Archive for March 26th, 2015

Ludwig McBeethoven?

Beethoven, the classical master, writing Scottish popular songs? Yes – and he wasn’t the only composer to be inspired by folk music. Michael Oliver explains.

Was it Constant Lambert, or our old friend Anon, who said that when you’ve played a folk song once all you can do is play it again – louder? Whoever it was, he’d hit on an important point. Anybody writing, say, a symphony will need to set themes in contrast or conflict with each other, develop them and build them into a satisfying large-scale structure. All these things are done by means of the major/minor key system, which can generate powerful tensions and attractions between themes and groups of themes. Very many folk songs, however, use scales that are neither major nor minor. To make a symphony out of them you must either distort them by cramming them into a key that doesn’t fit, or put up with a symphony in which most of those all-important tensions and attractions are absent.

Besides, it’s of the essence of a folk song that it has a fairly simple, repetitive structure. Symphonic composers write tunes that are suitable for development and transformation. The anonymous composers of folk songs aimed above everything at memorability and repeatability. One verse of a folk song may take only a few seconds to sing, but it is a complete work of art. Converting a folk song into a symphony is like trying to turn a sonnet into a novel.

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