Academic journal article Studia Musicologica

"Our Song!" Nationalism in Folk Music Research and Revival in Socialist Czechoslovakia

Academic journal article Studia Musicologica

"Our Song!" Nationalism in Folk Music Research and Revival in Socialist Czechoslovakia

Article excerpt


Throughout history, music often played the role of a political symbol, its meaning depending on who was using it and in what context. In the Czechoslovakia of the 1950s, traditional folk music was officially presented as the most important resource of national musical identity. Folk- or folk-inspired music was almost ubiquitous. Composers of classical music were expected to take it as their main source of inspiration, it had prominent place in public broadcast, new ensembles and festivals for folk music were founded. Although this intensity had subsided in the following decades, the role of folk music as a symbol of national identity remained prominent until the end of the communist rule in 1989. The word národní [national] was used as an adjective connected with various cultural phenomena. But is it correct to talk about nationalism in socialist culture? And if so, how did the ideology of socialist nationalism use folk music as its tool, how did it influence the way this music was collected, researched, and presented?

In my article I would like to present examples from two closely related areas to document this phenomenon: folk music research and public presentation or the revival of folk music. I have chosen one example from both of these areas - a particular research project and a movie about a folk music ensemble - and both from the 1950s. A closer look reveals how the idea of state-promoted nationalism influenced the ways researchers handled and presented their findings and how traditional music was revived on stage or in the media by folk music and dance ensembles. A folk song on its journey from its collection by the researcher in the field, through the phase of publication, to a stylized production on stage or in film was subjected to various subtle or direct manipulations.

When one looks at the relation between nation, nationalism, and folk music (or folk culture in general), one can see that the acts of collecting and archiving folk music play a crucial role. It is exactly through these acts that music turns from a process or an event into an object that can be classified and presented as belonging to this or that group - defined by ethnic, social, or other criteria. The music is taken from its original context and preserved as an isolated unit - in written form or on an audio medium. And our understanding of these units might be different, should one hear and see them in the original context because the selection is already an interpretation of the material. As Anthony Seeger puts it:

No archive preserves sounds. What it preserves are interpretations of sounds - interpretations made by the people who did the recordings, and their equipment.1

Archived music can also start to live its own life when used by others, e.g. musicians who want to learn about a particular tradition. Here, the music can move even further away from its original meaning, depending on the purpose for which the musicians revive it, how much are they interested in learning about the background of the original recordings. Archives created by scholars in this case can serve as a kind of authority, creating seemingly reliable connection to the music of past generations. Monographs, song collections, or song books are only rarely critically examined by musicians who use them and therefore the music collected in the field can undergo various distortions on its way to new performances on stage or in the media.

National and international

The beginning of interest in the folk song and the folk culture in general coincided with rising national awareness in Europe during the 19th century and it has been always connected to politics, in one way or another. Czech composers of the romantic era - Antonín Dvorák and Bedrich Smetana as the most famous examples - turned to folk song and dance, using them both as a melodic inspiration and as a symbol of national identity as opposed to that of the Austro-Hungarian Empire of which they were citizens. …

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