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  • Writer's pictureGraham Abbott

Folk Music Influences

Updated: Apr 6, 2020

We all sort of know what classical music is - as used in this general sense - but it’s very hard to define. In the same way, the term “folk music” is a term of which most of us have some sense, but when it comes down to it, writers on music have been arguing for centuries about what constitutes and defines folk music.

When I was in primary school in the 60s we regularly had classes in “folk dancing”. Our teachers would bring out a record player and music of all sorts which sounded rather exotic (but which always seemed to include a piano accordion) was used as the basis for dances which allegedly came from different national traditions. It often sounded like this: [listen]

Doubtless this was part of our physical eduction curriculum rather than our music curriculum, but still, the assumption that “folk” equated with some sort of nationalism was very clearly implied.

Composers in the western classical tradition have often incorporated traditional folk elements into their works. The “folk influence” in classical music has generally taken one of three forms. Sometimes composers have written works which seek to recreate a traditional, folk or nationalistic ambience without quoting actual traditional melodies. On other occasions recognisable folk melodies are incorporated into larger works. And in other cases, composers have simply made arrangements of folk melodies for classical instruments or ensembles without developing them much.

The first of these - the creation of a folk ambience or a national style - can be heard in the music of Tchaikovsky. Tchaikovsky did this in so much of his music, but perhaps never better than in the second of his four orchestral suites. The scherzo in this suite recreates the feel of the Russian trepak and at its climax even uses four accordions in the orchestra. The first appearance of the accordions in this recording is just before the two minute mark. [listen]

Bayan (Russian button accordion)

The use of folk influences in music was an important aspect which marked the increasing nationalism in music across Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. No longer were composers content to write within a larger “international” style, as had been the case before 1800. Even early in the 19th century, composers like Chopin had written music which was unashamedly nationalistic and which expressed this in terms of folk culture, such in the writing of mazurkas: piano works based on a traditional Polish dance. But it was in the later 19th century that composers, especially those in central and eastern Europe, unashamedly used the music of their national traditions in otherwise “serious” works.

Antonín Dvořák wrote works which were based on folk styles but which didn’t actually quote folk melodies, but in other works his melodies are clearly derived from folksongs. For example, in the first of his five Bagatelles op 47, Dvořák quotes a Czech folksong, the title of which is translated as “The bagpipes were playing at Popuda”. Even the scoring of the Bagatelles has a folksy element about it, with two violins and a cello being joined by a harmonium (they can also be performed with piano if a harmonium isn't available). The harmonium (a sort of reed organ which requires the player by pump the bellows with pedals) has an interesting and often underestimated part in the music of some of the biggest names in music, but it has an undeniably home-spun feel about its sound, especially when folk songs are involved. [listen]


Tchaikovsky, too, quoted actual folk melodies in his larger works, such as the Russian song “In the field a little birch tree stood”, which is used in the finale of his fourth symphony. This melody is first heard a mere 15 seconds into the movement, and it becomes the basis of some amazingly inventive writing on the part of the composer. [listen]

So many composers wrote dance movements which reflected their national traditions, such as Grieg’s Norwegian Dances, or Dvořák’s Slavonic Dances. Hungarian composers, too, wrote music which reflected their national traditions. One of the most important figures, not only in Hungarian music, but in music education internationally, is Zoltan Kodály, who lived from 1882 to 1967. [Note to English speakers: Hungarian is a non-anacrusic language, so "Kodály" is pronounced with the stress on the first syllable.] Not only was Kodály influenced by Hungarian folk music in his compositions; he spent a large proportion of his life researching and notating traditional Hungarian music and using its principles as the basis of a system of music education which not only revolutionised the teaching of music in Hungary, but is also taught around the world, including Australia.

Zoltan Kodály (before 1930)

Viewing the importance of singing in the rural music he studied, Kodály believed in the power of singing, but not only as an educational tool. Right at the end of his life, he wrote:

Our age of mechanization leads along a road ending with man himself as a machine; only the spirit of singing can save us from this fate.

