Ivan Hewett wrote recently in the Telegraph (UK) that “the worlds of classical and folk music could meet and mingle.”
Could?! They’ve been doing precisely that on WKSU for years – and that’s just another chapter in a long and deeply respectful association.
From at least Renaissance times, “art” music has drawn inspiration from folk music.
Take Telemann, for example. He used to lurk in the shadowy corners of the country inns, nursing his ale and stealing ideas from the fiddlers. “One could learn enough from them in a week to last a lifetime,” he said.
Centuries before, Renaissance composers had used pop tunes – sometimes bawdy ones! – as cantus firmi of masses. Heading the other way on the timeline, although the themes Beethoven used in his symphonies are original, he arranged groups of Irish, Scottish, and Welsh songs for soloist, chorus, and chamber ensemble.
This piece, Mikhail Glinka’s Kamarinskaya, was based on Russian folk tunes (a dance and a wedding song). It was a manifesto of sorts, a guidepost for the Russian musical nationalism that later took hold in the works of Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, and others. Tchakovsky called Kamarinskaya the acorn from which the mighty oak of Russian music grew. That oak was rooted in Russian folk music.
Antonin Dvorak loved his homeland and its music, but during his stateside stint, he absorbed spirituals and Native American themes. Their rhythms and melodic contours added local color to his American Quartet and Suite, and to the famed New World Symphony. Back home, Smetana infused his Czech dances with the rhythms of – guess what.
Stravinsky thought this little motif was a folksong, but it turned out to be a French popular tune, and he got into legal hot water for quoting it in his ballet Petroushka. In the end, he had to pay for the rights.
Bela Bartok hauled an early recording phonograph out to the countryside to take down folksongs as they were actually sung. He did so mostly to document Hungary’s musical heritage before it faded away. However, he also folded many of the dances and songs into his rollicking (and sometimes rather pungent) piano works. If you got far enough in your piano lessons, maybe you played some of them.
Vaughan Williams, Holst, and Grainger all dug deeply into Cecil Sharp’s folksong collections, among others. Copland evoked the echoes of the US West’s singing cowboys even if he didn’t quote them. From France, Ravel and Milhaud caught the spirit of jazz. I could go on for pages, but you get the idea.
Musical ideas also flowed the other way. Early- to mid-20th century American popular song composers unabashedly reaped inspiration and themes from classical music.
The musical Kismet, for example, was practically pure Borodin. Robert Wright and George Forrest lifted the melody of this selection, He’s In Love, straight out of the Polovtsian Dances. (On a Telarc CD, Leonard Slatkin translates Kismet‘s borrowed themes into an orchestral suite – harvesting the harvest, as it were.)
More recently, Paul Simon got his American Tune from Bach’s St Matthew Passion; Bach in turn had borrowed it from a Lutheran chorale.
At least three popular songs have been derived from Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto – Buddy Kaye’s Full Moon and Empty Arms, Eric Carmen’s All By Myself, and Muse’s Space Dementia. Wikipedia lists no fewer than nineteen rock and pop tunes based on Johann Pachelbel’s Canon. This should come as no surprise: if you want to make your tune successful, it helps to start with a successful tune.
Make that twenty. A couple of years ago the South Korean pop group Redsox also borrowed the Canon, nearly note for note, giving it a title which translates as Sweet Dream (MV). Johann’s not around to make a fuss. I’m not at all sure he would, even if he were.
So while such ideas as contemporary music festivals with Alpine themes may be somewhat new, the fundamental notion of merging classical and folk music is not.
At WKSU folk and classical music share a CD library – and once in a while, we even share CDs, composers, and musicians. Jim Blum plays some of the same Renaissance pieces and some of the same early music ensembles that we do. He also includes folk-flavored versions of classical pieces, especially shorter ones, from time to time. Bach a la Bela Fleck, anyone?
From the other side of the wall between the Folk and Classical offices, we play quite a few folk-inspired works beyond the usual Vaughan Williams Folk Song Suite and Bartok’s Roumanian Folk Dances.
William Grant Still’s Miniatures (the clip is an excerpt from his adaptation of I Ride an Old Paint) and Robert Beaser’s Mountain Songs bring us home to American folk music.
Our classical programs also sometimes include works that most people would consider 100% classical, yet they’re signed by musicians most people would call folk composers. They range from Turlough O’Carolan to Edgar Meyer. We don’t make a huge deal of this. If it’s good enough for us to play, the music is its own justification.
Hewitt writes of “folk musicians ‘aspiring up’” and “classical composers delving down.” Here at WKSU, there’s no up or down involved. Folk and classical music live right across from one another. We don’t sweat the difference. It’s all just good music.
Broken links in this article were updated on 14 November 2013.