Following the river

Following the river: reflections on my new CD project

As I contemplate my new CD project, I have found myself thinking about the fact that classical music has been around for about 500 years – or something like seventeen generations. Most concert series concentrate on music written from 1600 onwards, although there is some fascinating early music – pre-classical – going back to the 13th century and beyond. Perhaps the reason the music of the last 400 years is most performed is that it is most approachable for us – and that it connects so directly with our emotions, and our most profound thoughts, ideas, and feelings.

But another type of music has co-existed with the classical tradition, and merges with it at its roots in mediaeval music. Its traditions have lingered, especially in the rural byways, the valleys and the mountains where folk memory is strongest. This type of music is so deeply ingrained that often nobody even remembers when or how they learnt it, but they all sort of know … how it goes. They say humans have made music since the beginning of time, and all over the world these traditions have developed into different forms of folk music.

I’m definitely no ethnomusicology expert. But I grew up surrounded by folk music. I have watched it form part of people’s lives, and enrich the timeless rituals of births, weddings and funerals. So many traditional folk music performers can communicate directly – often they don’t read, or see the need to read, formal music notation, because they are steeped in a different, aural tradition.

And this folk music mingles with poetry, story-telling, imagery – varying with the seasons. They form a kind of flowing river of tradition, reaching back through the centuries in a more vivid way than any history book. The traditions are still handed on in much the same way as they always were, in a world independent of books and written music. This folk music has inspired many composers – and some have let their musical language steep in folk traditions so that the distinction between the two is almost dissolved.

It seems like paying back a little of a debt I’ve owed since childhood to these folk music traditions to choose folk music as the theme of my first solo CD album. I am embarking on one of my most exciting adventures so far, and I’m hugely grateful for the support of Kawai pianos and Acousence Records.

One of the things that is so striking about folk music is that it resonates with so many different people, including those who don’t go to concert halls. It can be muscular and fiery like the music which inspired Monti’s Czardas. The sheer physicality of this music means that it gives an almost tactile, sensual experience. But folk music can also be profoundly lyrical or convey deep sorrow. Perhaps part of the power of this music comes from its down to earth quality – sometimes, that the music itself tells a story. One of the pieces I’ll be playing, for example, is based on a tune sung by a peasant woman whose husband is going away from home to earn their living. She watches him walking far away into the distance, gazing after him in the blinding sunset until he is nothing more than a black dot against the sunlight, and she is tormented with anguish and fear that he will be attacked on the road and might never come back. The melodic inflections reflect her anxiety in a way which the listener can pick up immediately.

Another piece explores an ancient Romanian Christmas carol. The music seems to float over a misty winter landscape. The chant-like theme has an aura of incantation. For good or bad, pagan and Christian beliefs mingle in Romanian Christmas traditions, and this carol encapsulates the favour of the Romanian Christmas. The carollers invoke the power of the new born child to deliver them from this evil world, as triumphant bell ringing overcomes the bleak and cold opening harmonies.

I’ve chosen pieces oriented towards Eastern European folklore, partly because so much of this has survived in collectors’ works and has in turn influenced classical composers. Whether it is the incisive Bulgarian rhythms explored by Bartok, the haunting Hungarian Melody portrayed by Schubert or the charming tunes in Enescu’s Romanian Rhapsody, this music burns vividly. This is music that has accompanied people in their moments of joy and celebration, as well as mourning and tragedy. People have used it to express their frustrations, to celebrate, to mourn, to express fear, and joy, and love.

These pieces all belong in some way to the river of folk traditions whose source is lost in time. But the pieces in this collection also belong, more directly to the river Danube. They don’t resemble the beautifully polished and refined chords of Strauss and his waltzes: this music can be romantic and caressing, but it can also be rough and unforgiving, close to nature and the spirit of the generations who have lived along the Danube long before the time of classical music…….