This is reflected in the fact, while today Kodály is perhaps best-remembered for his orchestral works, such as the suite from his opera Háry Janos, or the Dances of Galánta, the majority of his works are choral. He stands with Benjamin Britten as one of the few 20th century composers to devote so much of his output to music for choir, and so much of Kodály’s choral music is based on Hungarian folk music or poetry. The Mátra Pictures from 1931 employ songs from the Mátra region of Hungary, and the five movements are arranged so as to provide a continuous narrative. [listen]

In his orchestral works, too, there is ample evidence of Kodály’s preoccupation with his country’s folk music. The Dances of Galánta - based on hybrid gypsy music rather than authentic Hungarian folk music - are very well-known. Less-often played are the Dances of Marosszék which date from 1929. These are based on what Kodály regarded as authentic Hungarian folk music. [listen]

Kodály’s compatriot, Béla Bartók, is of course one of the most important names in European music of the 20th century, and like Kodály he spent a huge part of his career researching and transcribing traditional Hungarian music. Bartók had the highest regard for Kodály as a composer, and Bartók’s music shows strong influences of folk music from various regions as well.

Bartók (4th from left) recording folksongs in 1908

Bartók’s Romanian Folk-Dances were originally written for solo piano in 1915, and arranged for orchestra by the composer in 1917. They are based on actual melodies Bartók transcribed. He keeps the melodies themselves exactly as he found them, but provides delicate and fascinating accompaniments to create some absolutely magical miniatures. [listen]

There was a popular movement among British and Irish composers in the early 20th century to similarly incorporate traditional melodies, or aspects of traditional musical culture, into otherwise “serious” works. Ralph Vaughan Williams researched English folksong in much the same way as Kodály and Bartók researched its Hungarian equivalent. Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on English Folksongs from 1910 is, unfortunately, lost, but the English Folksong Suite for military band, dating from 1923, is a standard of the band repertoire and which - in a reversal of the usual practice - has been arranged by Gordon Jacob for orchestra. In this work Vaughan Williams unashamedly tackles two areas traditionally looked-down upon by the cognoscenti: folk song and military bands. The result is music which is not only superbly crafted - a hallmark of everything he wrote - but which is actually fun as well. [listen]

English folk dancers

Benjamin Britten returned again and again throughout his composing career to folksong, most notably in his superb and original arrangements of British, Irish, French and American folksongs for voice and piano. In terms of sheer brilliance and ingenuity, these stand alongside Beethoven’s British folksong arrangements. From the 1940s onwards, Britten published several volumes of folk song arrangements, in which the melodies are largely traditional (but occasionally subjected to adaptation), accompanied by truly fascinating piano parts which underscore the intent of the song with uncanny psychological insight. Here are just two:

Come you not from Newcastle? [listen]

O Waly, Waly [listen]

Britten’s last orchestral work, completed in 1974, was his Suite on English Folk Tunes: “A Time there Was...”. The five movements of this suite for small orchestra show Britten’s ability to incorporate elements of folk music into a dark, brooding orchestral texture. The first two movements of the suite demonstrate this well, and could not be more contrasted in moods. The first movement, Cakes and Ale, is a boisterous jig with dark side scarcely hidden from view, whereas the second movement, The Bitter Withy, is a tranquil and icy soundscape featuring the harp. [listen]

When I originally made this program for Keys To Music, I included one more example, one of my favourite Australian works: the ballet Once Around the Sun by Graeme Koehne. Composed in 1988, the gentle and touching music of this score has a deceptive air about it. It sounds so simple, but its skill lies in a multitude of details which come together to make a delicate and gentle masterpiece. Unashamedly inspired by Aaron Copland, and Appalachian Spring in particular, the end of Once Around the Sun is based on the Australian folk song Moreton Bay. Its inclusion is unforced and elegant, and in the context of the ballet, brings to a close a “summer of memories”. Sadly, I could not find a recording of this work available online, but it has been recorded on the Tall Poppies label (TP115) if you can get hold of the CD.

This article is based on a Keys To Music program first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in January, 2006.

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