The Influence of Folk-Song Upon Classical Music
By LOUIS C. ELSON
ROBERT FRANZ, one of the greatest song composers of modern times, once wrote to the author of this essay, “I believe that our Art began with the Lyric forms, and that it will end with them.” In. these days, when some of the musical composers are wandering far from all set forms, it is of especial interest to trace historically the truth of the first part of the above sentence, and to wonder whether the latter part will also come true. In examining the music of the past, we shall find the folk-song exerting an enormous influence in almost every epoch and in almost every direction.
The folk-song is the wild briar-rose of music; springing up by the wayside of art, it comes into being without any care being lavished upon it, without the artificial aids of the science of music; it represents the natural side of an art that has gradually become scientific. The ploughman at his labor, the soldier on his march, may have been moved to express some topic that was close to the hearts of himself and his companions in poetry and song; the favorite theme speeds from mouth to mouth, perhaps somewhat amorphous at first, but gradually reaching its most fitting shape by a process of evolution; sometimes even assuming more than one shape, as for example, the Russian song, “Troika,” which is sung differently in St. Petersburg and in Moscow, although there is quite enough of resemblance between the two versions to prove a single parentage.
With a popular origin, such as is indicated above, it is but natural to find history and folk-lore intertwining in this school of composition, or rather improvisation. The early ballads of England were but simple folk songs, yet William of Malmesbury, Roger de Hoveden, and a host of old chroniclers built many a chapter upon the information derived from them; nor did all follow the example of the first named writer, and inform their readers when they were stating ascertained facts and when detailing folk song traditions. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle contains two complete old ballads and parts of about a dozen others. Even in this remote epoch, we find the folk song growing from the ranks of the common people into a higher plane and being altered and adapted to more classic uses, and we also find men of culture trying to achieve the difficult simplicity of the songs of the people.
The folk songs of ancient Palestine were chiefly of the kinds — the joyous bridal song, the cheerful harvest or vintage song, and the wailing funeral song — and one may find many examples of each of these in the Scriptures. As they were not written out, there being no definite notation among the ancient Hebrews, we can not hope ever to discover the actual tunes that were sung. It is, however, not impossible that the melodies have filtered down through the ages; certain it is that the three schools of singing as described above, exist to-day in Arabia and Syria. Entire villages sometimes unite in a seven-day festival of rejoicing similar to the one described in the fourteenth chapter of Judges—the wedding of Samson. The Song of Solomon presents an entire book of bridal songs in the popular vein. The lamentation of David over the death of Saul and Jonathan, in the second book of Samuel i: 17—27, is an example of the mourning song.
In Amos; Habakkuk, and other books of the Old Testament, one finds further indication of the employment of folk-song, but the most artistic use of such songs is indicated in Isaiah v: i, where the prophet begins the cheerful vintage song, and then suddenly changes into the song of lamentation, the funeral lay, a contrast that must have been highly effective.
Much of dramatic action must have been united with the vocal work in the folk-songs as used by the Hebrews; in fact, when the word "dancing” occurs in the Scriptures it generally means only gesture and pantomime. If, in the light of this statement we read the song of Moses, in Exodus xv, we can imagine Miriam using a folk song which the Iraelitas. had become familiar with, can fancy her improvising the words, can see the successive gestures of pride, contempt, sarcasm and triumph, and can hear the multitude joining in the chorus at every opportunity.
This combination of action and singing becomes still more evident in the song of Deborah and Barak,in Judges v: Herder ventures a conjecture as to the style of the performance of this musical scene; he suggests that “probably verses i—ii were interrupted by the shouts of the populace; verses 12—17 were a picture of the battle with a naming of the leaders with praise or blame, and mimicking each one as named; verses 28—30 were mockery of the triumph of Sisera, and the last verse was given as a chorus by the whole people.” That the tune must have been a familiar one there can be no manner of doubt, and the whole scene, with its extemporization, its clapping of hands to mark the rhythm, its alternation of solo and chorus, would not be very unlike the singing at some of the negro camp-meetings on the southern plantations.
Against these military folk-songs after victory, we can place the minstrel songs of early medieval times be/ore the battle. It was the custom of the minstrel of the Middle Ages to march at the head of a cohort of soldiers, singing ballads of heroism to encourage the men-at-arm, and as he sang he tossed his spear high up in the air, or twirled his sword dexterously. Out of this old custom grew the drum major of modern times, who marches at the head of a procession, twirling his long silver-knobbed baton, and having no apparent connection with the band or the parade which he precedes.
