of Yugoslav Folk Music
Eminent Composer, Who Is Working on It, Discusses Its Significance
By Béla Bartók
From The New York Times, Sunday, June 28, 1942
Since I arrived in the United States in October, 1940, many people
have asked me, again and again, what I am doing here. When I explain
that I am studying and transcribing the Milman Parry Records, as
a commission from Columbia University, it appears that scarcely
any one knows about the very existence of this collection, still
less about its excellence.
To begin with, it is a most important collection of folk-music,
unique of its kind. The story of its origin is this:
Professor Milman Parry, a classical philologist at Harvard University,
decided some years ago to go to Yugoslavia to explore existing folk
poems. He went there twice with a pupil, Albert Lord, in 1933 and
1934. He was equipped with a double-disked recording apparatus and
quantities of disks, and with directions and suggestions by Dr.
George Herzog at Columbia University, an expert in folk-music research.
The result of these two trips is quite incredible. Dr. Parry found
two poems of about the length of "The Odyssey," one of
13,000-odd lines, the other of 12,000. He also collected many shorter
ones, of several thousand lines. He recorded most of these songs;
the longest took more than twelve hours, not including rests for
the singer (and probably for the collector).
The total of records made with ninety different singers is more
than 2,200 double-sided disks. Dr. Parry also collected and recorded
about 300 various other types (so-called "women's songs"),
on about 350 double-sided records (some of them in Turkish or Albanian),
and instrumental folk-music on eight records.
After his return in 1935 Professor Parry died in a tragic accident.
Mr. Lord is preparing the texts for publication.
I heard of this marvelous collection when I visited the United
States in April, 1940, for a five-week tour (my second visit to
the United States). I was told that the musical part (the melodies)
with a few exceptions, were not yet transcribed. One of the reasons
for my return to the United States was the possibility of a careful
study of this material, which I had badly missed in Europe.
No Registering Instruments
The Serbo-Croatians (and the Bulgarians) never used registering
instruments when they made collections of their own folk music.
(However, the use of a recording instrument is nowadays considered
as a condition sine qua non in that kind of research work.) The
scientific value and reliability of the existing published Yugoslav
material is therefore considerably lessened. It is true there are
a few commercial records of Dalmatian folk-music available in Yugoslavia;
there are about fifty records of Yugoslav heroic poems in a phonograph
archive of Berlin and some at Prague. But what is all that in comparison
with 2,200 double-sided records of the Parry Collection! The importance
of it consists first in its vastness: it is in fact the richest
recorded collection of Yugoslav folk-music enumerated; it is the
collection par excellence of this material.
Second, it is not a fragmentary collection, as until now the best
folk-music collections in Europe have been; every song is completely
recorded. We poor scholars of those Eastern countries had to economize
on time, on blanks, on expenses, on everything. So we generally
had to confine ourselves to the recording of the first three or
four stanzas, even of ballads as long as forty to fifty stanzas,
although we knew quite well that every piece ought to be recorded
from beginning to end.
Third, the records are mechanically fairly good, in any case, much
better than the average of our European scientific records made
on the spot (in the villages). Aluminum disks were used; this material
is very durable so that one may play back the records heaven knows
how often, without the slightest deterioration. Sometimes the tracks
are too shallow, but copies can be made in almost limitless numbers.
Fourth, the records of even the longest pieces are continuous,
thanks to the two disk-plates on the recording machine. Theoretically,
every piece, no matter how long it be, could have been recorded
without any interruption (the singer, of course, had to get a rest
after a few hours' singing). I have some melancholy recollections
of our worries and troubles, when, after each two and a half minutes
of singing, the business had to be stopped, the ready record taken
off, the new blank put on, and in the meantime, the singer generally
forgot where he left off.
Fifth, there are many "conversations" in addition to
the songs incorporated in the recording, talks between collector
and singer concerning data connected with the song, with the singer,
with the circumstances referring to the performance of the song,
etc. When you listen to these "conversations" you really
have the feeling of being on the spot, talking yourself with those
peasant singers. It gives you a thrilling impression of liveliness,
of life itself.
