A matter of dialects

Of course: baroque and folk music have different repertories (though with a considerable overlap). But our ears report yet another difference: a difference in dialect! And the analogy with language goes further: baroque musicians read their music aloud, from the score; folk musicians play by heart.

As a violinist, I’m active within different musical worlds: baroque, folk music, hardrock, to mention but the most important. Through my experiences, I noticed that a certain piece can be played in different ways: a baroque way, a folky way…. The results are audible; one could say that music, e.g. a melody, may be “pronounced” in different ways, according to different dialects. The baroque dialect is well-groomed, without background noises; one could say that it sounds affected, snooty. The folk music dialects are more lower class, ‘broad’, and often with a swinging, dance-like emphasis.

Funny enough: many baroque musicians also consider their performance to be dance-like. Yet that supposed dance character is highly stylized, like e.g. in the film Le roi danse (a must for every Lully-lover!). To play e.g. a bourree, a real folk dance, in a way that nearly forces the audience to dance, is a skill only found in folk mjusic playing.

And then the background noises. In art music, such noises are forbidden, unwanted, just like intonations that deviate from the classical scale tunings. A recorder quartet should sound like a portative organ, a wind section like a set of organ tongue pipes. But in folk music nobody cares about noises, and often these are even wanted. Many a folk music instrument has a deliberately inbuilt patter or swish device: the hurdy-gurdy and the medieval harp (”bray harp”) are examples.

Here we must be aware: we don’t know how baroque music sounded during the 17th and 18th centuries. More seriously: neither did the musicians of that time! Probably there were vast differences between musicians, and music centers, just because of the lack of modern media. If you wanted to hear others, are to make yourself heard, you had to travel. In this perspective, Zacharias Conrad van Uffenbach, who visited the Amsterdam theatre 1710, writes in his diary: “Nach der letzten Handlung aber von einer Weibs-Person Holländisch und Teutsch artig gesungen. Die übrige Musick und Violons sind ganz ungemein slecht, worüber sich nicht zu verwundern, weil die Musick, wenn man die Glockenspiel und Orgelwerk ausnimmt, in Holland mit einander nichts tauget”.

Uffenbach, who visited Holland in 1710 and severely criticized the Dutch musicians.

Possibly, ‘ancient music’ is a 20th century genre. Picking and interpreting comments in old treatises, we have created a musical practice – without knowing if the authors described contemporary practice (why would they?) or just wanted to posit their very personal and possibly divergent preferences. And we did this without fully understanding the often cryptic advices. Only during later years, the do’s and don’t’s from the 20th century baroque practice have sometimes given way to musical freedom – which has always been prevalent in folk music practices.

In other blogs, I have suggested that 17th and 18th century composers for the dance parts of their compositions possibly used ubiquitous melodies, folk melodies. Whether this happened is hard to find out. In the series Oude en Nieuwe Hollantse Boeren Lietjes en Contredansen, a success release from the early 18th century by the Amsterdam printer Estienne Roger, we find a load of tunes from the Amsterdam music inns and theatre. Simple, unaccompanied melodies. Among these, I have discovered up to one hundred melodies that can be found in the oeuvres of French composers, often published just one or two years earlier. The Boeren Lietjes never present the composers’ names or their melodies’ titles. All titles are Dutch and not related to the French compositions. We know that theatre musicians often even worked in music inns; in fact, in Amsterdam it was there they were recruited for the theatre. Did Lully c.s. pick up the melodies from such musicians or did the musicians just spread their composers’ tunes? The fact that their publication in the Boeren Lietjes occured a few years later simply indicates that a market for these tunes in score had developed. Not that they were not performed earlier. Quite some Boeren Lietjes melody titles can be found in descriptions of music inns from around 1680 – but not the French ones.

And why did the famous Roger publish these melody collections? To make money. Not from interested music inn musicians, though most of these could read scores. They played and learned their tunes by heart – and hardly coul afford the books. When music is being written down and scores are used, we leave the folk music domain. We enter the world of reading aloud. These scores aimed at an other social category, that of the well to do amateurs. Around 1700, the bourgeois population became increasingly interested in the ways of the lower folk, and happily visited the music inns or watched the theatre spectacles based on ‘plugge’ dances, the dances of the common folk which were tabu for the higher classes.

Art music is performed from scores. So called folk music may be written down, and these scores may be used for playing – but the resulting music is no longer folk music. The social practice isn’t, the sound probably isn’t either.

Jos Koning – www.joskoning.nl