Folkish… but not quite

08. November 2017

In its pure form, folk music is hard to come by. Like an unstable chemical, it cycles through numerous permutations as it reacts with something in its current environment. However, it is not only folk music itself that is fleeting and transmutative, the scientific fields seeking to analyse and define it are also in a constant state of flux. Science, teaching and, most recently, performance art itself try – in their own ways, using the tools at their disposal – to define the essence of the term folk music, but precisely because of its volatility, writers are forced into making lengthy circumlocutions on the subject. And let’s not forget that eternal scientific paradox that states that the observer always has an effect on the material being observed, so observation itself can never be totally objective.

The increasingly nationally conscious 19th century willingly exploited the ideal of folk music for its own ends, but the unconscious ‘self-education’ of wide peasant strata suited the culture policy clichés of Hungary in the 1950s. Nowadays, we can recognize those parts that have given us pleasure since the Romantic era in the sparkle of teary glances that frequently turn towards an ‘unspoiled’ golden age of yore. Naturally, we already known that an icon-like world of ideals is the least suitable means to describe the variety of mechanisms of dynamically morphing folk music.


Western estuary of the Torda Crevice based on Balázs Orbán's (c.1864) photo.
Photo: Zsolt Fekete


What is more, in the current context it is not simply the nature of folk music but far more Hungarian folk music that is important for us, but this in itself raises a torrent of new questions. Precisely which folk music does this expression cover? Folk music of Hungarian-speaking areas? Folk music of people of Hungarian nationality? The folk music played by musicians of Hungarian nationality? Folk music sung in Hungarian? Thus it is evident that we cannot disregard the issue of cross-nationality influences, which is highly complex both in space and time. Therefore, the scientist constructing a definition is well advised to approach this task with particular caution.

Our greatest thinkers on this subject were well aware of the complexities of folklore processes, thus their exact – and in some places cautious – responses remain largely valid to this day. According to Zoltán Kodály: “For centuries, the life of the peoples of Europe has been a constant shifting from an illiterate, smallholder culture towards an urban culture of books and manufacturing.” He describes the concept – and its misunderstanding – of folk music by “semi-educated music circles” of the 19th century in acerbic words: “The significant majority of the nation, feeling themselves to be of the people, thought in terms of songs on the tongues of all, which they lived with each day and everyone knew.” Without doubt, this composed music repertoire had an influence on folk music, and vice versa: it contained traces of folk music elements but was far from being identical to it. Béla Bartók was similarly little enthused by the general taste in music of his age. He found it hard to reconcile the after-effects of the (mis)interpretation of 19th-century folk music, which was virtually ineradicable from the public mind. Writing in a letter about his new plan, the processing of Hungarian folk songs with piano accompaniment, he added: “Of course, such things are not suitable for our good Hungarians. They are repelled by all serious things. The usual Gypsy sloppiness, from which every serious musician and every cultured foreigner flees, is far more to their taste.” The confused muddling of concepts of folk music, folkish-composed songs and Gypsy music is a problem still evident to this very day. According to Bartók, when referring to composers of the 19th century, Bihari, Lavotta, Csermák and others: “The amateur work penned under the influence of Gypsy music by those few foreigners and more or less amateur musicians is not national music, and in it any person with good taste can find no pleasure.” In his own papers, he experiments with outlining different definition boundaries, in some places he emphasizes the lack of influence of urban culture, and in other places he determines folk music as the applied music of the peasant strata. In a broader sense, he considers the entirety of melodies used by human communities as “a quite spontaneous expression of their musical instincts.” In the final analysis, however, he considered the shaping of style strata as a determining aspect, the condition of which is the use of melodies in small communities over a long period.

Finally, from the several representatives of this science it is worth quoting László Dobszay’s extremely elegant and thoughtful description. If we wish to apply “any member of the concept pair” to any earlier music history period, then because of the mutual relationship of folk music and composed music, “it will be all the more difficult to draw a boundary line.” He continued, “Comparing folk music with composed music or even popular music of the new age, on the one hand the characteristic differences of folk music will become apparent, and on the other hand, those correlations and continuous transitions that hamper the drawing of these boundaries, or at least make the differences clear only at the extremes.”

It appears that our search for a concise and easily comprehensible definition is doomed to failure. But it is precisely this fact that makes our quest so beautiful. As a consequence of its incredible vitality, folk music outgrew the boundaries of science. After undergoing a sort of transmutation, it succeeded in conquering urban culture, initially as a new form of entertainment offered by the dance house movement, then later in the field of art education and teacher training. Today, in the Folk Music Department of the Liszt Academy, it is completely natural for students to deal not only with the music of Hungarian-speaking areas but also the music of the nationalities living in the Carpathian Basin. Indeed in experimental terms, the Kodály suggestion has also come true: music history sources that survive only in written form are to be reconstructed with the help of folk music performance techniques.

Trends apparent in performance art show that ever more artists are increasingly willing to draw on forms of folk music that have been polished to perfection over centuries. One can expect these perfected musical miniatures to bring rapid success, particularly if their users are unsuited to establishing a music concept of similar aesthetic. In such a case, a fondness for folk music may be more an excuse in orchestral communication. No genuine synthesis will develop; stylistic elements of folk music or music references appear mosaic-like, stretched between bonding agents of questionable value. It is obvious that folk music is a specific language, knowledge of which does not equate to repetition of a few of its stock phrases. True freedom is where, having acquired a language, one is able to compose a poem in the given language. Naturally, there are good examples as well where musical dominoes placed next to each other merge into a beautiful image, and a new aesthetic quality is born. So, one wonders in what proportion these examples represent compared to cheap and superficial solutions? Experience shows that the number of those creating genuinely new quality, based on a profound understanding of folk music, is infinitesimally small. But let us not despair. After all, the history of music has taught us that it was always so. Authentic creations are there to be discovered on the far right of the Gauss bell curve …

Mátyás Bolya