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Distinguishing high culture from folk culture

This entry is part of 6 in the series

"Vaughan Williams on Culture"

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A primary goal of Vaughan Williams was, of course, to compose art music. His many hours finding and indexing folk tunes resulted in the use of many of those melodies in his own compositions. As such, a distinction between art and folk music in his understanding is self-evident. Cecil Sharp, however, makes this distinction more explicitly. In Sharp’s understanding, art music “is the work of the individual, and [an expression of] his own personal ideals and aspirations; it is composed in, comparatively speaking, a short period of time, and, by being committed to paper, it is for ever fixed in one unalterable form.”1 Sharp saw, then, four primary distinguishing characteristics of art music: art music is (1) individual, (2) personal, (3) quickly composed, and (4) unalterable.

Conversely, Sharp saw folk music as (1) racial, (2) communal, (3) continually developing, and (4) variable: “Folk music, on the other hand, is the product of a race, and reflects feelings and tastes that are communal rather than personal; it is always in solution; its creation is never completed; while, at every moment of its history, it exists not in one form but in many.”2 Since Sharp and Vaughan Williams were most interested in the revival of the English folk song, their writings further elaborate and explain these principles.

The “racial” aspect in music is evident, for Sharp, in the fact that every race has its own unique forms. He notes that “in every land we do find music of a distinctive and often of a very beautiful quality.” He further identifies the particular sub-group within a race in which this music is perpetuated as being the “unlettered classes,” and therefore clearly distinguishes folk music from the “educated or art music of the same nation.”3 Both Sharp and Vaughan Williams are careful to recognize the “unlettered, unsophisticated, and untraveled people” of a nation as the source of folk music.4 This localized aspect of folk culture had its strengths. A lack of formal education or travel prevented such cultures from being influenced by stereotypes, allowed them to be “self-dependent for [their] inspiration,” and freed their “artistic utterance” to be “entirely spontaneous and unself-conscious” — all virtues in Vaughan William’s opinion.5 So though folk music is uniquely racial, it is also closely tied to a specific section of the race.

Sharp and Vaughan Williams also highlight the communal nature of folk music. In fact, Sharp notes that within a folk culture, those musical forms that are too individualistic will not last; only “those tune variations which appeal to the community will be perpetuated.”6 Vaughan Williams notes some further implications that derive from the communal nature of folk music: “(1) It is purely intuitive, not calculated. (2) It is purely oral, therefore . . . it must be limited by the span of what both the singer and hearer can keep in their minds at one stretch. (3) It is applied music . . . (4) [It] is purely melodic.”7 These implications were, for Vaughan Williams, both strengths and limitations. For instance the “intuitive,” unpremeditated nature of folk music precluded any propaganda or commercial motivation. Instead, folk music was a sincere expression of communal emotion. On the other hand, the length limitations of folk music due to its oral nature prevented significant depth in the forms. However, this could also be seen as a strength since these simple expressions were accessible and appealing to all. In this sense, folk music is legitimately “popular.” Vaughan Williams also seemed to find virtue in the strictly applied nature of folk art where “the idea of art for art’s sake has happily no place in the primitive consciousness.”8

The purely melodic aspect of folk music provides another significant contrast with art music. Vaughan Williams notes that the major and minor modes of Classical European forms are foreign to folk music. He recognizes that “the major and minor modes hardly every appear in truly melodic music” as seen in the folk tunes that he catalogued. According to Vaughan Williams, most folk tunes make use of the Dorian, Mixolydian, and Ionian modes.9

This communal nature of folk music leads, then, to its never-ending development. For both Sharp and Vaughan Williams, this evolutionary aspect is a definite strength of the music since it creates a “natural selection and survival of the fittest.”10 Only those tunes that “accurately express the taste and feeling of the community” will survive; “what is purely personal will be gradually but surely eliminated.”11 This is not to say that no bad folk song exists. The continually changing state of folk music may also make it possible for a tune to get “into the hands of an incompetent singer who has spoilt it.” However, over time this bad tune will certainly pass away. This for Vaughan Williams is a characteristic superior to that of art music since “the written note, however bad it is, remains to cumber our national libraries.”12

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About Scott Aniol

Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is director of doctoral worship studies at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches courses in ministry, worship, hymnology, aesthetics, culture, and philosophy. He is the author of Worship in Song: A Biblical Approach to Music and Worship, Sound Worship: A Guide to Making Musical Choices in a Noisy World, and By the Waters of Babylon: Worship in a Post-Christian Culture, and speaks around the country in churches and conferences. He is an elder in his church in Fort Worth, TX where he resides with his wife and four children. Views posted here are his own and not necessarily those of his employer.

  1. Cecil Sharp, English Folk-Song; Some Conclusions (London: Simpkin, 1907), 19. []
  2. Ibid., 20. []
  3. Ibid., 1B2. []
  4. Ralph Vaughan Williams, National Music (New York: Oxford University Press, 1934), 15. []
  5. Ibid. []
  6. Sharp, English Folk-Song, 38. []
  7. Vaughan Williams, National Music, 23. []
  8. Ibid., 21. []
  9. Ibid., 24. []
  10. Ibid., 32. []
  11. Sharp, English Folk-Song, 14. []
  12. Vaughan Williams, National Music, 37. []