When we think of folk songs, images of country life come to mind. We imagine simpler routines, songs that appeal both for their universally human and uniquely cultural expressions. What better ensemble, then, to pay homage to these songs than the voice and guitar? A handheld plucked or strummed instrument like the guitar, lute, mandolin, or bouzouki can be found in almost every culture on Earth. There’s something about holding a resonating box and moving your fingers across the strings that feels so human, natural, and familiar. So to pair the guitar with the voice, our most innate instrument, is to reconnect us with our roots, with our humanness, and the eccentricity and dirt of folklife.
We begin in France, 1905. A 30-year-old Maurice Ravel has already gathered quite the following, despite flunking out of the Paris Conservatoire and failing to win the Prix de Rome five times. Ravel, with his interest in exotic source material from around the world, meets Michel-Dimitri Calvocoressi, a Greek-French music critic. The two fuel each other’s interest in native folk music, and Calvocoressi chooses Ravel to harmonize eight Greek melodies from the island of Chios. They were an immediate success, and though three of the songs were lost, the final collection resulted in one of Ravel’s most popular recital pieces, the Cinq Mélodies Populaires Grecques.
We present these delightful folk songs not in French, which was the language Ravel used to set them to music, but in the original Greek. And of course, we have adapted the original piano score to the classical guitar, for an even more intimate portrayal. Though several transcriptions of these songs exist, we took it upon ourselves to transcribe our own version for the guitar, using a scordatura and capo to access the wide range of keys from Ravel’s piano and voice score. The songs themselves speak of folk life on this particular Greek island, from weddings (“Chanson de la mariée”) to worship (“Là-bas, vers l’église”), boastful captains (“Quel galant m’est comparable”), sweet declarations of love (“Chanson des cueilleuses de lentisques”) and village dances (“Tout gai!”).
Departing Greece, our journey continues on to Spain. We also move from a French composer who was interested exotic cultures to a Spanish composer who sought to bring life to the music of his own country. Manuel de Falla would become a celebrated composer in the Spanish Nationalism movement, writing works such as the opera La vida breve (1905) and El sombrero de tres picos (1919). But before settling back in Madrid, de Falla had actually been living seven years abroad in Paris. There he met and drew inspiration from composers like Ravel, Claude Debussy, and Paul Dukas. This collection of his Siete Canciones Populares Espoañolas were written in 1914 at the end of time in Paris, and were even dedicated to Madame Ida Godebska, who hosted gatherings of artists in Paris and arranged for his songs to be published.
Like Ravel’s Greek folk songs, these Spanish folk songs were originally written for high voice and piano, but have had numerous transcriptions made over the years, from cello and violin, to harp and flute. We feel that the voice and guitar combination touches the composer’s intentions most directly, in part because much of the Spanish piano music of this period, by composers like de Falla, Enrique Granados, and Isaac Albeniz, imitated the sound of the “Spanish” guitar. In many cases, these pieces have gained more popularity from their guitar transcriptions than the original piano scores. The punteado rhythmic patterns in “El paño moruno,” quasi-strumming passages in “Jota,” and the fiercely explosive motif that opens “Polo” all demonstrate this quite well. We have used Emilio Pujo’s guitar transcription as a base, but, like with Ravel, we’ve created our own arrangements of “Seguidilla Murciana,” “Asturiana,” and “Jota,” in an effort to come a little closer to de Falla’s score.
Leaving Spain behind and moving ahead to the year 1961, we arrive at Benjamin Britten’s much-adored folk song arrangements, specifically the sixth volume, written for voice and guitar. Already a renowned composer, having written vocal and orchestral works like Les Illuminaciones (1939), Peter Grimes (1945), and A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1960), Britten would finally be in a position to give the guitar some of its most treasured compositions. Before the arrival of the famous Andalusian guitarist Andrés Segovia, the vast majority of guitar music was written exclusively by guitarists. This makes sense. The guitar is a polyphonic and highly idiomatic instrument, and anyone not familiar with it has to become well-acquainted with its strengths and limitations before writing for it. Composers like Ravel, Mozart, and Beethoven never tried their hand at it, and even composers like Albeniz and Granados, who adored the instrument, never wrote a single piece of music for guitar. Luckily, thanks to English guitarist Julian Bream, Britten was inspired to write his first composition for guitar and voice in 1957, a collection of songs entitled Songs from the Chinese.
After that, it was only natural that he set down a small collection of English folk songs for the guitar and voice, having already written five volumes of folk songs for voice and piano. Keeping with the tradition of his folk song arrangements, the melody is kept unaltered from its original source, while the accompaniment dramatically changes the feeling of each song. Its role is scenographic and illustrative. In “Sailor-Boy,” the single guitar line imitates the boyish aspiration of the protagonist to become a sailor. The once-dignified guitar part in “The Soldier and the Sailor” progressively gets looser, louder, and drunker, well into “a pot of good beer.” And when the ghost of Jimmy’s wife in “The Shooting of his Dear” appears in the courthouse, she’s accompanied by a faint, haunting tremolo of the guitar behind her.
Coming to the end of our musical journey, we arrive back to where we began, in France. But this time with actual French folk songs, ironically not by a native French composer, but the Hungarian-born Mátyás Seiber. While Ravel’s mind was in the far East, Greece, and elsewhere, Seiber would be the one to give the guitar and voice ensemble the French folk songs they needed. In 1959 he published his Four French Folk Songs, just two years before Britten’s sixth volume above. Britten may have even been inspired by these four lovely gems, which were dedicated to the same Julian Bream who edited all of Britten’s guitar works. Unfortunately Seiber would die in a car crash the next year, only 55 years old, making these some of his last compositions.
It’s difficult not to adore these songs. Being adept in jazz theory, Seiber’s use of harmony and melody are exquisite, as is the emotional content each song embodies. “Réveillez vous” sustains long, lyrical vocal lines above a gentle guitar part whose extended harmonies slowly rock back and forth. The almost over-the-top romanticism in “Le Rossignol,” heightens the alluring use of the text’s double entendre. These contrast with the snide humor of “J’ai descendu,” and the uncompromisingly wild “Marguerite, elle est malade,” bringing our recording to a close with wine glass in hand.
— Aaron Haas