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Saturday morning quotes 5.26: Folk music – Art music

November 14, 2015

As a duo, we benefit from a uniquely single-minded approach to early music that favors clear communication of text sung in a natural voice and a supple yet elegant command of rhythmic gesture.  While to some it may seem a happy coincidence or a serendipitous meeting of the minds, our approach is really the result of much discussion and endless hours of committed rehearsal time.  But our individual perspectives on early music were formed by treading very different musical paths, meeting at the intersection of folk music and art music.

When discussing the intersection of folk music and art music, composers Béla Bartók and Ralph Vaughan Williams merit mention.  Both were adept at arranging folk tunes they collected in the field into monumental forms or, in the case of Bartók, instruments of torture.  For our purposes, folk music is defined as traditional music that was mostly transmitted orally (or aurally), a means of assimilation that conveys a level of information that simply cannot be notated.

My (RA) serious (aural) connection with folk music really began when I bought the Folkways Anthology of American Folk Music some twenty years after its 1952 release.  Harry Smith, compiler of the anthology, recognized the value of preserving a sampling of the vast number of records made from the 1920s onward, records that were routinely trashed when musical tastes changed.  The variety and intensity of the music Smith chose to anthologize was a revelation that consumed a good bit of my attention for the next several years.  But the way the music was organized and presented left an impression of its own with the three volumes of Smith’s Anthology divided into Ballads, Social Music, and Songs.  When we dip into our folk music persona, as we occasionally do, Harry Smith’s Anthology remains a useful source of repertory.

Through the work of Claude M.Simpson (The British Broadside Ballad and its Music. Rutgers University Press, 1966) and John M. Ward (“Apropos The British Broadside Ballad and Its Music”, Journal of the American Musicological Society, Vol. 20, No. 1, Spring, 1967), we know that there was a significant cross-fertilization of ballads and early English lute songs.  Surviving 16th century printed and manuscript sources of poetry from the British Isles indicate a rather free approach to accompaniments, identifying optional tunes that were commonly known at the time; a process that goes hand in glove with the oral transmission of ballads with their freely adapted tunes.

Ballad tunes appear scattered throughout the Elizabethan/Jacobean lute manuscripts, many with pages filled with virtuoso variations, their presence only confirming the universal appeal of singable tunes as grist for the mill.  Lutenists like John Dowland and Daniel Bachelar bothered to write down variations on ballad tunes with the same care as their more serious fantasias and pavans.  I say if folk tunes were good enough for them, they are good enough for me.

We humbly quote ourselves from a post featuring singer/guitarist Martin Carthy:

“While we adhere to historical modes of performance that are more in line with today’s approach to early music, we also embrace the directness of performers of folk music.  Lute songs are much more relevant to audiences of the 21st century if they are given a more direct transmission rather than treating them like museum pieces on display and not to be touched.”

And for those of you who have made it this far, your reward is a lute-sighting from an article featuring an early 16th-century book on fashion accessories.

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