Sixth, some of the heroic poems, or at least some parts of them,
have been recorded from the same singer twice, with an interval
of some days or some weeks between the recordings. This proceeding
is important. The differences on the one hand and the identical
parts on the other hand will show what parts of the words (or melodies)
are more constant, what parts are more subject to changes, and to
what degree. (The reader must have in mind that folk-songs are a
living material; and, as every really living thing or being, subject
to perpetual changes, preserving constancy only of certain general
formulae.) Very few instances in our European collections are known
where this could have been done. As a variation of this experiment,
the same poem has been recorded from different singers, in order
to show what are the personal traits depending on the individual
singers, and what are the permanent ones, beyond the personality
of the singer.
These are the outstanding qualities which raise this unique collection
to a level never attained by any European collection known to me.
Certainly, it has some shortcomings, but where could one find a
collection without any fault? Folk music collections inherently
cannot be done without imperfections. Besides, these shortcomings
are negligible in comparison with the accomplishments. One shortcoming
is on a spiritual plane. According to a rule well known to research
workers on folk music, the transcription of the words of the recorded
song should be made immediately after finishing the record; in any
case, while the singer is present and available for eventual explanations.
This rule has not been observed, probably in order to save time.
The collector worked with a Croatian, coming from the ranks, but
with a fairly good education and with a keen sense for folk poems.
After completion of the research work in Yugoslavia, the Croatian
was brought to the United States and he worked here for many months,
transcribing the texts of the records. Although he had been present
at the work of the recording in Yugoslavia and knew the language
and its various dialects, it nevertheless happened that he could
not make out, here and there, some words or some lines from the
This shortcoming — considering its rare occurrence —
is quite negligible, and I mention it only to indicate my absolute
impartiality of approach to professor Parry's great work. Had he
insisted on transcribing the text on the spot, he would have lost
months and months in doing so, and would probably have made only
half of the recording. Even if one starts the business of collecting
folk songs with the firm resolution to transcribe every line, every
word of the texts on the spot, it happens — and I know from
personal experience how often it happens — that for some reason
or other, there is absolutely no possibility of acting according
to this principle.
Recording the People
Having done one preliminary notation of the melody and the transcription
of the whole text, there follows the great moment of recording.
(This used to be the method of my work.) It frequently occurs that
the singer involuntarily changes some of the words or lines or even
she or he puts altogether different words to the melody when recording
it. Sometimes the collector, who is always in a hurry, and working
in a state of excitement, does not perceive the slighter differences
and believes everything to be all right. Sometimes it may happen
that one of the singer's relatives angrily interrupts the work and
orders him or her to leave the friendly meeting immediately and
go hastily home. Now, even if the collector noticed some deviations
in the words of the record, he scarcely can do anything to obtain
the variations on the spot.
Letting Well Enough Alone
To get the singer again would mean perhaps a loss of one or several
days; so the collector leaves matters as they are and takes his
booty home, only to find out that there are several words or lines
in his records which he cannot understand and transcribe at all.
And to tell the truth, this occurs even more frequently in —
let us say my collection — than in the Parry Collection.
Another shortcoming is the voluntary one-sidedness of the material:
2,200 records with heroic poems and a little more than 200 with
other types of melodies give no adequate picture of the actual frequency
of the various types of melodies (some important types are missing
entirely). Professor Parry's original idea was to investigate only
the heroic poems and the ways and means of performance. We can be
thankful to him for not having adhered to his first plan and for
having recorded some examples of other types too. On the other hand,
had he recorded more of the "women's" songs he probably
could not have recorded so many heroic poems. This latter and more
important part is as complete as humanly possible. This was his
principle aim and this he achieved.
Done in the Twelfth Hour
When I stress the international importance of having at our disposal
a collection of Yugoslav heroic poems as complete as possible, I
must add the following observations:
The work was done in the twelfth hour. Already in 1934 and 1935
there were signs of slow but constant decline and deterioration
in the life of heroic poems. Heaven knows if and how they can survive
the present disastrous events at all.
These poems seem to be the last remnants of a folk usage at least
several thousand years old, expressed in words and in music, leading
back perhaps to antiquity, to the times of the Homeric poems. Nowhere
else can be found a similar usage, not even in the other countries
in the Balkans. Professor Parry, by his intuition, seized the last
chance to preserve its sound image.
I am very grateful to Columbia and Harvard Universities for the
privilege of transcribing and studying these songs. And all of us
who are interested in Eastern European folk music will always think
with deep gratitude of the late Professor Parry to whom we are indebted
for this material.
Milman Parry Collection © 2012