Merging Folk Music and Formal Composition Across Europe

When we try to break down the European continent into discrete, geographical segments (like countries or cities), it becomes increasingly hard to provide any meaningful analysis of the origins and progression of European musical threads.  Borders have always been porous, and migration has been more the norm than the exception.

If one cultural block of people could move without restraint from Russia to Ireland, isn’t it likely that their culture and music moved with them? As a corollary, isn’t it also likely that the local customs of other cultures were absorbed by these nomads as they traveled?

If Czardas are of Hungarian origin, why do they appear in German symphonies or American operettas?

If a Polish dance is called the Polonez, why did the French borrow the word and create a polonaise?  Technically, the definition of the French word takes us back to the description of a Polish dance.  And yet the French term has been used to describe a familiar form of piano music.

Why did the Hungarian Czardas music languish in popularity until it was performed by a group of stylistic violinists?

We must start this Segment with the admission that music recognizes no geopolitical borders, any more than wind and rain stop at a border to get their visas stamped.  Historians note more than twenty reasons why Christianity spread throughout Europe.  We are not sure how or why music spread over the same continent, but we will point out three key factors that may have contributed to the spread of music in Europe.

The first key is the movement of large groups of people.  One of those groups, Romani travelers, had a profound effect on European composition.  We will examine this in a separate Segment.

The second key is the way students gravitate to celebrated teachers.  Germany and Austria are important in the world of composition, harmony and counterpoint, because of the “blood lines” between teacher and pupil.  Mr. X studied under Beethoven; he taught Mr. Y; students then came from all over the world to study under Mr. Y.  You will see this factor mentioned in composer biographies; it is specifically addressed in the Section on European Musical Training.

The third key recognizes the instability of the European political framework, where national borders have been continuously redrawn after every regional conflict or strategic alliance.  The conquerors govern the conquered.  Each time this occurs, a new cultural layer has been added. Original European cultures have been buried deep under centuries of geopolitical oppression.

For these reasons, we should concentrate on the historical progression of music over the entire European continent.  There is another reason for taking this approach; nationality may have nothing to do with the development of a composer.  Irving Berlin was born in Russia, but perhaps the greatest influence on him was his father, a cantor, who taught his son how to sing.  Even though born in the United States of Russian immigrants, George Gershwin may have been more directly influenced by the strains of ragtime and the blues than by Russian music or culture.

When we discuss cultural influences and musical threads, perhaps what we are really saying is that the free movement of ideas (of which music is one) results in a cross-pollination that defies national or even regional identification.  If this is true, then perhaps we ought to start our exploration by following the threads of music back to the local customs that gave rise to the music.