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Saved from the teeth of time: folk music on historical sound recordings.

One important characteristic of the music we call folk music is its tight link to its extra-musical context. Folk song had its specific place in life, and was sung in particular places on particular occasions. If it is taken out of this context--for example in the case of a sound recording--part of the information about it is lost. On the other hand, it is precisely thanks to recording that folk music can leave its "milieu" and reach listeners who would never otherwise hear it. In addition, the recording enables us to hear how the music sounded in an earlier era. The oldest sound recordings of the folk music of Bohemia and Moravia were made almost a hundred years ago. What has been preserved for us from that time?

History in Wax

In 1888 Thomas Edison put his phonograph on the American market and at the same time the Columbia company started to manufacture a device exploiting the patent of Alexander Graham Bell. Sound recording became an international vogue and did not pass unnoticed in Central Europe. Indeed, as early as 1892 Leos Janacek, the composer and collector of folk music, reportedly thought about using the technical novelties on his folksong-gathering expeditions. He actually got round to it a few years later as chairman of the Working Committee for Czech Folksong in Moravia and Silesia. This institution was supposed to co-ordinate the collection of folk songs as part of the project Folksong in Austria, and in its minutes of the 8th of October 1909 we find the purchase of a phonograph noted. Although Janacek had made great efforts to bring in a phonograph, he made only a few recordings on it himself and most of the recordings were made by his colleagues, especially Frantiska Kyselkova and Hynek Bim. While most of the recordings were made in Moravia, a large proportion of the recorded songs actually came from Slovakia; the female singers are often Slovak seasonal labourers working in Moravia. One of the collecting expeditions headed for the Straznice area in Slovacko (on the Moravian-Slovakian border), where most of the songs recorded were folk sacred songs. When the Working Committee was dissolved in 1919 the wax cylinders bearing the recordings were passed on from one institution to another and some were destroyed in the process. In the fifties copies of the recordings were made on gramophone foil and later on audiotape. In 1998 these recordings came out on CD together with extensive documentation thanks to the GNOSIS company.

In Bohemia the oldest preserved sound recordings were also made as part of the Folksong in Austria collection campaign. Direction of the Bohemian Committee was entrusted to the musicologist and professor of aesthetics Otakar Zich. Equipped with an Edison phonograph he travelled to the Blata area in South Bohemia in 1909. There he made a series of recordings of songs performed by the bagpipe player Frantisek Kopsik. The second series of Zich's recordings came from the Chodsko area of West Bohemia and the players were an anonymous trio of bagpipes, fiddle and clarinet--what was known as the "small country band", earlier the usual musical accompaniment for dances in the region. In 2002 the Ethnological Institute of the Czech Academy of Sciences published these recordings on CD with technical assistance from the Vienna Phonogrammarchiv.

The phonographic recordings were originally made primarily as an aid for the collectors who could then check the correctness of the transcription of the melody. Wax cylinders with music were already commercial articles at the time, but folk music did not appear on the music market at the beginning of the 20th century. The recordings therefore remained in the archives and the sound media were often destroyed. In later years the collector Kyselkova wanted to play the recordings that she had made in cooperation with Janacek at a lecture "... I requested a loan of the phonograph and cylinder. I found that neither the one nor the other was usable. The tooth of time had gnawed at them until they were gnawed away ". Today with digitalisation we have the opportunity to get at least a partial sense of the way folk music sounded a century ago. The virtuosity of the bagpiper Kopsik or the voice of Eva Gabe-lova, a singer who made a great impression on Leose Janacek, is audible even despite the crackling in the old wax grooves.

The Nation on Records

In the first decade of the 20th century wax cylinders were already starting to be replaced by gramophone records made of various materials, offering higher quality of recorded sound. It was with this new medium that a great enterprise was conceived: the documentation of the "sound identity" of the new republic. Paradoxically, the impulse for the project did not come from music scholars, but from linguists who wanted to record vanishing dialects. In the autumn of 1928 a Phonographic Commission was set up at the Czech Academy of Sciences and Arts and entrusted with the task of making recordings. Professor Josef Chlumsky was elected to chair it. Although the original idea came from the philologists, it was decided that absolutely all sound expressions should be recorded, i.e. folk and classical music, dialects, and the voices of actors, poets and important figures in public life. Folk music turned out to play a significant part in the result.

The folk music of Bohemia, Moravia and Silesia was assigned to the care of Professor Josef Horak, Slovakia to Dobroslav Orel and Karel Plicka, and Sub-Carpathian Ruthenia to Dr. Ivan Pankevic. In the search for performers in the regions the commission worked with a number of other individuals and institutions, in the Chodsko area with Jindrich Jindrich, for example, and in Moravia with the Brno Institute for Folksong.

