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.

These tunes aren’t so bad after all
Beethoven made arrangements of close on two hundred folk songs, mostly Scottish, Irish and Welsh, for the Edinburgh publisher George Thomson. He did it for the money, and was rather disparaging about the work, but he soon came to respect the melodies that Thomson sent him. The Scottish folk tunes in particular, he said, were of ‘more solid worth than such things usually are’ by reason of their simplicity. You can hear what he learned from them in his own song cycle An die ferne Geliebte and in passages in his late string quartets where he searches for a very direct simplicity of manner and comes up with something very like folk song. But he rarely uses a real folk song in a concert work, and when he does he treats it with respect, not trying to develop it or force it into a structure that it won’t fit.

A century later Bartók, collecting folk songs out of a patriotic desire to give his country a voice and because he thought Liszt had misunderstood Hungarian folk music (most of Liszt’s ‘typical Hungarian melodies’ are gipsy tunes, picked up in the restaurants of Budapest), looked at them in closer detail than Beethoven had and made two discoveries. Firstly that many of these ‘simple’ peasant songs were so subtly and beautifully made that he had no hesitation in calling them masterpieces to rank with a fugue by Bach or a sonata by Mozart. Secondly that although most of them used neither the major or the minor scale, the scales they did use were very close to those being explored by such ‘advanced’ Western composers as Debussy and Ravel.

In England at around the same time Ralph Vaughan Williams was making a no less inspiring discovery. He already knew some folk songs from printed collections, but when he first heard folk music live (on 4 December 1903, when Charles Pottipher of Ingrave in Essex sang ‘Bushes and Briars’ to him) he experienced a sense of recognition, ‘as though I had known it all my life’.

In a sense he had; what sent him off on a direction as fruitful as Bartók’s was the deep kinship that he found between these tunes and the great church music of the Tudor period. Sing ‘Bushes and Briars’ in even note values and to a Latin text and it sounds very like one of those plainsong melodies that John Taverner and Christopher Tye used as the basis for mass settings. If it comes to that, didn’t both of them write masses based on folk songs? They could do so because the major/minor key system hadn’t yet been developed; the modal system of their day had much more in common with the scales used in folk music.

From acorns to modern oaks
Bartók made many arrangements of folk songs, in order to make them better known, but he rarely used them in his own compositions. Vaughan Williams did, but not often. They were discovering what Mikhail Glinka had learned from experience seventy years earlier. Wanting desperately to write music that had an identifiably Russian character (until the early nineteenth century Russia had no composers of concert or operatic music to speak of) he naturally turned to the folk songs that he’d grown up with, and tried to write a symphony based on them. It wouldn’t work, of course, but Glinka soon realised that folk musicians had their own ways of dealing with the problem that Constant Lambert (or Anon) defined. In his own music Glinka tried to imitate the way that Russian folk singers and players would constantly vary and ornament tunes, flexibly shifting the accents and altering the phrasing. The result was his orchestral fantasy Kamarinskaya, which Tchaikovsky called ‘the acorn from which the oak of Russian music grew’. The way that many Russian (and other) folk songs are built from very few notes, their rhythmic flexibility and their use of scales other than the minor or major later had a powerful and lasting influence on the music of Stravinsky.

No wonder, then, that today’s composers are making similar discoveries: that the only ‘simple’ thing about a fine folk melody is its directness and that folk songs use ‘their’ scales as subtly as Beethoven used the major or the minor, or as resourcefully as Schoenberg used his note-rows. And the best of them (Judith Weir, for example) are not simply quoting folk songs to bring back melody into modern music. Like Bartók and Vaughan Williams, like Glinka and Stravinsky they’re enriching their own language by contact with another that has very deep roots and combines directness with complexity.

Classic CD magazine, 1996


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