The longevity of some folk-songs and their strange metamorphoses can scarcely be exaggerated. The well-known bacchanalian melody sung in England to the words of “He’s a Jolly Good Fellow,” and in America to “We Won’t Go Home Till Morning,” has the most variegated history of them all. Beginning in the Holy Land as a song in praise of a French crusader who lost his life near Jerusalem, the “Chanson de Mambron” took such strong root in the Orient that the melody is sung today in some parts of Egypt and Arabia, where they mistakenly claim it to be an old Egyptian folk-tune. The “Mambron,” altered by a French queen into “Malbrooke,” gave rise to “Malbrooke s’en va-t-en Guerre,” which, folk-song was used by no less a composer than Beethoven, in an orchestral work—”The Battle of Vittoria.” Crossing the channel, and afterwards the ocean, the song of the old crusader became the carol of the modern rollicker.
At about the time of the first crusade the folk-song was being used in a manner which was of the utmost importance in the evolution of the scientific side of music; it became the core around which the earliest composers wove their counterpoint; already in the twelfth century it was customary for the musician to choose some melody familiar to the people, and to combine it with another melody of his own creation. The support of melody by melody (instead of by chords) constitutes counterpoint, and it is not too much to say that the earliest skillful music of this kind sprang directly from the folk-song.
The composers at this time (always excepting the Troubadours and Minnesingers) were almost all in the direct service of the church. In the wedding of melodies as above described (too often, at first, a “mesalliance”) they sought to accentuate their skill by using sacred words only in the parts that they added as counterpoint, preserving the original words in the folk-song that they had chosen to embellish. Thus it was not impossible to hear in the church service the tenor trolling out a love song while the other voices sang “Kyrie Eleison” or other sacred texts. In a little while certain songs became especial favorites for contrapuntal setting, and occasionally different composers would enter into direct competition by choosing the same melody as the core of their masses, each one trying to excel the other in the ingenuity of his added parts, or counterpoint.
There was one canto fermo, as the chief melody of counterpoint is called, that was an especial favorite with the great composers during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. This was the old folk-song entitled” L’Homme Arm.” A host of composers, extending from the time of Dufay to the epoch of Carissimi, and including Palestrina, Des Pres (who wrote two masses on the theme), Busriois, Tinctor, and many others, composed masses of which the simple folk-song was the core, The original of the old "chanson" can not now be determined. Some imagine it to be an old Provençal folk-song, others believe that it was the original melody of the "Song of Roland" quoted above.
Some two hundred masses are said to have been composed with this old folk-song for their central theme. It must be remembered, however, that in this early musical epoch the melody was not of such supreme importance as at present, for it was given, not to the highest voice, then called discant, but to the tenor. We find an indication of this in the names given to the parts themselves. Bass (ôasis), meant the fundamental part, the foundation; Alto (altisonus), the high-sounding part, for it was then sung by men, and was, of course, in the highest register; Discant (dis cantus), a part derived from the melody Tenor (teneo), the part that held the melody.
In an old part-song book the present writer once found the following verses defining the duty of the voices in the contrapuntal quartets of the sixteenth century: he has translated them from the German-
Ye little youths and maidens neat,
We want your voices high and sweet.
Your study to the discant bring,
The only part that you should sing.
The alto suits to nice young men
Who can sing up and down again.
This surely is the alto’s way,
So study at it night and day.
The tenor has the following verse:
In middle paths are all my arts.
The holder of the other parts.
They lean on me through all the song,
Else all the music would go wrong.
Finally the bass states:
My station is a lower lot.
He who to middle age hath got,
And growleth like a bear so hoarse,
Why let him sing the bass, of course.
Throughout the time of the Reformation this was the regular distribution of parts in choral singing; of the use of the folk-song at that time we have already spoken in these pages, and we need only reiterate that there was no epoch when it had greater power or exerted more influence upon the highest religious forms of music.
But even after the melody had been placed in the upper voice we still find many a folk-song in the chorals. The change of distribution of parts and the giving of the tune to the highest voice, which now changed its name from discant into soprano (from sopra—above) was made in 1586 by Lucas Osiander, who says, in introducing his new system:
“I know well that hitherto composers have led the chorale In the tenor. If one does this, however, then the melody is not well recognized among the voices. Therefore I have given the melody to the discant, that it shall be easily known, and that every layman may sing along.” Hassler gave his adhesion to the new system and other composers were not slow to follow.
The German composers followed the lead of Luther In the employment of the folk-song in the highest branches of composition. Bach, for example, in his “St. Matthew Passion Music,” made repeated use of the melody of a popular love song by Hassler. Its original title was “Mein G’mCith ist mer verwirret” (“MySpirit is Distracted”), but no one feels any sense of unfitness or irreverence, when, after being enriched with noble counterpoint, it becomes “Oh, Sacred Head Now Wounded.”
Beethoven did not enter so deeply into the spirit of the folk-song as other German composers; possibly his deafness prevented his intimate acquaintance with much of the unwritten song of Austria; yet, in his “Seventh Symphony,” in the trio of the scherzo, we find an old folk-theme used and we shall see, a little later, that even foreign folk-songs were studied by him.
