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Music Played and Poems Written Reflect the Unique Musicality of a Country

Monday 29 May 2017 at 7:04 pm.

This article by Ray Spitzenberger first appeared in IMAGES for May 25, 2017, East Bernard Express, East Bernard, Texas.

            It’s been many years since I’ve heard a mandolin played, or even seen one. The mandolin which lives in my memory is the one played by my mother’s Wendish cousins, at family gatherings when I was a kid. It had a haunting sound that I can never forget.

            It was not an American Bluegrass mandolin, as those are much flatter instruments and have a very different sound. That’s why I would call it a “Wendish” mandolin. When doing research at the University of Michigan, I came across pictures of ancient Wendish instruments, used in Saxony; and these included a three-stringed violin, bagpipes (yes!), a peculiar sort of hautboy (similar to an oboe), and a type of mandolin. The mandolin might have been a lute, the predecessor of the mandolin, or an “ud,” the predecessor of the lute. Martin Luther, whose wife was thought to be Wendish, often played such an instrument.

            All Slavic people, Czechs/Bohemians, Poles, Russians, Moravians, Slovaks, etc., loved to play musical instruments and sing. Instead of the mandolin, the Russians played the balalaika, a three-stringed, triangular-shaped version of the lute or mandolin. The instrument is mentioned by many Russian writers in their prose and poetry.

            While the balalaika is uniquely Russian, you really can’t say that the mandolin is uniquely Wendish. The mandolin was played in Italy, France, and most of Europe, including Germany. In fact, in France, in the early 1900’s, mandolin orchestras were very popular and quite common. The late 1800’s through the early 1900’s were considered the “Golden Age of the Mandolin” in Europe. Some people conclude that the rise of the popularity of jazz caused the decline of the mandolin, which was considered too “weak” for jazz.

            While most people believe that the bagpipe is a unique instrument found only in Scotland and Ireland, it was not only played by the early Wends, but also, and especially, by another Slavic group, the Bohemians. In Bohemia, in the early days, so-called “country-music bands,” were common in small villages. These “country-music” bands (not “country” in the sense of “American country,” but in the sense of “folk music,”) were made up of a bagpipe, a violin and a clarinet. As I said, the Wends, whose culture is very close to Czech/Bohemian, also had the bagpipe.

            Moravian music had more similarity to the folk music of the Ukraine than to Bohemia, Moravian musicians playing the cimbalom (a type of dulcimer), the double bass, as well as the clarinet and violin. While Moravian music also had some similarity to Slovakia, Slovak musicians were influenced by the Roma (Gypsies) and their incredibly unique music. In spite of the differences among the various Slavic groups, you can see the alikeness among all Slavic folk music.

            By the way, President Trump’s wife, Melania Trump, is Slovenian. Although the population of Slovenia is diversified, its culture is essentially Slavic and its main language, Slovene, is a Slavic language. The folk instruments of Slovenia are the Styrian -type harmonica (an ancient style of accordion), fiddle, clarinet, zither, and flute, but the most deep-rooted musical tradition is singing in three-part harmony (and sometimes in eight part harmony).

            It has many said by many that the poems of the great Russian poet, Pushkin, are very musical or have an affinity to music. I’ve never been sure what people meant by the “musicality” of a poem. Are they referring to the rhythm of the poem, or are they referring to the sounds of the words when read aloud, or both. I don’t think it necessarily means verse written to be sung, like the ancient Psalms, for example. Rather, a collection of words that suggest the sounds of, for instance, a mandolin or a balalaika, or carillon, when read aloud (imagine one reflecting the sound of the bagpipe). Or when the strident sounds of the words used by Sandburg, for example, to describe Chicago, sound like the noise of the city. Or, as in the case of Pushkin, when the hiss of the sledge sliding on the glazed-over snow is, for the moment, the only sound in the bone-chilling night.

            It seems to me that a writer is going to reflect the country of which he is a part, -- not intentionally but subconsciously. And that’s true of the musicians of a country, too. American musicians produced a Bluegrass sound with the mandolin; German Wends produced a sound that reflects living in Lusatia. Czech music is so “Bohemian.” Transplant an instrument to Texas, and what happens to the sound?

            I doubt that the sound of an instrument is etched in our DNA, but I can never forget the haunting sounds played on that old mandolin by those Wendish cousins.

            My granddaughter recently told me she wanted to learn to play the guitar. Do I dare suggest she try the mandolin?


 Ray Spitzenberger serves as pastor of St. Paul Lutheran Church in Wallis, after retiring from Wharton County Junior College, where he taught English and speech and served as chairman of Communications and Fine Arts for many years.

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