been used both covertly and overtly in the construction and negation of identities in relation to class, nation or ethnicity and continues to be the source of controversy and heated debate. At its root lie questions about the identity and identification of the ‘folk’, the delimitation of musical repertories, how these repertories are transmitted and the assessment of sounds.”[5]

While this longer and more contextually based definition might be more accurate, it doesn’t tell us much about what this mysterious umbrella term called folk music actually sounds like. In an attempt to cut through the chatter, then, we might turn to a pithily succinct definition popularized by American folk music revivalists in the 60’s and 70’s: “Folk music is what the people sing.”[6]

Despite the ever-lingering question as to who “the people” are, the travelers and scholar of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries who built the foundations of our now pervasive folk music collections certainly seemed to know who and what they were looking for. Upper-class romantics with enough time and money to spend months in the back country of western Sweden or the mountains of northern Hungary, these would-be adventurers might have thought of themselves as looking for the true “music of the people”. It was through travelogues and letters, written for an upper-class audience hungry for sweeping descriptions of untamed nature and idyllic peasant life, that the concept of the “folk” took hold: folklore, folk dance, folk art, folk song. Coined by Johann Gottfried Herder in the late eighteenth century, the term volkslied is often cited as the origin of this category, a term which for him was defined by “communal composition” and “an aesthetic of ‘dignity’”[7].

1847 depiction of famed folklore collector Elias Lonnrot titled One Man Saved Everything for Us by Running

Given this idealization of peasant music it is no surprise that upper-class travelers would often write in very enthusiastic tones about their musical encounters. For instance, there is the account of Baron Karl Eherbert of Salzburg, who found himself trapped in a wooden shed with a shepherd and his wife on a rainy day in 1784. “It would have been quite miserable to spend the evening in such company…”, he wrote, “if the honorable shepherd had not passed the time displaying his musical gifts. He would whisper an allemande on his Jew’s harp, fiddle a couple of lovely minuets or folk tunes on his violin, or play the great lover singing a heart-rending aria.”[8] Other similar travelers, however, were almost offended by what they heard, such as the Italian composer Giuseppe Acerbi. On a trip with a Swedish guide to study the Saami and the Finns in 1798, Acerbi “tried on many occasions, using both coins and spirits, to encourage the herdelapparna [reindeer herding Lapps] to perform their melodies.” All he could achieve, however, “was to make them utter terrible shouts”. On finding a music far removed from that of the urban, literate, concert-hall scene of which he was a part, Acerbi duly concludes that the locals of rural Finland must have “no sense of harmony whatsoever” and that “serious music” must be “entirely banned from these godforsaken and isolated areas”[9]

Though he was no great lover of rural Finnish singing traditions, Acerbi might well have been just as enthusiastic as Baron Eherbert when it came to more instrumental folk music, which could often be closer to urban conceptions of what music sounded like. Take, for instance, the musical tradition surrounding the Icelandic langspil or its related Nordic counterparts such as the Norwegian langeleik and Swedish hummel. Being bowed string instruments, these so-called drone zithers might have reminded our Italian adventurer of the violins and viols back home. While sounding out a long tone on the two drone strings, players of the langspil wind a melody on a string specifically for that purpose, resulting in a fiddled harmony that might have sounded pleasingly diatonic to any wanderer from central Europe. The langspil can also be plucked, resulting in a sound not unlike that of the numerous plucked string instruments found throughout the rest of Europe. Of the other instruments of this family, the langeleik in particular, with its seven frets forming a diatonic major scale, might have won Acerbi’s reverent admiration. Still, even within this broader musical sphere, outliers such as the Swedish nykelharpa, a relative of the hurdy-gurdy that uses mechanical keys to change the pitch of the string, might have given Acerbi pause[10].

Many flutes and wind instruments might have also been deemed sufficiently sophisticated by such a roving adventurer: we can envision the Baron Eherbert happily going on his way to the tune of a shepherd’s reed pipe. A Slovakian shepherd, however, were he of sufficient seniority, might have played the enormous fipple flute known as the fujara for his guest, an overtone flute whose sometimes menacing calls have ties to both herding and “bandit songs”[11]. Although it’s shape and size are relatively similar to the bassoon, it is played using only three holes, with players overblowing to reach higher pitches, and is considered “the queen of Slovakian folk music”[12]. Of a similar stripe are the various kinds of massive wooden trumpets which are loud enough to be used for signaling across mountain valleys and are found in eastern Europe or, even more broadly, the wide range of bagpipes played from Scotland to Sicily[13].

