Today my violin, clarinet, and piano trio won the instrumental ensemble category of the McDonalds Performing Arts Challenge. Possibly not meaning very much to anyone overseas, the competition spans many, many categories, and draws musicians from across Australia. The piece we performed was the Khachaturian Trio, which draws heavy influence from Armenian folk music. The attention we’ve payed to this piece, along with some of what I’ve heard from the ‘world music’ section of the competition got me thinking about folk music and what it’s impact on the classical scene has been.
From the beginning of the 20th century there have been efforts by classical composers to document and incorporate folk music into their works. Examples are numerous: Vaughn Williams in England, Bartok in Hungary and Khachaturian in Armenia. Classical conventions of instrumentation and performance are almost always retained, it would be a while yet before traditional instruments were performed with in the socially understood large genre of ‘world music’.
Some of the characteristics that folk music seems to bring when it is used as an influence are repetition of a vocal style melody(which may be of a short simple nature), and a great amount of rhythmic intensity, or the intent as a dance in the traditional sense. Folk song, as opposed to folk music, can often change in characteristics between different countries. For instance, while a typical English folk ballad might be in a major key or major mode and feature flowing lines of simple beauty, it would be far more likely that in a Macedonian folk song, emphasis would be given to rhythmic complexity and an altered minor based tonality.
However, if we look at some of the non vocal folk music from any nation we can see a few similarities. Bartok’s Romanian Folk Dances, in their faster moments, have the same dance intensity of the last movement of Ralph Vaughn Williams Six Studies in English Folksong. Similarly, there is a focus on short melodic passages which are repeated many times, with possible intensification of rhythmic or accompanying features. Both in the Armenian inspired writing for violin and Bartok’s gypsy inspired folk songs, double stops and harmonics are used on the violin to emulate some of the effects created by folk fiddle players.
It is also interesting that even on traditional instruments, playing techniques can create a completely different sound when played in a folk manner. In the same way that there is a difference between jazz and classical saxophone playing, folk clarinet playing from areas such as Hungary, Greece and Macedonia emphasises a soft reed, open mouthpiece and loose embouchure to create a massively vibrant and broad sound that can cut through anything else in an ensemble. When some of these ideas are translated to classical performers on classical instruments, this nature of playing is lost because it is not what classical musicians are taught to do. The folk style of playing emphasises many aspects which would be seen as extremely detrimental to a classical soloist, and this goes for more instruments than just the clarinet. In some ways, this is a pity, since it could only improve the capabilities, understanding, and flexibility of modern instrumentalists if they were able to perform in folk as well as classical styles.
While in only a comparatively small area of composition, folk influences have left a mark on classical music which is quite interesting to examine. If possible, I recommend having a listen to some of the works by composers such as Bartok, Khachaturian, Kodaly and others which were folk influenced, and comparing them with any recordings of real folk music by folk musicians. Some of the differences can be mind blowing.