Roots of the Classical: The Popular Origins of Western Music

By Peter Van Der Merwe | Go to book overview

12 The Dances of Central Europe

I. THE POLKA FAMILY

One of the most remarkable features of Western music has been a persistent association, over several centuries, of certain lively dance rhythms with the major mode. At the popular level, these major-mode dances changed remarkably little from the sixteenth to the twentieth century. From Dalza to Strauss, we find the same bright, clear, melodic lines, the same four- and eight-bar phrases, the same tonic-and-dominant harmony, often even the same tunes.

Of course there were local characteristics, as there inevitably are in popular music. The waltzes and polkas of central Europe have a great deal in common with the partly Oriental, east European music of the previous chapter. In fact, the distinction between 'central' and 'eastern' Europe is anything but easy to sustain. As a rule, 'central Europe' spoke German and 'eastern Europe' Hungarian or a Slavonic language, but this is no more than a rough guide. And though, at first sight, the primitive waltz and polka seem to inhabit a different world from the strange modes and sombre harmonies of 'eastern' Europe, but this is due less to cultural origins than to the peculiar nature of the major mode, whose bright, primary tints are at their most effective when kept pure. There is a large family of minor modes, continually hybridizing and mutating, but only one major mode. And when mode is disregarded, we find that the central and east European styles have much in common. Centuries of mutual influence ensured that the same rhythms, drones, ostinatos, and formal procedures appear in both. To a much greater extent than appears on the surface, they belong to the same tradition.

This is particularly true of the polka, which was also much the more folky of the two dances. It is therefore convenient to deal with it first, even though its vogue came three decades later than that of the waltz.

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