What are the best Slovak folk songs

Ensemble Musikfabrik

On the occasion of the premiere of Fabio Nieders' "Maybe the nightingale knows" - a Slovak folk song for soprano voice and chamber orchestra (2020) in the series' Musikfabrik im WDR ', Guido Fischer interviewed the composer about his piece.

Guido Fischer:
Robert Schumann already knew how to report: “Listen diligently to all folk songs; they are a treasure trove of the most beautiful melodies. ”Today, on the other hand, folk songs do not seem very inspiring for many contemporary composers. You are a big exception, Mr. Nieder. Where does your intensive preoccupation with folk songs come from?
Fabio Nieder:
First I have to say that there is always something derogatory about terms like “folk song”, “folklore” or “ethnic”. But we often forget that “folk music” has been the music of the majority for millennia! The most important characteristic of “folk music”, which fundamentally distinguishes it from serious music, was and is, after all, that it had no authors. It is a common property of a collectivity and not the expression of a single person. Many composers have taken an interest in folk music. Such as Janáček, Bartók, Kodály and later also Ligeti and Berio - although it is no coincidence that these composers were also very interested in linguistics. But today? Hardly anyone who is played in Donaueschingen or Witten shows interest in these wonderful people and their music. Where does this disinterest come from? Is it some kind of snobbery? As a composer, I find it a main human task to make up for this failure. I want to give this music the same importance as that of the notated music. I want to try, so to speak, to pay off the debts of a colonialist mentality. Not only for humanitarian reasons, but above all because of the bewitching beauty of their expression! And this is especially true of Slovak folk music ...

Guido Fischer
... which has always left deep traces in your work ...
Fabio Nieder:
My great passion for peasant songs goes back to my early youth, when I lived in the countryside on the slope between the city of Trieste and the Karst above the city. The suburb of Trieste and the Karst plain are Slovenian-speaking. The so-called Slovene minority has lived there since the 6th century AD. In the Slovenian villages around Trieste mainly farmers live. And I am very familiar with their music. In addition, there is my close friendship with the composer, linguist and ethno-musicologist of Slovene nationality from Trieste, Pavle Merkù. In the sixties and seventies he collected thousands of folk songs from the Slovenian minorities living in Trieste, Gorizia and East Friuli. Through him I also knew the lively musical life in neighboring Ljubljana in the seventies. The national folk music of the respective former Yugoslav countries was very much cultivated during the time of Tito communism and also aroused the interest of local composers. With the fall of the communist republic, the musical orientations of the composers there also diverged. But I have never lost interest in this world, in the Slovenian language and culture. On the contrary: this source of inspiration has nourished my musical production for decades.

Guido Fischer
What do you have to pay particular attention to when you - like now - deal with a folk song? The folk song could possibly lose some of its “original breath” if it is now woven into an artistic-artificial, “art-musical” context.
Fabio Nieder:
That is a very important point! Béla Bartók's ornate folk song arrangements, for example, often transfer the original melodies of the farmers to a voice with piano accompaniment. But the original singing technique is completely lost. If you have the opportunity to hear the original recording of a peasant folk song and then compare it with a Bartók arrangement, the difference is striking: the edited song almost seems tamed! In my composition "Perhaps the nightingale knows", the singing voice uses, among other things, the singing technique of a Slovak folk singer in order to then return to the conventional voice of a soprano in the course of the piece.

Guido Fischer:
... according to the score, she should sing with an "ethnic voice"
Fabio Nieder:
…exactly. It's like walking between different styles of singing and the associations that it brings with it. With my very latest composition, which again refers to Slovak folklore, I go a bit further and write exclusively for a real Slovak folk music singer who only knows and practices this singing technique. This is a big challenge for me now: two worlds collide! Also in performance practice. But I've been researching an alternative way of singing for a long time. Unfortunately, the same type of teaching is always taught in our universities - with only a few exceptions, such as B. the overtone singing, which I also want to incorporate into this new work. The possibility of working with something authentic is very fascinating to me! My experience with the Atlas Ensemble in Amsterdam also went absolutely in this direction: At that time I was allowed to work with musicians from India, China, Japan, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, Iran, Iraq and Turkey and to compose for their original instruments. But my music will always be something different from a real folk song. It is more of a fantasy object. An act of freedom of choice. Something that stands between the musical traditions of certain peoples and my personal intuition. In this sense, yes, the connection to tradition can be very interesting for me.

Guido Fischer:
What does the folksong now set to music tell you about, “Perhaps the nightingale knows”? Can you locate your roots more precisely? When did it originate? What dialect is it written in? And: can you remember the first time you heard it?
Fabio Nieder:
The entire text of this Slovak folk song has a total of five stanzas. I only use the first one for my composition because I didn't want to go into detail, but rather to stay on a generally existential terrain. The German translation is: "Tell me, little nightingale, you beautiful creature, what is the greatest torment in the world?"

Guido Fischer:
Can the roots of the song be pinpointed more precisely?
Fabio Nieder:
The original song was recorded by Frantisek Poloczek in 1950 in Slovakia, in the Moravské Lieskové municipality, and then published. And Poloczek reports that most of the Slovak folk songs he collected in the 1950s were very old. Which is why only the old people could remember it. Most of the singers, however, were women.
 
Guido Fischer:
In your huge catalog of works there are repeated references to other composers, such as Rameau and Schubert. But what role does Gustav Mahler play for you? It is true that you performed Mahler as accompanist. But with its musical fusion of the natural with the artificial sound, it could also be a relative in spirit?
Fabio Nieder:
The spirit of Gustav Mahler has accompanied me since my early youth. He is a relative and a significant other. Being “like a natural sound” has always accompanied my research into the connection between nature and music. You can also find his worldly signals in my music, which are always found in his symphonies. He summed up important things that keep occupying me.

Guido Fischer:
Just as Mahler uses herd bells "at a great distance" in his 7th Symphony, these also now sound very softly towards the end of "Maybe ...". Could it be heard as the evocation of a (paradisiacal) idyll that will never exist like this?
Fabio Nieder
That always depends on the previous knowledge of the viewer. The herd bells as a natural instrument are used again and again in central Slovak folk music. The sheep and goat bells are almost a symbol of the shepherd music from Podpol'ane, a music played on the overtone flute Fujara. A person familiar with the music of Gustav Mahler can hear a clear allusion to the poetic world of his symphonies in these bells. But a musician from Podpol'ane who has no knowledge of classical European music will say with certainty: This is a sound from our idyllic homeland! In this sense, one could say that this paradise really exists!