Saved from the Teeth of Time: Folk Music on Historical Sound Recordings

By Kratochvil, Matej | Czech Music, July 2007 | Go to article overview

Saved from the Teeth of Time: Folk Music on Historical Sound Recordings


Kratochvil, Matej, Czech Music


One important characteristic of the music we call folk music is its tight link to its extra-musical context. Folk song had its specific place in life, and was sung in particular places on particular occasions. If it is taken out of this context--for example in the case of a sound recording--part of the information about it is lost. On the other hand, it is precisely thanks to recording that folk music can leave its "milieu" and reach listeners who would never otherwise hear it. In addition, the recording enables us to hear how the music sounded in an earlier era. The oldest sound recordings of the folk music of Bohemia and Moravia were made almost a hundred years ago. What has been preserved for us from that time?

History in Wax

In 1888 Thomas Edison put his phonograph on the American market and at the same time the Columbia company started to manufacture a device exploiting the patent of Alexander Graham Bell. Sound recording became an international vogue and did not pass unnoticed in Central Europe. Indeed, as early as 1892 Leos Janacek, the composer and collector of folk music, reportedly thought about using the technical novelties on his folksong-gathering expeditions. He actually got round to it a few years later as chairman of the Working Committee for Czech Folksong in Moravia and Silesia. This institution was supposed to co-ordinate the collection of folk songs as part of the project Folksong in Austria, and in its minutes of the 8th of October 1909 we find the purchase of a phonograph noted. Although Janacek had made great efforts to bring in a phonograph, he made only a few recordings on it himself and most of the recordings were made by his colleagues, especially Frantiska Kyselkova and Hynek Bim. While most of the recordings were made in Moravia, a large proportion of the recorded songs actually came from Slovakia; the female singers are often Slovak seasonal labourers working in Moravia. One of the collecting expeditions headed for the Straznice area in Slovacko (on the Moravian-Slovakian border), where most of the songs recorded were folk sacred songs. When the Working Committee was dissolved in 1919 the wax cylinders bearing the recordings were passed on from one institution to another and some were destroyed in the process. In the fifties copies of the recordings were made on gramophone foil and later on audiotape. In 1998 these recordings came out on CD together with extensive documentation thanks to the GNOSIS company.

In Bohemia the oldest preserved sound recordings were also made as part of the Folksong in Austria collection campaign. Direction of the Bohemian Committee was entrusted to the musicologist and professor of aesthetics Otakar Zich. Equipped with an Edison phonograph he travelled to the Blata area in South Bohemia in 1909. There he made a series of recordings of songs performed by the bagpipe player Frantisek Kopsik. The second series of Zich's recordings came from the Chodsko area of West Bohemia and the players were an anonymous trio of bagpipes, fiddle and clarinet--what was known as the "small country band", earlier the usual musical accompaniment for dances in the region. In 2002 the Ethnological Institute of the Czech Academy of Sciences published these recordings on CD with technical assistance from the Vienna Phonogrammarchiv.

The phonographic recordings were originally made primarily as an aid for the collectors who could then check the correctness of the transcription of the melody. Wax cylinders with music were already commercial articles at the time, but folk music did not appear on the music market at the beginning of the 20th century. The recordings therefore remained in the archives and the sound media were often destroyed. In later years the collector Kyselkova wanted to play the recordings that she had made in cooperation with Janacek at a lecture "... I requested a loan of the phonograph and cylinder. I found that neither the one nor the other was usable. …

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