The first phase took place from the 19th of September 1928 to the 1st of November 1919. The performers chosen in the different regions were brought to Prague and the recording was made at the National House in Vinohrady. The technical side was handled by employees of the Pathe firm under the direction of Prof. Pernot. Otakar Zich, Karel Plicka, Josef Hutter and the French musicologist Barraud were also present.

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The recording was made on wax discs, from which a metal matrix for the production of gramophone records was produced later in Paris.

In the first phase a great quantity of material was recorded primarily from Slovakia and Sub-Carpathian Ruthenia. Further recordings took place in 1933 and 1934, but on a smaller scale. The co-operation with Pathe ended for financial reasons and the Academy looked for a cheaper firm. In 1935 an agreement was signed with the Czech firm Esta, which in 1934 made several recordings principally of Moravian folk music directed by Professor Hutter.

When recordings were not underway, the commission devoted itself to the pressing and cataloguing of discs and to hunting for funds. These were raised partly from the state and partly from private donors including for example banks, but there was ever less money available. During the Second World War the commission was chaired by Prof. Smetanka, but did almost nothing and was dissolved after the war.

The fruit of the labours of the Phonographic Commission consists of a total of 304 discs, 204 of which contain recordings of folk dialects and songs. Of these 89 are Slovak, 24 from Sub-Carpathian Ruthenia, 26 Bohemian, 50 Moravian, 17 Silesian and 13 Lusatian Sorb. Singing and the spoken word often alternate on individual discs. One point of interest is the participation of the composer Miloslav Kabelac (then a student at the conservatory), performing as a pianist on a recording of Lusatian Sorb melodies.

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The recordings were made in a period when one can still speak of a traditionally functioning folk culture based on the passing down of repertoire from generation to generation and not influenced by the media. (While the radio already existed at this time it was not yet so widespread as to be able to influence the formation of repertoire, for example). The value of the recordings is also increased by the good choice of performers. These are not trained singers, but for example farmers, village teachers, ordinary older people with good memories and repertoire. The guidelines for the choice of material to record were very general and in practise, it was up to each member of the commission to decide whom to invite to record and from where. Often the deciding factor was just the momentary availability of the performers and funds for their journey to Prague (in one of the minutes from a commission meeting we can read a sigh about the fact that while waiting for funds two excellent singers who were to have been recorded had died in Moravia).

Although the Phonographic Commission's project had been intended to record the sound expressions of the culture of the young state as completely as possible, it never managed to reach a number of areas. In some cases this was because of the expense, but we can only speculate on the reasons for some omissions. We might detect possible political reasons for the focus on purely Slav areas; the Germans living in the Czech Lands were left out, for example, while the Lusatian Sorbs living in Germany were included. The search for folk music was confined to the countryside and so expressions of urban folklore were outside the picture. All this we can put down to the effort, maybe only subconscious, to create a certain picture of the culture of the Czechoslovakia of the time as a homogeneous whole. In the minutes of the commission, however, there is no trace of any discussion of these questions. Despite all these limitations the collection of the Phonographic Commission represents an extraordinary document of the form of folk music culture and contains some particularly interesting elements: polyphonic male singing from Sub-Carpathian Ruthenia, dulcimer music from Myjava or the Chodsko musicians (perhaps the direct heirs of those whom Otakar Zich recorded in 1909). The disks are also exceptional in their sound quality; the gramophone records of the time were already capable of recording a wide sound spectrum and unlike the cylinders the recording is stable. Although the commission tried hard to publicise the results of its works and offered selected recordings for sale, e.g. to schools, interest was negligible. Today all the recordings are kept at the Academy of Sciences and are being converted into digital form at the Ethnological Institute which is also preparing them for publication. Selected samples have been included in the compilation Folk Music in the Collections of the Ethnographic Institute of the Czech Academy of Sciences (2005).

After the Second World War recording equipment became a normal part of the resources of institutions concerned with folk music and many hours of recordings today lie in archives in various places. The compilation just mentioned contains samples of recordings made by the Prague and Brno ethnographic teams in various localities in the republic, and recording folk music in the field continues.

From the fifties, folk music came to be publicly presented above all through various different organised professional and amateur ensembles that have also made their own recordings. Currently too there are a great many groups releasing recordings that offer an updated view of the folk music of different regions of Bohemia and Moravia in arrangements that are attractive to listeners. In comparison, the historic recordings from the beginning of the 20th century sound rough and raw, but they offer an encounter with a form of folk music that today we can no longer hear.
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Title Annotation:theme
Author:Kratochvil, Matej
Publication:Czech Music
Date:Jul 1, 2007
Words:1932
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