Voices from Wax Cylinders: Early 20th-Century Recordings of Folk Songs

By Kratochvil, Matej | Czech Music, April 2013 | Go to article overview

Voices from Wax Cylinders: Early 20th-Century Recordings of Folk Songs


Kratochvil, Matej, Czech Music


Composite authors: Jarmila Prochazkova, Gerda Lechleitner, Hana Urbancova, Alzbeta Lukacova, Lucie Uhlikova, Franz Lechleitner, Milan Fugner, Vaclav Mach, Michal Skopik: Vzaty do fonografu. Slovenske a moravske pisne v nahravkach Hynka Bima, Leose Janacka a Frantisky Kyselkove z let 1909-1912.

(Taken to the Phonograph. Slovak and Moravian songs in recordings made by Hynek Bim, Leos Janacek and Frantiska Kyselkova from 1909 to 1912.)

Institute of Ethnology of the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic, v. v. i. Brno 2012

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Audio recordings of the human voice possess something magical--especially when it comes to recordings in whose case the listener is divided by a long period of time from the recorded narrator or singer. Naturally, in the case of ethnomusicology, rather than magic it concerns the fact that audio recording itself formed it as an independent domain and had a significant impact on its methodology.

In recent years, there have been a growing number of editions of historical recordings worldwide, including those from the very dawn of audio recording. In this respect, folk music in the Czech Republic has clear milestones: the oldest preserved audio recordings date from 1909 and were made in Bohemia by Otakar Zich and in Moravia by Leos Janacek and his associates Hynck Bim and Frantiska Kyselkova. In both cases, they formed part of the Das Volkslied in Osterreich (Folk Song in Austria) project, whose aim it was to map folk music culture throughout the entire former monarchy. Zich's recordings of bagpipe music made in South Bohemia were digitised and released in 2001. The collections initiated by Janacek came out three years previously, yet at the time they only represented a selection. What's more, the recordings were not produced from the original wax cylinders but from copies recorded on to foils and subsequently on to magnetic tape.

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The new publication contains a much greater quantity of recordings which, in co-operation with the Phonogrammarchiv of the Austrian Academy of Sciences, were digitised directly from the original wax cylinders. Recordings on three CDs and one data DVD accompany two volumes, the first comprising transcriptions of the song lyrics and spoken word on the recordings, the second containing studies dealing with the various aspects of this unique collection. These studies markedly increase the value of the historical recordings, manifesting the significance of this type of material For ethnomusicological research.

Jarmila Prochazkova's introductory study describes in detail the course of the recording events: when and where a particular type of repertoire was recorded, as well as which singers participated in it. In the next chapter, Gerda Lechleitner supplements the historical context and shows how collections of songs in Moravia were involved in the Das Volkslied in Osterreich project. Three studies analyse individual groups of recordings in terms of the regions from which the performers hailed. Hana Urbancova devotes to songs from Strazovske vrchy and the Javorniky mountains, Alzbeta Lukacova to the village of Terchova and environs, and Lucie Uhlikova to recordings of songs in the village of Vnorovy. Each of the chapters details the characteristics of the musical culture in the particular region, which is then juxtaposed with that which is recorded on the wax cylinders. The reader also acquires an idea of what research into folk music at the beginning of the 20th century was like, owing to the diaries kept by Janacek, Bim and Kyselkova: After dinner, we went to visit the Slovaks at the manor it was already twilight. In the courtyard, women and children, were washing by the water-pump. We entered the bedroom. At the sides, there were beds from planks laid askew. Tim or three kerosene lamps twinkled. In the middle, men and women were silting on the ground around large bowls, girls, boys and children by kettles--they were having their dinner: Some of them were already on the beds and looking at us with curiosity.

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