The actual creation of a folk-song can rarely be ascribed to a composer; there is a difficult simplicity in such a work that is often beyond the skill of the classicist. It is, therefore, exceptional when we find Weber, Mozart, and Mendelssohn producing songs which must be classed among the folk-music of Germany. In the case of Weber, it was the fervor of a great poet, a veritable Tyrtus, that lit the flame. It was the young Koerner, who died on the battlefield at twenty-two, who in the shadow of a premonition of his early death wrote the poem called the “Sword Song,” picturing the wedding of the warner and his weapon. On this theme Weber produced one of the most fiery folk-songs in existence. Mozart achieved the simple directness of the people’s music in some parts of his “Magic Flute,” and Mendelssohn caught up the spirit of the folk-song not only of Germany but of Scotland.
Germany’s folk-music extends in many directions: it is sentimental, as in “The Lorlei,” it is military, as in the “Sword Song,” it is bacchanalian, as in “Wohlauf noch getrunken,” but probably its wildest expression Is reached in the student songs, which have been the delight of the universities for years and even centuries. Even these have not been denied entrance into the classical field, for Brahms has built his “Academic Overture” upon three of them, “Wir hatten gebauet ein stattliches Haus,” “Der Landesvater,” and “Was kommt dort von der Hoh,” the latter one of the most jovial songs of the entire repertory.
It would be unjust to leave the topic of German folk-song without paying tribute to Friedrich Silcher (who died as recently as 1860), a man who brought forth more successful folk-songs than any other recognized composer.
Scotland has ever been the leader In characteristic folk-music; the national character of Scottish music Is so pronounced, yet so versatile, that it has exerted a greater influence upon composers than the popular music of any country. There are many reason for this. It is very ancient and takes us back, in some of its numbers, to the most primitive scale forms; if ever we, are to comprehend how the old Greek music could charm. so powerfully even without the aid of harmony, it will be by a study of the old Scottish music, which may come nearer to the old Hellenic style than is suspected. The Scottish folk-song is more closely interwoven with national history than that of any other nation. It has the aid of a remarkably tender and expressive poetry. It is a music that sounds every note in the gamut of human emotion from deepest gloom to wildest merriment, from mournful dirge to rollicking Strathspey. It is not wonderful therefore that the composers of many different nationalities have come under its spell, that the folk-music of Scotland has exerted the greatest influence upon the classical school.
At the head of the list we find Beethoven gladly undertaking the arrangement of a whole series of folk-songs for a Scottish publisher —Thompson of Edinburg. Beethoven, we may add, also used a Russian folk-song in one of his string quartets. We find Schumann and Robert Franz endeavoring, though vainly, to achieve the Scottish lilt in themes taken from Burns and others, and made into German “Lieder.” We find the Swiss composer, Niedermayer, and the Frenchman, Boieldieu, using Scottish themes in their operas. We find the German, Volkmann, making both a national and a chronological error by introducing the melody of “The Campbells are Comin” in his overture, “Richard III,” in the final battle scene—a Scot’s tune composed in 1568, in an English battle fought in 1485. The modern German composer, Max Bruch, has come most thoroughly under the Scottish influence.
It must be confessed, however, that not one of the above cited instances of attempts of foreign composers to employ the Scottish song has proved thoroughly Gaelic in spirit. To one German composer only was it given successfully to imitate the Scottish muse; Mendelssohn in his “Scotch Symphony,” especially in the lilting scherzo, has actually created a Scottish theme, and we fancy that many a Scotsman would accept the tender duet, “Oh, Wert Thou in the Cauld Blast,” as a true example of his own native music.
The Irish and Welsh folk-songs have not yet come Into their just inheritance in classical music although Dr. Villiers Stanford has used some Celtic themes (notably “The Red Fox”) in his “Irish Symphony,” and F. H. Cowen has made some employment of Welsh tunes in his “Welsh Symphony.” Music is often the child of sorrow, national or individual, and it is but natural to find, among the more oppressed of civilized races, a folk-music of especial emotional power. This is emphatically the case with the music of the Bohemians, Russians, Poles and Hungarians, and, when these mines are more thoroughly explored by the classical composers of the world, much virgin gold will be discovered to be worked into musical jewels by the skilled artificer. The older Bohemian music is almost obliterated, for the unhappy nation was scourged into silence by thirty years of war, and almost all of its songs succeed that dreadful epoch.
Only in recent times did the renaissance of Bohemian music take place; it was Smetana who first wrote in classical forms founded upon the folk-songs of his country. The music of this composer is intensely national, and shows what a wealth of expression lies in the melody of his native land.
