Dr. Damjana Bratuz
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Bartókiana - Abstracts


Bard College
Annandale-on-Hudson, NY
June 3-4, 2006

Rethinking Bartók’s Boundaries

By Damjana Bratuž

It was in the early 1960s during my studies at Indiana University that I first came across Bartók’s statement regarding Slovenian folk music, in which he dismissed it as representing only an example of “total Germanization” (La Musique Populaire des Hongrois et des peoples Voisins, 1937). Ethnically a Slovene, I had barely learned children’s songs in my mother tongue - in a territory that for centuries had belonged to the Austro-Hungarian Empire and became part of Italy in 1918 - when the folly of the fascist pursuit of ‘linguistic purity’ suppressed the cultural expression of all minority groups, and led to the 1938 ‘racial purity’ laws and to heir consequences.

The re-establishment of the Slovenian language and folksong after World War II in that North-Eastern corner of Italy put me again in touch with a mostly choral tradition in which indeed the Germanic symmetry of melodic and rhythmic construction, and Germanic harmonic movements were apparent. In 1948 I had the opportunity to meet folklorist and conductor France Marolt and became aware of the existence of a Folklore Institute he founded in Ljubljana and of its collections of Slovenian traditional music.

Marolt’s ethnological studies began to be published in 1935. While Bartók, had he known them, may perhaps have found in them only a confirmation of ‘Germanization,’ it is regrettable that he was not aware of the research that had been carried out already in the 19 th century in the Eastern region of Rezija/Resia in Italy, and that in the Southern region of Bela Krajina bordering with Croatia folk music had been recorded already in 1912. Together with Prekmurje, bordering with Hungary, these regions had preserved ancient songs and instruments of a totally non-Germanic character.

During his writing of The Folk Music of Hungary and of the Neighbouring Peoples Bartók corresponded with Croatian folklorist Vinko Žganec. In a letter to him (October 27 th, 1934) where he discusses the ‘interactions’ of people and the ensuing fecund intermingling of their folk music styles, he also mentions the Slovenes, whose “folk music has [instead] been Germanized.” (Béla Bartók Letters, 1971)

In Trieste, during the post-war years one could enjoy the performances of visiting folk ensembles from Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia, Macedonia. The timbres and performing styles of the various shepherd’s pipes (frula), bagpipes, and drums, and the intricacies and asymmetries of the dance rhythms revealed a totally different musical heritage from the Slovenian one.

I owed to those experiences the ability to distinguish in Bartók’s piano music the particular original timbres of folk instruments, and at Indiana University my discriminating ear so intrigued professor Walter Robert, who was conducting the doctoral seminar on Contemporary Piano Literature, that he encouraged me to investigate further the relationship of Bartók’s writing to his folk sources.

The Indiana UniversityArchives of Folk and Primitive Music had been founded in 1948 by George Herzog, the great scholar, mentor and collaborator of Bartók, and there I discovered his transcriptions and tapes of Bartók’s peasant collections. This first encounter led to the completion of my doctoral document, The Folk Element in the Piano Music ofBéla Bartók (1967).

In 1968 Zmaga Kumer’s publication Das Slovenishe Volkslied in seiner Manningfaltigkeit came into my hands. Her description and analysis of folksongs collected in bordering regions and the revelation of the existence of ancient Slavic patterns pre-dating the Germanic influence made me wish, since then, to “respond to Bartók” in a way, and to call attention to a hitherto unknown world which he would have certainly found worthy and congenial. In this early essay Kumer spoke of ballads with their typical trochaic seven-syllable construction, of the art of funeral laments, of winter-solstice songs, of two-voiced fourths, and seconds, intervals.

A bilingual volume [Slovenian/Italian] by Trieste composer, slavist, dialectologist, Pavle Merkú, appeared in 1976. There are Bartókian echoes in Le Tradizioni Popolari degli Sloveni in Italia, Merkú having traveled between 1965-1974 to remote villages in the North-Eastern Rezija/Resia region, collecting, recording, and transcribing the remnants of an ancient and disappearing Slavic heritage. The material of both texts and tunes is organized according to genres - calendar songs, life cycles and religious songs, fairy-tales, games, etc. – and the volume contains indexes and maps.

This remarkable work has been reissued in 2005 with the addition of a CD. I would like Bartók to know…. that one can hear the recorded timbre of unique folk instruments, and that among the songs, one, “Tam dolj tece voda Rajna” (Down there flows the river Rhine), goes back seventeen generations to the times of the traditional pilgrimage from Slovenia to Aachen that was undertaken every seven years:

…my two sources did not even know where was this water to which this lovely melody referred to” said Merkú in a recent interview: “…in the collective memory only a vague idea had remained of a large and slow river in far-away German lands.”

Equipment needed: Power Point Presentation

A large screen
A CD player if necessary



  Damjana Bratu TOP

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