And there are other worlds of sound as well if we widen our definition of instrument to include all those tools of work or incidental noise-makers that are used within musical practices throughout Europe. Besides the use of scythes, axes, tables, wooden shoes, or whips[14], there are other household objects whose use as musical instruments is more systematic, such as the Ceglédi kanna, or “Cegléd water jug”. Associated with Roma musicians in Hungary, this consists entirely of a specific design of water jug named after the city in which it is supposed to have originated. Played by tapping the jug’s metal sides, muffling the its mouth, and raising or lowering one’s arm within the jug, this unassuming container can be a virtuosic percussion instrument in the right hands[15].

Instruments, too, are a diverse group of noisemakers that don’t always sit nicely on a concert hall stage, a written score, or in the minds of formally educated musicians. Although a water jug can keep time as well as any timpani, boundaries between genres remain, not only to separate or to judge but because they are in some sense useful: folk music is a category which many people feel comfortable using to describe a wide range of traditions and sound making techniques. From the outset, the use of this category defined certain traditions and perhaps a certain musical ethos against what we might call the other major current of European music: that of written, city-based music beginning with plainchant. When the musicologist Jan Ling refers to folk music as “rural music taught, without being written down, by one generation to the next”[16], he is therefore in some ways much closer to the way in which the term folk music is actually used by people across Europe and America. Folk music is almost always thought of as having rural roots.

A certain give and take has always occurred between these two loose camps: the country and the city, folk music and classical music. At times and in certain places the distance between these two music’s was almost negligible: the early nineteenth century Swedish diarist Märta Helena Reenstierna, for instance could report that a certain fashionable social gathering was opened by “…a noisy peasant polska played on two keyed fiddles…”, only for it to be immediately replaced by “…two violins, playing a quadrille.”[17]

At other times and places, however, and in the minds of some people, aspects of the two traditions were seen to be in rather sharp conflict. In Ling’s view, “the extent to which folk songs and melodies made their way to the salons of the nobility and the bourgeoisie was very different in different countries, depending on how much rural peasant music resembled the serious music that dominated the salons and how much class conflict there was.” Ling’s own example of this lack of contact is that of Hungary, where Franz Liszt claimed that the songs played on flute and bagpipe in rural villages were “poor and incomplete”[18] Yet Ling’s use of the word “serious” to describe the written music of the wealthy and the nobility largely points to a continuous tradition of thought which sees the music played by rural people as at once romantic, universal, or natural and alien, amateurish, or vulgar.

Bartok using a phonograph to record Slovak folk songs sung by peasants.

Keeping this apparent contradiction in place, many composers throughout classical music’s history have drawn more or less directly from folk music. For some, this was simply a style from which they drew certain elements, such as Ligeti or Kurtag, while others borrowed more directly or recomposed folk songs for concert audiences, such as Brahms or Dvorak. In doing so they took part in the constant reinvention of folk songs and folk music, albeit with more or less real contact between them and their rural neighbors. Some composers did have prolonged contact and a lifelong obsession with the rural music of his region, such as Bella Bartok, who was and remains a respected ethnomusicologist alongside his renown as a composer. At the height of this convergence during the nineteenth century of folk and classical music, echoes of folk music were often used not only to evoke the simplicity and romance of nature or rural life but to evoke a sense of nationhood or nationalistic pride[19].

The attitude of the more well intentioned of these composers could probably be summed up nicely by the words of folk music scholar Albert Lloyd, who wrote: “Deep at the root, there is no essential difference between folk music and art music; they are varied blossoms from the same stock, grown to serve a similar purpose, if destined for different tables. Originally they spring from the same area of man’s mind; their divergence is a matter of history, of social and cultural stratification.”[20] Bartok, who reinterpreted the music of his region in his own compositions while treating his sources with openness and respect, can in some ways provide a model of best practices when we consider how to approach outside traditions from the “other side”[21].

The contexts in which the category of folk music is most often invoked today are largely at folk music festivals, folk music centers, folk music concerts, or through folk music collections by means of which we can seemingly revive the “music of the people” by simply pressing play on a recording. The bringing of oral and regional traditions into contexts in which notation, presentation, and recording are the norm has had significant effects on what we consider folk music and how it is played. When a melody sung outside of equal temperament or a rhythm so lopsided as to confuse any time signature is notated using Western musical notation, much of its rougher edges are sanded down. When a dance marking the arrival of spring in a rural village is performed in a foreign city, in a massive hall, for a seated audience, the act of musicking for everyone involved is in some ways profoundly different. As the composer Olivier Messiaen’s found when attempting to transcribe bird song, the process of bringing outside sounds into the world of notated, urban, concert-based music can be akin to squeezing them into a box in which they were never intended to fit. Something essential is reshaped or lost in this process.

