Czech and Slovak Folk Music

• Folk and Traditional Styles

Czech and Slovak Folk Music

From 1918 to 1993, the three regions of Bohemia, Moravia, and Slovakia comprised one country called Czechoslovakia, but the "Velvet Revolution" of 1993 brought an end to this union. Today, there are two countries in its place: the Czech Republic (comprised of Bohemia and Moravia) and Slovakia. Because of their closely shared history, they will both be discussed in this article.

The spectrum of western to eastern European styles can be heard in the music of the Czech Republic and Slovakia due to their unique position in central Europe. At the same time, the region has served an important historic role in helping to transmit musical ideas back and forth between the two areas of the continent.


Czech Republic

In times past, villages in Bohemia each had a kantor to help organize the musical activities of the village. Part-time school teacher, church music director, and classical musician, the kantor was the center of musical life of their community, much like many music teachers are today in the United States. Though the tradition of the kantor has disappeared, Bohemians have managed to keep the music alive.

One individual who did his part was the Czech composer Leos Janácek. He helped build the foundations of ethnomusicology in his country. Traveling and recording countless folk songs and melodies, his work not only informed his own compositions but also inspired other Czechs to take an interest in their musical heritage.

Since Bohemia is located closest to Western Europe of the three areas discussed in this article, it stands to reason that folk music exhibits the most western characteristics. Like many western European folk musics, the folk song melodies show strong chordal underpinnings framed by major triads. The form is generally square, in that folk songs are often built of 16 measures divided into four-measure phrases.

The most famous Bohemian folk music style is the polka, which it shares with Poland. (In fact, there is even debate over whether the word is originally Czech or Polish.) Of course, the polka has since spread all over the world, and now is heard in classical and folk music as far away as Latin America. Along with the polka, the Viennese waltz is also an important instrumental and dance form in Bohemia.

Bagpipes, called dudy in Bohemia, are one of the most popular folk instruments of the area. In the Chodsko region, the bagpipes are often joined by clarinet and fiddle and called a "small barn band," owing to the places they play for dances. Brass bands became popular in the middle-1800s and threatened to eclipse all other instrumental forms. Still very popular today, these bands can be huge professional groups or smaller ensembles that play waltzes, polkas, and other styles for weddings, dances, and funerals.

The region of Moravia in the Czech Republic is widely known for the cimbalom, a type of hammered dulcimer. Musicians in Moravia sometimes use the smaller, portable cimbalom, but more often they play the large, piano-size cimbalom common to Hungary. Cimbaloms are often found in ensembles that feature several violins, a clarinet, and a double bass. These groups are often accompanied by male and female singers.


Slovakia

The country of Slovakia truly is the place where east meets west. While the flavor begins to change in the Czech Republic, one can truly see the influences of eastern European folk music in Slovakia from Ukraine, Hungary, and Romania to the south and east. For example, additive meters, such as 5/8 and 7/8, and chromatic scales are heard in Slovakian music and add to the beauty of the musical mixture.

The mountainous areas of north and central Slovakia contain the largest and richest music styles in the country. The best folk music festivals are held here, at which one might hear songs about the legendary Jánosik, a Robin Hood figure who showed favor to the poor. Cimbalom bands abound in the southern part of Slovakia and have absorbed both Hungarian and Gypsy elements into their style. More than elsewhere in Slovakia, music is still connected to village festivals and folk customs in eastern Slovakia.

Roma, also known as Gypsies, have lived in the villages and cities of Slovakia (as well as Bohemia and Moravia) for centuries and have left their mark on the music styles there. Though persecuted almost to extinction during the Holocaust, the Roma survived and still live and perform in many areas, despite continued persecution.

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