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The relationship between folk music and classical music is complex. Several composers have been noted for their use of expressly folk melodies or themes, as well as research into enthno-musicology:


Famous collections

Brahms's "19 Hungarian Dances" and Borodin's "Polovtsian Dances" are among the best-known collections of dances inspired by folk music. Dvorak's "16 Slavonic Dances" and Granados' "12 Spanish Dances" are also well known.

Early pieces

"Orchesographie" (by Thoinot Arbeau, 1588) is a book of dance instruction with printed tunes. It contains several "branles" - one of the few French dances to have survived from the 16th to the 20th centuries. In 1648 William Playford published another dance manual, the first of many. It contains many folk tunes, and these are usually found in the "Early classical music" section of shops rather than "Folk music". William Byrd publish almans, pavanes and galliards, but these are usually classified as "courtly dances" rather than "folk dances". Similarly JS Bach wrote "gavottes", generally for an aristocratic audience. The French Revolution resulted in a more democratic attitude to dance. Symphonies no longer contained a minuet, but increasingly contained a waltz. The Austrians can claim to have invented this, from a peasant couple dance, the ländler.

The Romantic Period

Chopin wrote very many patriotic works related to dances, including "7 Polonaises", "14 Waltzes" and "17 Mazurkas". He also wrote a quite famous Tarantelle, but this is actually a Spanish folk dance. At the start of the nineteenth century is was fashionable to write an "Ecossaise" (Scottish). There are examples by Beethoven and Chopin. In Spain, the dances tended to be named after regions. So we have Albeniz's "Asturias" and Sanz's "Canarios". Turina wrote a "Fandanguilla". Schubert wrote two collections; -"12 Deutsche Tanze" D790, and "16 Deutsche Tanze" D783. Most of these works were composed in the style of folk dances rather that being real folk music. In the case of Bizet's "L'Arlisienne", he seems to have used tunes that he heard being played by folk dancers. Liszt's "Hungarian Rhapsodies" use the popular gypsy technique of starting slowly and building up to a fast climax. It is easy to imagine the high kicks and spinning couples that must have accompanied this style of dancing.

Maypole dancing occurs in Herold's ballet "La Fille Mal Gardée". A kind of generic country dance is presented in Delibes "Coppelia". Tchaikovsky's ballets contain an assortment of dances. Some, such as the trepaks, mazurkas and czardas are authentic-sounding dances, but "Arab dance" and "Chinese dance" are more or less made-up mood music.

Ravel and after

Ravel's "Bolero" is one of the most popular of all pieces of classical music. Excluding Tchaikovsky's music, Khachaturian's "Sabre Dance" from "Gayaneh" is one of the most famous folk dances originating in a ballet. The dulcimer is a folk instrument rarely heard in the concert hall. Kodaly's "Hary Janos" is a rare example. Somewhat disappointingly, the opera "Schwanda the Bagpiper" does not contain any bagpipe music, but Irish composer Shaun Davey wrote 3 concert pieces that use the instrument. For a Latin flavour, Leonard Bernstein used castanettes in his "Cuban Overture". So did Bizet in the "Habanera" in "Carmen". It is well-known that Elgar wrote patriotic marches. Not so-well known is the fact that he wrote "3 Bavarian Dances".

Dances by Afro-America people were neglected by western composers until the second half of the twentieth century. Much earlier, Scott Joplin attempted to wrote operas based on ragtime, but it wasn't until the 1970s that a ballet was written - "Elite Syncopations" - using his compositions. Another neglected style - American folk dance - did not get the symphonic treatment until Copland's ballet "Rodeo". Percy Grainger's "Shepherd's Hey" is possibly the most popular classical piece of music that is based on Morris dancing. Respighi's "Ancient Airs and Dances" were a somewhat fanciful attempt to recreate early Italian courtly dances.

Folk songs

Beethoven took many genuine British folk songs, are arranged them for voice and keyboard. Tchaikovsky wrote "50 Russian Folk Songs" arranged for solo piano. Christmas Carols were arranged for choir and orchestra by Charpentier (in France) and Vaughan Williams (in England). Schubert's song "Erlkonig" sounds as if was originally a supernatural folk song, like those from the Child's collection. Indeed, Schubert's style of lieder-writing is so like folk song that the word "Schubertian" has been coined to mean a melodic song that goes straight to the heart, like a folk-song.

Operas with folk tunes

The ballad opera "The Beggar's Opera" by John Gay uses several folk tunes, as does Offenbach's "Orpheus in the Underworld". Holst's "At The Boar's Head" is said to have been inspired by English folk songs. Popular tales have been turned into ballets, operas and symphonic poems. The most famous are "Scheherazade" (Tales from 1001 Arabian Nights) by Rimsky-Korsakov, "Sleeping Beauty" and "Swan Lake" by Tchaikovsky and "Hansel and Gretel" by Humperdinck. A German audience is familiar with the folk-tale "Till Eulenspiegel" (Richard Strauss). The Austrian collection of fairy stories "Des Knaben Wunderhorn" was converted into a song-cycle my Mahler. Sibelius' "Kullervo" is a similar rearranging of Scandinavian myths.



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