Fortunately he had a pupil whom he imbued with his own love of national music, and Antonin Dvorak, although not so intense as his preceptor and friend, has carried the banner of Bohemian music over all the world.
The Hungarian music has its roots in the songs of the Gypsies. Weird and strange musicians are these wandering sons of the muse. In Buda-Pesth the present writer has often heard a band of Gypsy musicians, most of them with stringed instruments, giving fully harmonized music without a scrap of notation to guide them, improvising the orchestral settings as they played them, but always having as their theme some national melody familiar to them all and to most of their audience.
What Liszt did for Hungary, Chopin did for Poland, and the contrasted frenzy of the Slav’s gayety and gloom of despair is heard in the nocturnes, the polonaises, and the ballads of this prince of the piano. The strong contrasts of Slavonic or Czech music lend themselves admirably to the forms of the modern concert room.
It must be remembered that hand in hand with the folk-songs of a musical nation are the dances of the people. It is impossible to exaggerate the influence of these upon classical music, for not only have they entered freely into orchestral and even symphonic works, but they have, in some degree, influenced the very shape of suite and symphony, so that it is no exaggeration to say that dancing is the mother of musical form.
In modern times we find all composers keenly sensitive to the effect produced by folk-dances; Beethoven introduces the hop-waltz into his “Sixth Symphony,” Brahms enriches an entire series of Hungarian dances with noble harmonies, Liszt freely employs the czardas, a species of Hungarian jig, in some of his most effective
When the name of Russia is mentioned, the investigator of folk-song may well pause, astonished at the vast extent of the repertory spread out before him. Russia is a world in itself, and the same may be said of its folk-music. Yet the wonderful mine has scarcely been opened even by Russian composers. Glinka, who died in 1857, may be called the pioneer of Russian national music, and in his operas he freely introduced the folk-music of his country. The last half of the nineteenth century, however, saw the constant striving of a new school of composers to build up a repertory of advanced music upon the foundation of the folk-music of Russia. “Para Domoi” (“Let Us Get Home,”i.e.,let us be our natural selves) has been the watchword of the neo-Russian school of composers in freeing themselves from German musical influences, and they decline to accept Rubinstein as representative, and even denounce Tschaikowsky as to cosmopolitan, because both are tinged with the Teutonic musical culture.
The surface of Russian folk-music has scarcely been scratched as yet; the songs of the Cossacks have not been collected, the repertory of Little Russia has not been printed and classified, and the published list will probably receive accessions from many quarters for years to come. If the statement that the complex musical forms are built upon the simpler, the classical upon the popular, means anything, the future of musical Russia, with such a fund to draw upon, must be very bright, and it is not too much to predict that the Muscovite may yet wrest the sceptre of musical supremacy from the German.
In conclusion, one may ask where America stands in the field of folk-song and its development. Like Russia our country is a world in itself, but many of its sections are necessarily destitute of true folk-music because commercial prosperity by effacing original types of character and of life, by introducing a conventional mode of existence, tends to obliterate the folk-song. The banking house, the flour mill, the cloth factory, can not inspire music. Yet in our country one can find some phases of existence that have brought forth popular music. The plantation life of the South, for example, is romantic enough to give rise to expressive music, and has done so. There is a large repertory of the negro music which has not yet been collected, and is well worthy of preservation.
One may ask if this is not rather African than American musics but the response would be that the negro could not have brought forth this music save or his life upon the southern plantation; it is the product of American life and surroundings.
There exist, also, some beautiful folk-songs founded upon this phase of existence, yet composed in the North by a Pennsylvanian. America should ever be grateful to Stephen C. Foster for creating a series of folk-songs as typical, as expressive, as beautiful as any in the world. His southern descent may have caused him to vibrate in sympathy with the southern life which he has portrayed as justly as it has been done in the repertory of the plantation itself.
Few Americans have as yet used this material; no composer of eminence has hitherto employed Foster’s themes in symphony or sonata; yet Mr. G. W. Chadwick has effectively developed some distinctly American themes in two of his symphonies, being the first eminent composer to elevate our folk-song into the symphonic domain. And the Bohemian, Dvorak, knowing well how much depends on nationality of music, taught our native composers a lesson, during his short sojourn in America, by using plantation themes in both symphony and in classical chamber music.
It is possible that a newer school of folk-music may yet arise in the United States out of the free and unrestrained ranch life of the West. There is much in such an existence to inspire music, but as yet this life has not been shared by a music-producing race. It may be that in the future the descendants of the miners, the cowboys, the farmers, of this section of our country, will create a music that shall reflect the bold and untrammeled life of the West, and add it to our scant repertory. And it is not to much too hope that out of our own typical music there shall eventually grow a great symphony and a school of advanced composition that shall be known as definitely American.
(Used by permission of The International Monthly, owners of copyright)
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