Folk Music, Song and Dance in Bohemia and Moravia

By Vejvoda, Zdenek | Czech Music, July 2007 | Go to article overview

Folk Music, Song and Dance in Bohemia and Moravia


Vejvoda, Zdenek, Czech Music


Central European folk culture in all its diversity is a product of a thousand years of history, above all the co-existence and mutual influence of Slavic and Germanic peoples, with important Jewish and Romany contributions. The character of the specific folk culture of the territory that is today the Czech Republic has been moulded by geographical position, natural conditions, political history and of course contact and interaction with wider cultural milieux, making it a vivid mosaic of distinctive ethnographic regions.

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In the field of folk music, there is a particularly pronounced cultural dividing line between the Bohemian regions (including part of Western Moravia) and the east of our territory, including most of the Moravian ethnographic regions. Up to roughly the 16th century no such division is held to have existed, but subsequently, as the two areas took different directions in social and economic development, there occurred a stylistic differentiation in folk music and a stabilisation of two basic contrasting types: the Bohemian type known as "instrumental" and the type represented by the repertoire of Eastern Moravia and sometimes known as "vocal".

The Character of Bohemian and Moravian Songs

The character of the folk songs of Bohemia as preserved for us in collections of songs and dance made from the early 19th century to the beginning of the 20th century, is directly conditioned by a well-developed tradition of instrumental music and dance that imprinted its rhythm on the song melodies. The regions where music has been most intensely cultivated, and the best mapped in ethnographic work, are in South-west Bohemia--the Chodsko, Plzen and Sumava regions, in which an archaic repertoire survived for a long time, as well as the accompanying music known as mala selska muzika ("small country music band", consisted of bagpipe, violin and clarinet). Some note records and sound recordings from the Chodsko region or South Bohemian Blata district reveal a peculiar bagpipe "polyphonic" style of folk song accompaniment. Meanwhile, Central and North-eastern Bohemia in particular stand out for their advanced classicist instrumental and dance music tradition.

Bohemian folklore studies in the older Romantic tradition used to look primarily for Slav parallels, but in fact Czech folk music has tended to be more closely related to Western styles and developments. Major keys and instrumental character with a clear structure that tends to symmetry predominate in Bohemian folk song. One specifically Bohemian feature, itself proof of the advanced musical sensibility of Bohemian folk musicians and dancers, is the existence not only of songs in duple and triple meter, but also of melodies with alternating time signatures that accompany the dances known as matenik. Its very close relationship with Baroque, Rococo and Classicist music gave Bohemian folk song greater formal refinement and a richly contrasting range of memorable melodies.

The folksong melodies of Western Moravia correspond to the Bohemian instrumental type, but the traditions in the East Moravian areas are already different, exhibiting more of a connection with the Slovak, Polish and Hungarian regions and the supra-ethnic Carpathian culture. Regional differences within East Moravia are also more marked than in the Bohemian case, for example between the more austere songs from the Lach and Wallachian regions, the fiery and emotionally explosive songs from Slovacko, or the easy-going, symmetrical melodies of songs from the Hana, which have affinities with the Bohemian type.

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In terms of both text and music, the Moravian folk song generally exhibits a greater lyricism and a sharper alternation of exuberant emotion and melancholy that is enhanced by a colourful palette of modes. Apart from major and minor keys we often find Mixolydian and Lydian modes, and on rare occasions "gypsy scales" with two one-and-a-half-tone (augmented second) steps or odd tone rows derived from the possibilities of some folk instruments.

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