Classical music inspired by folksongs: 5 of the best

Classical music inspired by folksongs: 5 of the best

Classical music inspired by folksongs: 5 of the best. Photo: MusikAnimal

Whittling down the pieces of classical music inspired by folksongs to a top five list, is quite the ask, given that there are thousands. But it does help to focus the mind. Here are our suggestions, but feel free to take them with a pinch of salt and contribute some of your own suggestions.

1.Béla Bartók – Romanian Folk Dances

First up on our list of classical music inspired by folksongs are these little nuggets by the Hungarian composerBela Bartók. In field trips to Transylvania – then part of Hungary and now part of Romania – Bela Bartók used phonographs to record and study folk music, which he then used to create this: a collection of earthy miniatures, that, for all their brevity, are intensely flavourful. As a collection they represent Bartók’s efforts to create a new, authentic Hungarian musical style based on genuine folk traditions, rather than the romanticized “gypsy” style popularized by earlier composers like Liszt and Brahms.

2.Osvaldo Golijov – ‘Ayre’ (2004)

Born in Argentina to Eastern European Jewish parents, the composer Osvaldo Golijov
grew up surrounded by eclectic musical influences, including classical chamber music, Jewish liturgical and klezmer music, and the new tango of Astor Piazzolla. And this song cycle, composed for the renowned soprano Dawn Upshaw, is something of a tribute to eclecticism blending Sephardic Jewish, Arabic, and Christian folk melodies from the Mediterranean, with contemporary classical techniques and electronic elements.

3.Antonín Dvořák – Symphony No. 9 ‘From the New World’

Written during the Czech composer’s stint in Spillville, Iowa, The New World Symphony incorporates influences from Native American music and African-American spirituals. But there’s also a strong waft of homesickness, owing to influences from Dvorák’s Czech heritage. The result is one of the composer’s most popular works, that has become a staple in orchestral repertoires worldwide. Interestingly, astronaut Neil Armstrong took a recording of the New World Symphony on the Apollo 11 mission, the first Moon landing, in 1969, further cementing its cultural significance.

4. Aaron Copland – Appalachian Spring

Blending modern dance, contemporary classical music and themes of American pioneer life, this ballet score is a key example of Copland’s “Americana” period, when he incorporated American folk themes and styles into his compositions. Among its most memorable moments is the appearance of the Shaker hymn: Simple Gifts: a joyful and catchy little melody that many, from this side of the pond, know better as ‘The Lord of the Dance’.

5.William Bolcom – ‘Complete Gospel Preludes’

And so we conclude our list of classical music inspired by folksongs. Some of us might associate organ preludes with dreary recitals in half-empty church halls. But there’s nothing dreary about these preludes which draw heavily on American spirituals and gospel hymns. Ever forward thinking in his approach, Bolcom blended these traditional melodies with contemporary classical techniques, jazz, and even elements of atonality, encouraging audiences to experience the hymns in new and unexpected ways.

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