Yet if we are to take the ill-fated International Folk Music Council at their word when they claim that “it is the re-fashioning and re-creation of the music by the community that gives it its folk character”, then folk music is alive and well. Newer musical phenomena billed as manifestations of folk music and grown by both urban and rural communities have resulted in something of a new genre called “folk” which has its roots in rural traditional music yet has adapted itself to urban coffee shops and massive stages. While a tradition oriented around change may seem paradoxical, it is precisely this constant acceptance of change and variation that has perhaps most clearly defines “folk music” as a wonderfully indefinable genre. Although the same songs might be sung year after year, the sounds that result are never the same twice, and the act of making them can always be a new adventure.

This week the playlist is loosely based on the indefinable category that is European folk music.
Here you’ll find both familiar and unfamiliar sounds from across Europe, including every instrument and tradition mentioned in the accompanying article: Nordic drone zithers, Sami yoik chants, the fujara, and much more.

This week the playlist is loosely based on the indefinable category that is European folk music. Here you’ll find both familiar and unfamiliar sounds from across Europe, including every instrument and tradition mentioned in the accompanying article: Nordic drone zithers, Sami yoik chants, the fujara, and much more.

Works Cited/Further Reading

Baines, Anthony. “Organology and European Folk Music Instruments.” Journal of the International Folk Music Council, vol. 12, 1960, pp. 10–13.

Bartok, Bela., and Suchoff, Benjamin. “Turkish Folk Music from Asia Minor”. Princeton University Press, 1976.

“Ceglédi kanna”, Magyar Vagyok, Zoltán Kabai, September 15, 2010

Dahlhaus, Carl, et al. Between Romanticism and Modernism : Four Studies in the Music of the Later Nineteenth Century. University of California Press, 1980.

Donaldson, Rachel Clare. “I Hear America Singing” : Folk Music and National Identity. Temple University Press, 2014.

Gelbart, Matthew. The Invention of ‘Folk Music’ and ‘Art Music’. Vol. 16, Cambridge University Press, 2007.

Ling, Jan, et al. A History of European Folk Music. University of Rochester Press, 1997.

Lloyd, A. L. Folk Song in England. 1st United States ed.]. ed., International Publishers, 1967.

Mayes, Catherine. “Eastern European National Music as Concept and Commodity at The Turn of The Nineteenth Century.” Music & Letters, vol. 95, no. 1, 2014, pp. 70–91.

Pegg, Carole. “Folk music.” Grove Music Online. Oxford University Press.

Small, Christopher. Musicking : the Meanings of Performing and Listening. University Press of New England, 1998.

Stockmann, E. “Towards a History of European Folk Music Instruments.” Studia Musicologica Academiae Scientiarum Hungaricae, vol. 7, no. 1/4, Akadémiai Kiadó, 1965, pp. 155–64

Zoltán Juhász (2006) A systematic comparison of different European folk music traditions using self-organizing maps, Journal of New Music Research, 35:2, 95-112

[1] Jan Ling et al., A History of European Folk Music, (University of Rochester Press, 1997), pp. 6.

[2] Christopher Small, Musicking : the Meanings of Performing and Listening, (University Press of New England, 1998), pp. 2.

[3] See note 1, pp. 6.

[4] Matthew Gelbart, The Invention of ‘Folk Music’ and ‘Art Music’, (Vol. 16, Cambridge University Press, 2007), pp. 2.

[5] Carole Pegg, “Folk music.”, (Grove Music Online, Oxford University Press).

[6] Rachel Clare Donaldson, “I Hear America Singing” : Folk Music and National Identity, (Temple University Press, 2014), pp. 7.

[7] See note 4.

[8] See note 1, pp. 6.

[9] Ibid., pp. 7.

[10] Ibid., see chapter 7, “The Transformation of Musical Instruments”, pp. 135-53.

[11] Ibid., pp. 130.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid., see chapters 6-7, pp. 123-153.

[14] Ibid.

[15] English language sources on the Ceglédi kanna are extremely difficult to find; see the article titled “Ceglédi kanna” in Magyar Vagyok if you’re willing to do some translating.

[16] See note 1, pp.

[17] Ibid., pp. 10

[18] Ibid., pp. 11.

[19] For a more thorough discussion of this phenomenon, see works such as Carl Dalhaus, et al. Between Romanticism and Modernism : Four Studies in the Music of the Later Nineteenth Century, (University of California Press, 1980).

[20] See note 1, pp. 1.

[21] See Bartok’s numerous studies of folk music, such as Bela Bartok and Benjamin Suchoff, “Turkish Folk Music from Asia Minor”, (Princeton University Press, 1976).