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  • Folk Music, Art Music, History of MusicAuthor(s): Bence SzabolcsiSource: Notes, Second Series, Vol. 21, No. 4 (Autumn, 1964), pp. 503-510Published by: Music Library AssociationStable URL: .Accessed: 14/06/2014 11:21

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    Those who peruse the principal literary works written in the last hun- dred years on the history of music may note with some astonishment how closely this literature is marked by constant, changing references to folk music. What had seemed natural to the generations of Ambros a hundred years ago became problematic to the generation of Riemann; what was self-evident to Rolland and Coirault has been received with sceptiscism and suspicion by young French scholars; and again, from the studies of Wiora to the volumes of the New Oxford History of Music, it has been proclaimed and confirmed by the documents of recent history that knowledge concerning the great periods of the history of music cannot be complete without being acquainted with the folk music sources on which they fed. The problems presented by the relations of folk music and art music are so multifarious and intricate that even a simple survey is well nigh impossible. In the following pages an attempt is made to seize a few main issues and discuss them in the light of present knowledge.

    1. The fundamental differences between folk music and art music are an old subject in European musicology; however, almost until recent times our science paid much more careful attention to the differences between the two than to the features and fundamental elements which meet or even converge. The development of bourgeois civilization also contributed to the ever wider separation of the villages from the towns, of the life of the people from that of the so-called educated classes, so that in time the distance that yawned between the two appeared to be a virtually insuperable gulf. Folk music, when it was studied with serious attention, was prone to present a phenomenon outside of time, outside of history, or rather an increasingly isolated, withering state as the forgotten, neglected legacy of long past centuries, a sunken relic (de- scended to the depths from the superior social stratum) which, its development having been arrested, was doomed to inevitable extinction.

    What, in fact, were the obvious differences between folk music and art music? They were separated by differences of purpose, function, and social role. Obviously, only the tunes favoured by many for a long time in numerous places may be denoted as folk music, tunes born in a community, spread in a community, and appealing to a community. Art music, on the other hand, derives from an individual, has been invented by a composer, may for a long time be known only to a narrow circle, apparently remaining "the cause of a few." Folk music


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  • is marked by typicalness; it flourishes in similar forms, in groups, unat- tached to any individual personality. It does not aspire to the finality characteristic of individual artistic achievement; moreover, it is known in multitudes of variations in time and space alike, its true life being manifested by these variations. It is preserved by oral tradition and not in writing-being averse to all fixation. A type and variations, with a tendency to permanent anonymousness and ceaseless change: these have been quoted as the decisive factors which set off so sharply the contrast of artistic, professional, individual composition, when compared to folk music, a popular product as regards origin, spread, existence, and fading away.

    In the light of recent research, these contradictions have, however, mostly proved to be superficial and exaggerated. This recognition has been maturing for a long time in musicology; increasing numbers have discovered that, notwithstanding the essential differences between them, folk music and art music are in many respects connected and related with each other. They are related, because the elements accumulated in one are ceaselessly under way to reach the other. Who would believe that in Hungarian folk music, in the Eastern part of Central-Europe, old Central-Asian patterns, Gregorian types, early-mediaeval hymn-tunes, metric forms of the late Renaissance, Viennese Baroque and Rococo, italianising romantic melody-turns have survived up to our present days? Truly, a great part of the cultural history of the people, of the country is to be read here! And in spite of all that, how much more, how infinitely more is the essence of folk music! It is more than a diary of historical adventures, more than a musical geology of various cultural strata, of foreign influences and acclimatisations.

    Nearly a quarter of a century ago Zoltan Kodaly gave an excellent summary of these relationships in his study entitled "Folk Music and Art Music" (1941). "In folk music" he says "strictly speaking a new transcription, a variation is produced by the lips of the singer on every occasion. This operative power of unconditional ownership has been emphasized many times as an essential trait of the folk song. It used to exist also in higher art." (Here Kodaly alluded to Shakespeare, Bach, Handel, and the great classic of Hungarian poetry, Janos Arany.) "Ap- parently, the mode of production is entirely different: here it is a process of individual creation, there the slow variation of the existing gradually leads to a new work through the links of tiny changes. But let us look more closely at the history of music: does composition of so much indi- vidual character, showing no likeness to anything in existence, spring from the heads of composers as did Minerva from the head of Jupiter? The early works of even the greatest masters are also mere imitations, often scarcely differing from the compositions of their predecessors. Their originality, their individual tones develop only step by step. The influence of others can be discovered even in their most original works. No one


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  • could have guessed the composer of Tristan from Wagner's first operas. He was doubtful about himself at the age of thirty, because he found so much imitation, so many foreign influences in his own works. This was natural. The artist does not live in a vacuum, but in the company of other people; he feels and thinks like millions of other people; only he can express himself in a better way . . .In the history of art, schools, groups, and hosts of followers mean the same as does the variation in folk music . . . A new type of song is developed from existing forms by slow variation, always growing more different, but hardly at a slower pace than that discernible in art music. There, too, the appearance of a new style has been found to act like a revelation. However, the history of music can in most instances demonstrate its gradual preparation by a long line of forgotten works."

    Concerning the argument that folk music is an unwritten, oral tradition while art music lives in a written, fixed form, Kodaly remarks "In the European art music of our days there are elements which can be perpet- uated only by living tradition . . . An artist does not always play a piece in the same manner." Kodaly draws the final conclusion: "Taking an over-all view it may be stated that there is no essential difference between the two. They are the varying manifestations of the same human function. The differences have been caused by historical, national, social and cultural stratification. The most precious manifestations are equiva- lent. Estimation of the rest depends on artistic value. Hence folk music and art music do not follow paths so wide apart as to preclude influence on each other. At the development of great, classical periods, folk music or popular music is thus always found to be present as a stimulation and a model in endeavours towards simplicity."

    What is summed up by Kodaly with such exemplary lucidity is the fundamental perception of the whole of contemporary musicology. The rigid differentiation of individual and common achievement, of popular and professional composition can be abandoned without any qualm, to be replaced by new, more convincing, more vital definitions. Dissemination by word of mouth or in a fixed written shape, a final or changing form, individual invention or variant, original or non-original composi- tion, all these have failed to establish decisively defining, differentiating criteria. What is commo